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[Weekender] Feces heals? Peculiar Korean home remedies and their effectiveness

The surprising effects and side effects of some folk medicines according to an internal medicine expert

(Illustration by Park Ji-young / The Korea Herald)
(Illustration by Park Ji-young / The Korea Herald)

Korea has had an abundance of home remedies throughout its history. Many of them are as simple and harmless as drinking plum tea when you have a cough, but some can be as extreme as downing water from human feces.

These methods have varying levels of effectiveness and most medical experts voice concern about following them blindly.

One example of time-old home remedies still practiced by many in Korea is poking your finger with a needle to cause it to bleed in case of indigestion. Although not as widely accepted as finger pricking, for older generations, snake wines, or whole snakes infused in a bottle of alcoholic beverages for years, were considered a stamina booster.

There is no substantial medical proof as of now on the supposed medicinal effects of finger-pricking. But there have been a number of studies that consumption of snakes can do more harm than good, due to the dangerous parasites snakes often carry.

Lee Beom-jae, professor of internal medicine at Korea University, said that while some types of home remedies could actually help, they carry risks in that they are unproven methods of treatment.

“We (physicians) are people of science, and should only conduct the treatments that had been verified. Treatments are monitored in the system of the medical world, but most (edible) home remedies are classified as food and do not require approval from the health authorities."

Using fecal matter as treatment

One remedy that is surprisingly effective to a certain extent is using fecal matter.

The therapeutic use of human feces dates back to the era of Joseon Dynasty.

Heo Jun, the reputed royal physician during the era, mentioned in his medical book Dongui Bogam a medicine called “Ya-in-geon-su” which is apparently effective against treating fever. In order to prepare this medicine, one needs to grind dried up feces of a man into fine powder and boil it in hot water.

Fecal water was also commonly used by those practicing the traditional music of pansori, whose intense training would cause their bodies to swell up and have fever. It was said that drinking fecal water would help with the symptoms.

Incredulous as it sounds, using feces for treatment is actually a valid treatment in modern-day medicine. Fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), or stool treatment, is a process of transferring fecal bacteria and other microbes from a healthy individual to another.

Even when used with discretion, FMT comes with side effects, including the obvious one of infection, but it is considered an effective treatment for Clostridioides difficile infection, symptoms of which includes watery diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain, and fever.

“In the past, people would say fecal water would treat stomachaches, which turned out to be not completely wrong,” Lee said. “In a way, (home remedy) is the earliest phase of modern-day medicine, which extracts the helpful components (to the body).

“But that is all in the past. Maybe you could rely on home remedies if there isn’t a hospital in anywhere around your area and are in dire need of (medication), but that doesn’t apply to countries like South Korea.”

Lee emphasized that in order for a certain type of treatment to be considered valid, there needs to certain level of verification. In case of FMT, the fecal matter used in the treatment are selected by the physicians to be fit for transplant.

“Modern day medicine is about sorting out the helpful components from the harmful ones, and the problem with home remedies is they mix the two. Some may be effective, but others not.”

If it is a question of whether the remedies work or not, then perhaps some of the relatively harmless remedies are not a bad option when you are feeling ill. But Lee pointed out that treatment without proper medical expertise is a risky move, and digesting fecal matter that has not been handpicked by medical experts is an obvious danger.

Harmful beliefs

In 2014, Researchers of Korean Institute of Oriental Medicine conducted a study titled “Risk associated with Adverse Events of Folk Medicine Reported in the Internet News Articles,” which showed that there have been several cases of health-related hazards related to using unproven home remedies. This included using herbs with toxicity -- the use of which has been discontinued by Western medicine -- and treatment by people other than licensed physicians.

The researchers noted that while the study was focused on the five years leading up to the year it was published and was only on a limited number of cases, it implied a potential risk in using unproven methods of treatment.

“In the aspect of the people’s health, the state or the medical circles must come up with a plan to notify the dangers of home remedies, and to prove proper health information. There is also a need to monitor the adverse events related (to home remedies),” the researchers wrote.

Another risk of relying on home remedies is that it gives the person a false impression that they are being treated, and may deter one from seeking actual professional help. While teas or porridge may help the sick person nutritionally, it is not a treatment.

“It is dangerous because it may lead people to miss the opportune time to treat their diseases. Some of (the home remedies) may be of a little help to healthy people, but there are those who just blindly follow it. It’s nothing more than the means to assist one’s recovery,” Professor Lee said.



By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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