By Eddie Childs
Before you head to the doctor for a minor ailment, check out these options
While home remedies can sometimes arouse skepticism, many household items may have effective benefits in a range of everyday maladies. So the next time you have a hangnail, applying a potato slice might remove discomfort. Already downed a couple aspirin, but still can’t rid yourself of that headache? Some tennis balls and a sock could be the answer.
According to Margaret Philhower, N.D., a specialist in alternative medicine, many of these remedies can be found by looking to the field of naturopathy. “[Naturopathy is] the use of natural medicines,” explains Philhower, who has written extensively about home remedies, “along with basics like diet, lifestyle, sleep and hygiene, in order to help people become optimally healthy.”
Instead of focusing on drugs and surgery, she says, naturopathy’s educational focus centers upon plant medicines, exercise, bodywork, various therapies, vitamins, amino acids and other natural substances. Philhower also routinely suggests various home remedies to her patients. What follows are some of the most effective remedies she recommends:
While many foods fall under the “home remedy” category in one way or another, Philhower says the foods she most recommends are the “liver” foods. “In our toxic world, it seems like there are so many people needing liver support,” she says, “Artichokes, beets, carrots, garlic and onions—those are foods I recommend all the time.”
Overall, Philower says she’s seen dramatic improvement in people who bring those foods into their diets. “Many of those [‘liver’ foods] work for constipation as well, which also is a huge problem in our culture,” she adds.
In particular, Philhower says her patients have been seeing fantastic results with potato and plantain poultices, which are applied to affected areas via regular or adhesive bandages. “One of the more fun ‘natural food as medicine’ [methods] that I’m recommending is the potato poultice,” she says. “For skin infections like abscesses, or those little infections on the sides of the fingernails and whatnot, just [placing] a piece of potato on there with a Band-Aid will take an abscess down, usually within 12 to 24 hours.”
Are you a dog lover or a cat person? Then here’s some good news: A great deal of research shows the simple act of owning a pet naturally lowers your blood pressure and puts you into a relaxed state. “Pets are good medicine, too,” Philhower explains. “I’m a firm believer in pet therapy. Having a pet is relaxing. Oxytocin is the relaxing hormone in the brain, and those levels increase when people are around their pets.”
Almost everyone has an onion in the refrigerator or pantry. For sore ears, Philhower says, a warm onion applied topically to the ear can make a huge difference. Simply bake an onion, let it cool, and then cut it in half and apply to the ear. “You can tie it on with gauze or a scarf and hold it there,” she says. “This is a remedy that really does work—sometimes I feel sort of silly recommending these things, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve developed this handout and I give it to a lot of my patients because these home [remedies] work fantastically well over and over again.”
The principle behind this remedy, Philhower explains, is the onion’s “drawing” effect. “It’s probably a simple osmotic effect that just pulls things out,” she says. “You don’t want to use the same onion over and over again—they actually soak up bacteria too, and then it will grow.”
According to Philhower, her “yoga tennis ball” method of care for insomnia, fever, headaches and chronic pain originates from studying Craniosacral Therapy (CST), which is a really gentle hands-on therapy that stimulates the healing potential of a person’s body and gets people into self-healing mode, she explains. “The yoga tennis ball trick actually induces what in CST philosophy is called a ‘still point.’ So I have people lie with the tennis balls placed behind their ears right at the occiput, or the base of the skull—the brain stem is right there under the base of the skull, and it’s kind of the central processing unit of the brain.”
In keeping with the CST philosophy, Philhower explains, lying on two tennis balls essentially resets the nervous system into a relaxed state. “In order for people to heal, they actually have to be in the parasympathetic, ‘rest-and-digest’ nervous system state,” she says. “People in the ‘fight-or-flight’ state don’t heal, so this [approach] gets people into the relaxed healing place where their bodies can fix themselves.”
The salt soak method is actually separated into two different salts—the first is table salt, or sodium chloride, which is antibiotic and draws things osmotically. Philhower says it’s helpful for skin infections, cuts and abscesses, for instance.
The second salt soak option consists of Epsom salts, or magnesium sulfate, and it’s useful for muscle relaxation, fever and aches. “Magnesium essentially is nature’s muscle relaxer, and most people in our culture are basically magnesium-deficient, so that makes the muscles tense up,” says Philhower. “Use at least four cups of Epsom salts in a hot bath and you have a great muscle relaxer. It definitely helps with breaking down lactic acid in the muscles, and the magnesium aids in that process as well.”
Epsom salt soaks can also help people suffering from feverish aches. “It eases the pain, and just being in a hot bath will help to break a fever by getting you sweating,” she explains.
Contrast hydrotherapy is a method of applying alternating hot and cold compresses to inflamed and swollen joints and muscles. “You always want to end with the cold,” says Philhower, “because the hot brings blood to the area by opening all the blood vessels. Then the cold constricts the blood vessels and pumps out all the waste and byproducts of inflammation.”
Additionally, she says using cold can be an effective pain reliever. “Applying cold [compresses] is another fantastic remedy where I get a lot of positive feedback,” she explains. “People are always skeptical when I recommend home therapies like contrast hydrotherapy; they ask, ‘Isn’t some expensive [method] going to work better?’ But the ones you do at home sometimes just work the best.”
Of all the home remedies in her repertoire, Philhower says her magic sock remedy for fever, coughs and nasal congestion seems to draw the most skepticism from patients. But she says it works especially well for children and infants, although it may perhaps initially seem somewhat counter-intuitive.
“Some people think I’m crazy when I recommend they put cold wet socks on their baby with warm dry socks over it and tuck them into bed,” she says. “People associate cold and wet with actually getting a cold, but that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, the cold at the feet causes all the circulation to speed up down toward the feet, and that has the effect of clearing out the sinuses in the nose and the lungs.”
As for how it works, Philhower says, the body begins heating the feet as a response to the cold socks. She also cautions that this method should only be attempted at bedtime and with lots of blankets. “The goal is not to be cold,” she explains. “The idea is to put the cold socks on, and then get your body warm so that it increases circulation to the feet. That increase in circulation helps move the immune cells around more, and it pulls the congestion out of the upper part of the body. Usually, it works overnight with children; for adults, it takes about three days.”
Although alcohol is a proven way of increasing longevity and decreasing chances of heart disease when regularly consumed in small amounts, it’s useful in other ways as well. “When you get poison oak or poison ivy, alcohol will get the oils off,” Philhower says. “But even when the oils are removed, there’s sometimes a skin reaction with blisters that ooze and spread the rash—alcohol just dries it out and gets the oils off.” And while rubbing alcohol will work, she adds, grain alcohols are usually better for human skin.
Of course, these methods aren’t intended to replace necessary medical care. Instead, they’re intended only as helpful remedies to try before seeking medical care in low-stakes cases. “Nowadays, people have to wait a while to see the doctor,” says Philhower. “Health issues can come up in the middle of the night and on the weekend, so it’s nice to have things people can try to help themselves. Often, they don’t even need to come see me by the time Monday rolls around; and like I said, a lot of times, these simple little remedies just work really well.”