I received many encouraging emails from readers in response to my previous column, 'Urban Medical Myths'. Thank you to each of you; there were just too many for me to answer individually. There were a number of good suggestions, a popular one being whether I could provide a list of 'quick aids'-natural home remedies for minor injuries and everyday complaints-backed by published evidence. So here are a dozen helpful home remedies you'll probably already have in your kitchen, and what you can use them for.
1 Onions for burns
If you suffer a minor burn, you probably already know to rinse the burned skin under cold water for a few minutes. But did you know that an onion can help with the healing? After rinsing the burn, place one or more round slices of onion over it, then loosely bandage it with cling film. Cling film is sterile, provided the first few centimetres are discarded. With this method, the burn remains visible and the onion can do its
Egg white is often suggested as a minor burns remedy; it allegedly creates a protective coating over the burn that prevents further damage and restores important proteins in the skin for the rejuvenation process. But this is a myth and can create further complications.2
For minor burns with unbroken skin, stick to sliced onions. For more serious burns, you'll need to see a health professional.
2 Sesame oil for a stuffy nose
Sesame seed oil is rich in calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, vitamins B6 and E, as well as zinc and unsaturated fatty acids. If you've got a blocked nose, try filling an empty atomizer with sesame seed oil and using it as a nasal spray. It's been shown to work much better than the standard isotonic sodium chloride solutions usually sold by pharmacists as a nasal spray.3
3 Celery and star anise for hot flushes
Drinking a glass of fresh organic vegetable juice (tomato, celery, cucumber, fennel and dill, plus a solitary star anise) twice daily can reduce-and perhaps even completely eliminate-those unwelcome menopausal hot flushes.4 Celery, fennel, star anise and dill all contain a compound called anethole, which provides the beneficial effect without the risks that accompany hormone replacement therapy (HRT). They also contain lycopene, carotene, vitamins A and C, electrolytes, anthocyanin and other antioxidants, while the tomato and cucumber also provide a pleasant gazpacho-like flavour.
If juicing organic vegetables is too bothersome for you, eating a handful of anise seeds twice a day will often do the trick as well.
4 Bay leaves for earache
Bay leaves contain a pain-relieving compound called eucalyptol (cineole), so they make a great remedy for earache. Simply boil 2 or 3 bay leaves in about 60 mL (2 oz) of water, then strain off after 15 minutes and drizzle the warm decoction into the ear. Plug the ear with some cotton wool and allow the remedy to work overnight.5
5 Bananas for cramp
Whenever you perspire heavily, you lose magnesium, and a deficiency of this essential mineral can be responsible for muscle cramps. The first line of attack is to massage with oil of Hypericum perforatum (St John's wort) or magnesium oil, either of which should provide quick relief.
The frequently advised second line of attack is to drink Tonic Water (such as Canada Dry or Schweppes), as the quinine contained in the drink is said to resolve cramps quickly. But this is another urban myth.6
In fact, what you should do is eat foods rich in magnesium-dark leafy greens, squash and pumpkin seeds, mackerel, beans, lentils, avocados, bananas, figs and dark chocolate-to help prevent cramps from happening in the first place. It's known that low magnesium status in pregnant women is associated with an increased incidence of muscle cramps and that supplementing with magnesium helps improve the condition.7 Magnesium supplementation can also help sufferers of recurrent 'nocturnal cramps', when leg and foot muscle cramps strike at night and wake the sufferer up.8
6 Chilli peppers for musculoskeletal tension
The capsaicin in hot peppers increases blood circulation and is an effective topical analgesic.9 For quick pain relief, heat 3 Tbsp of freshly grated chilli peppers in 250 mL (8 oz) of vegetable oil for 10 minutes; pour the oil into a jar, allow to cool and, wearing gloves, rub it into the areas of tension.
7 Potatoes for joint pain
Heat stimulates blood and lymph circulation and, because potatoes retain heat for some time, they're ideal for reducing pain in the joints, muscles and spine. In fact, there is evidence that such heat-wrap treatment can provide some relief from low-back pain.10
To make a hot potato pack, boil the potatoes in their skins until they're soft, then crush them into a pulp. Make a pack (or more than one) by wrapping the pulp in cling film. Place a towel between the hot potato pack and the painful area to be treated. Once the potatoes have cooled a bit, the towel can be removed and the packs placed directly onto the skin.
8 Lemons for itches
When your skin drives you mad because it itches incessantly after an insect bite, place a slice of lemon over the bite for a while-the lemon disinfects, cools and soothes.
Lemon is also good for taking some of the heat out of too-spicy food. Try squeezing a little lemon juice into your next hot curry and you'll find it becomes distinctively milder.
9 Herbal teas for hoarseness
For hoarseness and a sore throat, gargle six times daily with hibiscus tea (Hibiscus sabdariffa), made with 2 Tbsp of chopped dried Hibiscus petals in 250 mL (8 oz) of water.11 As a fast-track aid for a head cold with sniffles and a cough, try 3 to 5 cups a day of elderflower tea (Sambucus nigra), made by infusing 1 tsp of chopped elderflowers per cup of boiling water.12 If this makes you perspire, bed rest is best.
10 Quark for sprains
Quark, a kind of cream cheese, or 'farmer's cheese' in the US, is full of casein-containing phosphoric acid, which acts via the skin as a detumescent (reduces swelling), a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory. Spread
the Quark to the thickness of a knife onto
gauze or a similar fabric, then place it-cheese side down-for at least 20 minutes on the affected area.
11 Almonds for heartburn
The alkalizing pulp of well-chewed almonds can ward off heartburn. But beware of almond milk, which definitely does not, as its pH is acidifying.13
12 Vinegar for jellyfish stings
If you happen to get stung by a jellyfish, never rinse the affected skin with fresh water, alcohol or methylated spirits, as this will intensify the burning and smarting. And urinating on the sting, which is widely recommended, is likely to have the same undesirable effects.14
It's better to douse the area with white or red domestic vinegar (4-6 per cent acetic acid), which will inactivate the cnidocytes (stinging cells).15 Alternatively, you can very carefully remove the toxic cnidosacs by gently scraping them off your skin with an ordinary credit card, then rinsing the area with saline (fresh water with added salt).
1 Duke JA. The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods. New York, NY: Rodale Books, 2009
3 Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg, 2001; 127: 1353-6
5 Phytother Res, 2000; 14: 240-4
7 Am J Obstet Gynecol, 1995; 173: 175-80; Fortschr Med, 1984; 102: 841-4
8 Med Sci Monit, 2002; 8: CR326-30
9 PLoS Med, 2005; 2: e238
10 Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2006; 1: CD004750
11 Neuwinger HD. African Traditional Medicine. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers, 2000
12 Schilcher H et al. Leitfaden Phytotherapie (Guide to Phytotherapy). Munich: Urban & Fischer Verlag, 2000; page 386
14 Curtin C. 'Fact or Fiction?: Urinating on a Jellyfish Sting is an Effective Treatment'. Scientific American, 4 January 2007; www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-urinating/
15 Marine Drugs, 01/2013; 11: 523-50
Harald Gaier, one of the UK's leading experts on alternative medicine and a registered naturopath, osteopath, acupuncturist, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London. Visit his website at www.drgaier.com.
If you have a question for our Medical Detective, write to us at the usual address or email: email@example.com.