Acetaminophen for headaches, antacids after a spicy meal. Most of us pop the occasional pill for quick relief from everyday maladies — and we’re doing it now more than ever. Americans spent $34 billion on over-the-counter medicines in 2016, more than twice what they spent a decade earlier. Eighty-one percent of U.S. adults take these remedies as a first line of defense against headaches, indigestion, aching joints, and other minor health complaints.
In other parts of the world, people often rely on a different approach. Homeopathic remedies are some of the best-selling over-the-counter medicines in France. Switzerland’s national health insurance covers Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and other herbal remedies. And all over the globe, people have used food as medicine for centuries.
While conventional drugstore pharmaceuticals can provide temporary relief, their benefits often pale in comparison to simpler treatments. The drugs usually have side effects, too: Research has linked common painkillers, such as acetaminophen, to liver damage, and long-term use of antacids to B12 deficiency and bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
Conversely, natural remedies are often easy to use, effective, and affordable — and they have few known side effects. You can probably find some of them in your kitchen cupboard right now.
If you suffer from chronic headaches, stomach issues, or other ailments, “your body is actually trying to be helpful,” says Myrto Ashe, MD, a functional physician based in Mill Valley, Calif. It’s telling you something’s wrong, and you may need to consult a physician to address potential underlying causes rather than suppressing the symptoms with medication.
Meanwhile, knowing a few home remedies is a good way to take control of your health, Ashe says. For occasional minor health complaints, these simple remedies can provide quick relief, naturally.
Symptom #1: Headache
Remedy: Magnesium Glycinate
At the first sign of a headache, many of us habitually reach for aspirin or ibuprofen. Yet research shows that long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) distress, kidney damage, and elevated liver enzymes, a sign of inflamed liver cells. NSAIDs can also worsen hypertension. Likewise, taking too much acetaminophen can harm the kidneys, intestines, heart, and liver.
Magnesium glycinate, on the other hand, has none of these side effects and is remarkably effective for headaches. It’s a combination of magnesium and glycine, an amino acid that binds to the mineral and carries it to your cells.
“Low blood levels of magnesium have been linked to headaches and migraines, and more than 80 percent of the American population is deficient,” says Tiffany Lester, MD, medical director at Parsley Health San Francisco. “Magnesium is calming for the nervous system and easily tolerated. It also supports serotonin production, a neurotransmitter involved in the onset of migraines.”
For the occasional headache, Lester recommends a 200 mg to 400 mg tablet for relief.
Symptom #2: Nausea and Sickness
Thousands of years ago, Chinese sailors chewed gingerroot to relieve their seasickness; today, many air travelers swear by it for motion sickness. Multiple studies confirm ginger’s stomach-settling benefits, and even the Mayo Clinic recommends it for morning sickness.
Ginger naturally increases tone and motility in the GI tract, helping digestion — unlike the conventional bismuth-subsalicylate antacid, which mainly coats the stomach for temporary relief. For soothing an upset stomach, functional physician Frank Lipman, MD, says, “I love ginger in all its forms.”
Lipman, author of How to Be Well, regularly prescribes ginger, sometimes with peppermint, for stomach discomfort. “Ginger and peppermint can be incorporated into foods and smoothies, made into tea, used in tincture form, or used even as an essential oil.”
Next time you’re nauseated, try sipping ginger tea, or try grating some fresh ginger into a green smoothie. For those prone to motion sickness when traveling, ginger tablets can work wonders.
If you’re routinely queasy, however, ginger may not be a long-term solution. You may need to address potential food allergies or high stress levels. When the body’s fight-or-flight system is triggered, digestive peristalsis can grind to a halt, causing an upset stomach and constipation.
Symptom #3: Acid Reflux
Remedy: Apple-Cider Vinegar and Digestive Bitters
Sometimes it seems there’s little apple-cider vinegar cannot do. Recent studies suggest it can help regulate blood sugar and build good gut bacteria. Lipman, meanwhile, recommends it as an effective solution for heartburn, along with another age-old remedy: digestive bitters.
“Digestive bitters and apple-cider vinegar help stimulate digestive juices in the gut, making the digestive system function more efficiently,” he explains. His prescription: Mix a dropperful of digestive bitters and a tablespoon of raw, unfiltered apple-cider vinegar in a small glass of water and sip it with meals.
These tinctures are a short-term remedy, Lipman notes. If the issue is chronic, it’s important to look for root causes. “Diet and gut health are often at the root of heartburn, so correcting the gut and removing foods that cause inflammation and heartburn is usually the best way to heal,” he says.
This can be as simple as avoiding food that disagrees with you. Tomatoes, hot spices, and wine are common culprits.
The absence of side effects is another good reason to try vinegar and bitters. “There are many issues with over-the-counter and prescription meds used for acid reflux,” says Lipman. “They have been linked to gut dysbiosis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, an increase in heart and kidney disease, and a decrease in cognitive function.”
Symptom #4: Constipation
Remedy: Magnesium Citrate
The causes of chronic constipation are many, and it’s important to address the root issues — dehydration, food intolerances, lack of dietary fiber, irregular eating and sleeping patterns, and sedentary behaviors. For acute cases, however, magnesium citrate almost always gets things moving again.
A combination of magnesium and citric acid, the supplement relaxes your intestines and pulls water into them. “This particular form of magnesium is stimulating on the bowels,” says Lipman, who recommends 200 mg to 300 mg before bed as needed. (Powders stirred into water are easy to use.) Cut down the dose if stools become too loose.
Symptom #5: Sore Muscles
The anti-inflammatory properties of this meadow flower have been easing aches and pains since the Middle Ages. Arnica is still used widely in Germany, where researchers have shown it to be an effective remedy for muscle aches, sprains, and joint pain and swelling. Studies in the United States have found it as reliable as NSAIDs at relieving pain from osteoarthritis in the hands.
“It’s one of my favorite pain remedies because it’s available over the counter in a cream that is easy to apply,” says Lester. “It is also very safe to use. As we tackle the opioid epidemic, alternatives to pain management are increasingly needed in our medical arsenal.”
Arnica gels and creams are considered safe; a mild allergic rash is the only potential side effect. The remedy is also available in the form of sublingual homeopathic pills. (Other forms administered orally aren’t considered safe.)
Meanwhile, if you’re often achy, stretching and hydration may be the answer, says Lester. “Our bodies will often course-correct when we get back to the basics, which are highly underrated.”
Symptom #6: Joint Pain
Turmeric has been used in curries as well as traditional Indian and Chinese medicine for centuries. Curcumin, the twisty root’s yellow phytochemical, has emerged as a popular remedy in recent years after studies revealed its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial qualities.
Curcumin eases joint pain by inhibiting the body’s inflammatory-response mediators. “It works just as well as nonsteroidal pain relievers but it doesn’t cause a leaky gut and the long-term issues that ibuprofen can worsen, such as heart disease,” says Ashe. She prescribes a curcumin complex called Meriva and recommends taking 500 mg twice daily.
It can be tough to get enough of a medicinal boost from incorporating turmeric into your daily diet, but you can still get some anti-inflammatory benefits from adding the root to curries and other dishes. Or try some “golden milk,” a delicious hot drink with turmeric and other spices, for a moderate daily dose. (For a recipe, see “Golden Turmeric Milk.”)
Those who suffer chronic joint pain may find substantial relief by avoiding gluten, dairy, and sugar, as well as making other dietary adjustments. Essential fatty acids can also help.
Symptom #7: Earache
Remedy: Garlic Mullein Herbal Eardrops
Hippocrates once regularly prescribed the “stinking rose” (a.k.a. garlic) for a variety of ills. Research shows that its antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal properties work wonders on mild ear infections.
A pediatric study found that natural eardrops containing the herb mullein are just as effective as anesthetic drops for reducing pain. Doctors often prescribe antibiotics for children’s earaches, says Ashe, but they offer little pain relief, and overuse can lead to intestinal disorders.
When Ashe’s son gets an ear infection, she gives him a few drops of garlic mullein oil in each ear. “It’s anti-inflammatory and decreases the swelling. After a few hours, or by the next day, we usually forget about it because the earache’s gone. For a child that is old enough, that is a better approach than antibiotics.”
To help prevent chronic earaches, avoid dairy, gluten, and sugar. Monitor vitamin-D levels, fatty-acid deficiencies, and stress levels — and be sure to keep some garlic mullein drops on hand.
Symptom #8: Sleeplessness
Remedy: Lavender oil
You might associate the smell of this herb with a fragrant backyard garden, but the anxiety and insomnia-relieving effects of lavender essential oil are potent and well-documented. Research has found that it can help induce sleep and help people sleep more deeply.
It’s also easy to use: Add a few drops of the oil to an Epsom-salts bath. Sprinkle a couple of drops on a light bulb next to your bed (while the bulb is still cool), or get an essential-oil diffuser for your bedroom.
Symptom #9: You’re Coming Down With Something
One of the best ways to chase bugs away is drinking fluids, especially warm ones, says Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. “Consuming adequate fluids supports all your body’s functions, including the immune system,” Hyman says.
In cold weather, we’re more susceptible to dehydration — there are fewer cues to drink than in hot summer weather — and this makes us even more vulnerable to illness. “With the drier air inside and out, winter can be particularly challenging to stay hydrated.”
Hyman recommends making soups and broths from scratch with fresh vegetables when you begin to feel sick. Also on his list: herbal teas with immunity-boosting ingredients such as ginger and echinacea. To prevent feeling run down in the first place, turn to the old standbys: eating well, getting enough sleep, and drinking plenty of water.
Treating the Common Cold
While mostly harmless, a cold packs a multi-symptom punch and lingers like an annoying house guest. Rest, whole foods, and plenty of fluids can help nudge a cold out the door, but here are some additional tips for relief from Mark Hyman, MD.
Symptom #10: Runny nose and congestion
Remedy: Daily saline flush
For thousands of years, people in India have used small neti pots filled with saltwater to rinse the nasal passages. Today, experts at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital recommend saline-rinse treatments for sinusitis sufferers, and studies show that daily saline rinsing helps ease sinus woes.
“Flushing your sinuses with mild saltwater keeps mucous membranes moist, which protects you from microbes,” says Hyman. “Use a neti pot at home, or easy-to-carry plastic bottles that come with saline packets when traveling or even at the office.” The FDA recommends filtered water, as tap water has in rare instances caused serious microbial infections.
Drugstore decongestants can raise blood pressure, and conventional nasal sprays may cause dependency, but saline rinsing has no major contraindications.
Symptom #11: Sore throat
Remedy: Hot tea, followed by echinacea and goldenseal
Hot tea or hot water with lemon and honey are almost always the ticket to instant relief from acute sore-throat pain. Certain herbs also have proven healing powers. Native Americans used the flowering echinacea plant for more than 400 years as a general cure-all, and Hyman prescribes it for sore throats and other cold symptoms.
Echinacea is often best used in combination with other herbs, he says. He suggests seeking out formulas that include various herbs with “broad-spectrum antimicrobial or immune-enhancing effects,” such as astragalus, green-tea extract, elderberry, andrographis, and goldenseal, combined with echinacea.
Check with your physician to learn if any of your medications may be contraindicated by these herbs.
Symptom #12: Cough
Remedy: Sauna or steam treatments
For relief from hacking, “going for a nice sauna or steam is helpful.” says Hyman. Saunas have been used for rituals, relaxation, and healing for millennia. A 2017 study found that taking a sauna twice weekly helps ward off pneumonia, and Austrian researchers discovered that people who take saunas regularly contract fewer colds.
If you don’t have access to a sauna or steam room, no worries. Just inhaling steamy air in the shower is beneficial. Or try this at-home treatment: Fill a bowl with hot water, add a few drops of eucalyptus oil, and drape a towel over your head as you lower it over the bowl. Then, keeping your eyes closed, breathe in the soothing vapors.
Symptom #13: Body aches
A good long snooze is the best medicine for nearly everything. “Sleep restores and heals the body,” says Hyman. “Without adequate sleep, optimal immune function is next to impossible.”
A lack of sleep makes any pain worse, so when body aches set in, hit the hay early.
This originally appeared as “Natural Remedies” in the June 2018 print issue of Experience Life.