[Weekender] feces heal? Peculiar Korean residence treatments and their effectiveness

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

These methods have varying degrees of effectiveness, and most medical experts express concerns about following them blindly.

An example of an ancient home remedy still practiced by many in Korea is pricking a finger with a needle to make it bleed for indigestion. Though not as common as finger pricks, snake wine, or whole snakes steeped in a bottle of alcoholic beverage for years, were considered stamina boosters by older generations.

So far, there is no substantial medical evidence for the alleged medical effects of finger pricking. But there have been a number of studies showing that eating snakes may do more harm than good due to the dangerous parasites snakes often carry.

Lee Beom-jae, a professor of internal medicine at Korea University, said that while some types of home remedies might actually help, they carry risks because they are unproven treatments.

“We (doctors) are people of science and should only administer treatments that have 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 health authorities.”

Using feces as a treatment

One remedy that is surprisingly effective to a degree is the use of feces.

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

Heo Jun, the distinguished royal physician at the time, mentioned a drug called “Ya-in-geon-su” in his medical book Dongui Bogam, which was said to be effective against fever. To prepare this drug, one needs to grind dried feces of a man into a fine powder and boil it in hot water.

Fecal water was also commonly used by those who practiced the traditional music of pansori, whose intense exercise would cause their bodies to swell and develop fevers. It was said that drinking fecal water would help with the symptoms.

As incredulous as it may sound, the use of feces as a treatment is actually a valid treatment in modern medicine. Fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) or stool treatment is a process in which fecal bacteria and other microbes are transferred from one healthy person to another.

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

“In the past, people said fecal water would treat stomach pains, which turned out to be not entirely wrong,” Lee said. “In a way, (home remedies) is the earliest phase of modern medicine that extracts the beneficial components (to the body).

“But that is past. Maybe you could rely on home remedies if there is no hospital in your area and you need urgent (medication), but that is not the case in countries like South Korea.”

Lee emphasized that in order for a particular type of treatment to be considered valid, it needs a certain level of verification. In the case of FMT, the feces used in treatment are chosen by doctors to be suitable for transplantation.

“Modern medicine is all about separating the beneficial components from the harmful ones, and the problem with home remedies is that they mix the two. Some may be effective, some not.”

When it comes to whether or not the remedies work, some of the relatively harmless remedies might not be a bad option if you’re feeling ill. However, Lee cautioned that treating without proper medical expertise is a risky move and digesting feces not selected by medical experts is an obvious hazard.

Harmful Beliefs

In 2014, researchers from the Korean Institute of Oriental Medicine conducted a study entitled “Risk Associated with Adverse Events of Folk Medicine Reported in Internet News Articles,” which showed that there were several cases of health risks associated with the use of unproven home remedies. This included the use of herbs with toxicity – the use of which has been phased out by Western medicine – and treatment by anyone other than licensed physicians.

The researchers noted that while the study focused on the five years prior to the year of its publication and only covered a limited number of cases, it did imply a potential risk in using unproven treatment methods.

“In the field of public health, the state or medical circles must set up a plan to raise awareness of the dangers of home remedies and demonstrate proper health information. There is also a need to monitor the adverse events associated with (home remedies),” the researchers wrote.

Another risk of relying on home remedies is that it can give the person the wrong impression that they are being treated and could discourage them from seeking professional help. Although teas or oatmeal can help the sick person nutritionally, it is not a treatment.

“It’s dangerous because it can cause people to miss the right time to treat their diseases. Some (of the home remedies) may help healthy people a little, but there are those who just blindly follow it. It is nothing more than a tool to aid in recovery,” Professor Lee said.

By Yoon Min-sik ([email protected])

Comments are closed.