What is it?
Dr. Edward Bach was a physician and homeopath in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He eventually gave up his medical practice to focus full-time on developing a system of treatment based on elements of homeopathy and his own ideas about health and disease. He believed that all disease was primarily spiritual in origin and due to negative emotions. These emotions are the manifestation of a conflict between the divine energy of the spirit and the limitations and weaknesses of the physical body and the mind. He became convinced that certain flowers posses unique energetic resonances that can help dispel negative feelings and re-establish balance between body and spirit.
Dr. Bach identified the healing properties of specific flowers intuitively, by touching a flower or putting a petal on his tongue and then observing changes in his own feelings. He compiled an extensive list of specific flowers and combinations indicated for specific emotions and situations. The most popular Bach remedy currently is Rescue Remedy®, a mixture of five flower essences purported to be calming during sudden emotional crises.
Dr. Bach initially treated people with dew from flowers, which he believed absorbed the signature energy of the plant, but because of the limited quantity of dew which could be produced he began instead to soak flowers in water and then collect this. The water was then mixed 1:1 with brandy and this stock solution dispensed to patients. The patient generally would take several drops of the stock solution directly or mixed into a beverage. The Dr. Edward Bach Centre continues to produce flower essences by these methods and holds the rights to the term Bach Flower Essence, though other manufacturers make products produced in the same manner under other brand names.
Due to the extreme dilution of the remedies, flower essences contain only very small quantities of alcohol, and they are unlikely to contain much in the way of residual chemicals from the plants used in their preparation. Though they are widely available as an over-the-counter product, Bach flower essences are often dispensed by alternative medicine providers, such as homeopaths, or by Bach Flower Remedy Practitioners (BFRP), who have taken an educational course offered by the Bach Centre. The Centre also promotes the veterinary use of flower remedies, and these products are sometimes given to animals by owners, veterinarians, or alternative medicine practitioners.
Does It Work?
There is no evidence for the reality of Dr. Bach’s model of health and disease. By their nature, emotions are subjective and individual and so difficult to study scientifically. And the concept of divine spiritual energies is a religious, rather than a scientific concept.
It is possible, however, to study whether patients respond differently when taking a flower remedy or a placebo substance not thought to have any healing properties. Several such studies have been conducted with Bach flower essences, and the results clearly demonstrate that humans report positive changes in their feelings when they are given either treatment, with no difference between a flower remedy and a placebo.
For humans, such placebo effects may provide some comfort even if the remedy is nothing but water and has no actual activity. If a person believes their unpleasant emotions will improve when they take such a remedy, this belief may itself be enough to change how they feel. However, since the substance has no actual activity in the body, any physical illness the patient has will remain unchanged.
For veterinary patients, who cannot reflect on and express their own feelings, it is difficult to see how one would choose which remedy to apply. However, some Bach flower practitioners have adapted Dr. Bach’s list of emotions and the corresponding flowers for veterinary use. There have been no controlled studies of these remedies in animals, however in general placebo effects that require a belief or expectation of improvement do not benefit veterinary patients. Such effects based on belief or expectation can, however, influence the owner’s and the practitioner’s interpretation of the pet’s behavior, leading to an impression of improvement where none has actually occurred.
Is It Safe?
Because Bach flower essences are greatly diluted, they generally contain only water and very small traces of brandy or substances leeched out of the flowers. It is unlikely, then, that they would cause any direct harm. However, because they have no actual effect on physical disease, their use can cause indirect harm if it leads to a delay in appropriate diagnosis and treatment for any underlying illness.
*There is no evidence to support the notion that disease is caused primarily by spiritual and emotional imbalances or that flowers contain any mysterious energy that can correct these imbalances and improve health or treat illness.
*Clinical studies have shown that Bach flower remedies are no different from inert placebo substances in their effects on the emotions of humans using them. While the belief that they will help may itself change a person’s feelings, the remedies have no actual effect on mood or physical illness.
*No objective research on the effect of flower essences has been conducted in animals. Because their effects in humans relies on belief and expectation, it is unlikely that they would have benefit for veterinary patients. However, because owners and others providing care to animals are influenced but beliefs and expectations, they perceive a benefit for an animal given a flower remedy even if no real change has occurred.
References and More Information
Armstrong, NC, Ernst, E. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of Bach flower Remedy. Perfusion 1999;11:440-446.
Bach, E, Wheeler, FJ, The Bach Flower Remedies, Rev. ed. New Canaan, CT. Keats Publishing; 1997.
Ernst, E. “Flower remedies:” a systematic review of the clinical evidence. Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift 2002;114:963-966.
Ernst, E, Pittler, M, Wider, B. eds. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2nd Ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2006: 306-308.
Pintov, S, Hochman, M, Livne, A, Heyman, E, Lahat, E. Bach flower remedies used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children-a prospective, double-blind, controlled study. European J Paediatric Neurol 2005;9:395-398.
Thaler, K. et al. Bach Flower Remedies for psychological problems and pain: a systematic review. BMC Comp Alt Med. 2009;26:9-16.
Walach, H, Rilling, C, Engelke, U. Efficacy of Bach flower remedies in test anxiety: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial with partial crossover. Anxiety Disord 2001;15:359-366.
© Brennen McKenzie, 2009