You already know that what you eat and drink directly affects your long-term wellness. But did you know that certain items in your refrigerator, kitchen cabinets, and spice rack can treat everyday health concerns such as colds, occasional stomach upset, skin blemishes, and tension headaches?
"For common ailments and 'owies,' " explains renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, author of "Herbs for the Home Medicine Chest," "home remedies often work better than drugs, with fewer potential side effects."
In fact, many of the world's healing traditions have their roots in the kitchen. India's millennia-old system, Ayurveda, for instance, holds that "common herbs, spices, and sweeteners are among the foundations of health," says Patricia Hansen, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute for Yoga and Ayurveda in Boulder, Colorado.
And it's not just Eastern health systems. " 'Let food be thy medicine' was among the famed aphorisms of Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine," notes Gladstar. "When you look at how he practiced, it was water, vinegar, honey, and herbs. He believed in the simplest cures."
What's more, most kitchen cures are inexpensive and remarkably safe, notes Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., director of the Fellowship at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Some of the food-based remedies that follow-favorites from Gladstar, Hansen, Low Dog, and other leading natural-health experts may be familiar; others might surprise you. (Who knew that you could use bananas for anything other than cereal and smoothies?) Open your pantry door, and discover the power of healing foods for yourself.
BLEMISHES, RASHES, AND BURNS: TURMERIC
Turmeric's many healing properties make it effective for a wide range of skin conditions. "It's antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antitumoral," explains Hansen. Use it topically to bring pimples to a head quickly and soothe acne, scrapes, and sunburns. (In India, they even sell Band-Aids infused with the spice.) It stains, so be sure to wash your hands after use.
Add several drops of water or aloe-vera juice (available at health-food stores) to 1/2 teaspoon of powdered turmeric to make a thin paste. With your fingers, spread the mixture on blemishes, sunburns, or acne. Leave on for up to an hour, then rinse.
SORE THROAT: HONEY, LEMON & CAYENNE
When you're having trouble swallowing, honey, lemon, and cayenne pepper can bring soothing relief, says Elson Haas, M.D., integrative medicine pioneer and author of the Staying Healthy book series. The lemon contracts inflamed tissues and provides vitamin C, the honey soothes and disinfects, and the cayenne stimulates circulation and encourages healing.
Fill a tablespoon halfway with honey, and then squeeze a lemon to fill the spoon with juice. Sprinkle on 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, put the spoon in your mouth, and suck on it slowly. Repeat as needed.
If the dentist isn't close at hand, seek relief in the spice cabinet. "Clove will immediately numb the gum," says Gladstar. "It will also fight whatever infection might be brewing underneath."
Add a few drops of water to 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves to make a thick paste. Pack on the sore gum for 5 to 10 minutes, then spit out. Repeat as needed. Be careful not to rub your eyes after applying. Not for use on babies and toddlers (unless it's very diluted).
PMS BLOATING: SAGE
If you tend to gain a pants size during your monthly cycle, banish the bloat with homemade sage tea.
"Common kitchen sage has drying properties that make it a terrific mild diuretic with no known side effects," says Phyllis D. Light, director of herbal studies at Clayton College of Natural Health. "It draws excess water out of the body gently." As a bonus, sage tea is also an effective remedy for PMS-related moodiness, she adds. "In folk wisdom, sage is said to lighten the spirit."
Boil 1/3 teaspoon of dried or fresh sage in a cup of water and strain; drink three or four times a day when you're bloated.
Many folk remedies exist outside the realm of science; they've just always worked. But certain remedies have the additional backing of research. Cranberry juice has emerged in multiple clinical trials as an effective treatment for urinary tract infections (UTIs).
"Many believe it's more effective than antibiotics," says acupuncturist Janet Zand, author of "Smart Medicine for Healthier Living." Be sure to choose a natural product without added sugars, which can encourage the growth of bacteria.
Drink a cup of 100 percent cranberry juice (or 1 tablespoon of concentrate dissolved in a cup of water) at the first sign of infection; repeat three or more times daily until symptoms abate. If you don't see an improvement after 48 hours, see your doctor.
SPRAINS AND STRAINS: LETTUCE
That Caesar salad you're eating may be more than a tasty lunch. Lettuce's anti-inflammatory effects make it a good topical remedy for simple sprains and strains, says Brigitte Mars, author of "The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine." You might want to nibble a few leaves, too: "Lettuce is rich in lactucin, a calming alkaloid," says Mars. "It has sedative properties."
Chop up a few cold lettuce leaves, apply to the sprained area, and wrap loosely in an elastic bandage. Change the poultice when it grows hot.
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INDIGESTION: GINGER & SALT
In the Ayurvedic view, indigestion often stems from weak "digestive fire," known as agni. Stoke yours -- and prevent indigestion -- by taking ginger and salt before a meal.
Grate an inch of peeled, fresh ginger. Take a pinch or two and mix with a pinch or two of sea salt to make a paste. Chew on the mixture for a minute or two, then swallow. Wash it down with warm water and enjoy your meal. "You'll need to eat within 10 or 15 minutes," says Hansen, "or you might experience a burning sensation."
Peppermint extract or oil, used commonly in baking, doubles as a reliable headache cure -- one backed by several small clinical trials and lots of anecdotal evidence.
"I teach my medical students how to use peppermint oil in a simple cold compress," says Low Dog. "Without fail, they end up telling me it's one of the most amazing things they've learned."
Fill a small bowl with ice water and add 5 to 7 drops of peppermint oil. Dip a washcloth into the bowl, wring it out, and apply the compress to your forehead for 10 to 15 minutes. Alternatively, add several drops of the oil to a washcloth, throw it into the corner of a shower, and climb into the minty steam.
DIARRHEA: RICE WATER
If you're suffering from a stomach virus -- or perhaps a bout of food poisoning -- turn to the remedy Bangladeshis have used for millennia: rice water. The proteins in the rice can help stabilize the bowel during or after an illness, says Nancy Welliver, N.D., chair of Bastyr University's Botanical Medicine program. "It's a deeply hydrating, soothing, and surprisingly tasty alternative to anything pink and bottled."
Cook a pot of rice using at least twice as much water as you usually would (try a 1:4 ratio). Strain the rice, and reserve the grains for another use. Drink the leftover rice water hot or cold.
BUG BITES: BANANA
Close encounters of the buzzing kind are inevitable when you spend time outdoors. But you'll find quick relief in the fruit bowl. With its high antioxidant content, "banana peel can calm inflamed bug bites, especially itchy mosquito bites," says David Grotto, R.D., author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. Keep bananas around on the deck, on the porch, or by the pool, he advises.
Apply the banana peel, fruit-side down, directly on the bite and hold it there until the itching or burning subsides. Enjoy the fruit as a healthy snack.
The Greeks and Romans used asparagus for toothaches and bee stings. But it might work best for symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
"It's a prebiotic," explains Grotto, "which means it helps to populate the intestinal tract with friendly bacteria, which will in turn help balance IBS symptoms." This remedy takes a little time to work, Grotto notes. Look for relief within three to five days.
Eat several spears of lightly steamed or grilled asparagus twice a day.
HOT FLASHES: SOY SAUCE
Women who suffer from the symptoms of menopause, especially hot flashes and night sweats, may benefit from eating a little soy every day, says Low Dog. You may want to skip the tofu and use soy sauce instead.
"Only about a third of women in the West are able to convert compounds in soy to their most active form," she says. "But if you get your soy in fermented form, such as in soy sauce or miso, the conversion has been done for you. The estrogenlike compounds are readily available."
Season your supper with low-sodium soy sauce instead of salt, or have a cup of simple miso soup: Dissolve 1 tablespoon of miso paste in hot water, and drink.
Another remedy with dozens of uses, apple-cider vinegar can help break a fever. "You add it to water and bathe the arms and legs. Since it's acidic, it speeds heat loss as it evaporates off the skin," explains Suzanne Catty, author of the forthcoming "Holistic Healer's Handbook." "It's what my mother used on me, and my grandmother used on her."
Combine 1 cup of apple-cider vinegar with 2 cups of water in a bowl. Dip a washcloth into the mixture, wring it out, and apply to exposed arms, legs, and torso.
Ginger is a near-universal remedy for nausea. But as with so much else in life, it goes down easier with a spoonful of sugar-in the form of a syrup. "Sugar draws out ginger's intracellular fluid," says Welliver, "so you end up with a healing remedy that tastes good."
Scrub a large, fresh piece of ginger and cut into thin slices. Sprinkle a little sugar (enough to coat) into the bottom of a quart jar, then create a layer of ginger slices. Alternate layers until the jar is nearly full. The syrup will appear in about 24 hours. Strain into a small jar, and refrigerate for up to three weeks. Take a tablespoon at the first sign of nausea.
EARACHE: ONIONS & GARLIC
Rich in sulfur compounds, onion fights ear infections when used topically, says Gladstar. "It works wonders, especially when there's associated congestion from a cold."
If the pain lingers, add a few drops of garlic oil. But "make sure the oil is tepid, no hotter," says Gladstar. "You don't want to deep fry the inner ear."
Saute an onion in a tiny bit of water until translucent, and load the mixture into an old, clean sock or flannel cloth. While the onion is still warm, put the sock over the ear and hold it in place. If the ache is deep, treat both ears even if only one hurts.
To make garlic-infused oil, add three or four crushed cloves of garlic to 1/4 cup olive oil and warm them gently in a saucepan for 20 minutes. Strain and cool. Using a dropper, add a few drops of warm oil into the ear canal every four hours until the infection clears.
STUFFY HEAD: SALSA
When cold season hits, keep spicy salsa on hand, says Low Dog. "I'm from New Mexico, where locals often use hot chili peppers to break up a cold or stuffy sinus," she says.
They thin the mucus in the nasal passages so that it's easier to expel, and "they do the same thing in the lungs -- making it easier to expectorate," she adds. Plus, they're one of the top sources of vitamin C.
Don't fret about getting the perfect dose, says Low Dog. Just pick up a jar of spicy salsa -- with hot, spicy chilies like jalapenos, serranos, or habaneros -- and snack until your sniffles subside.
Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and allspice are the best remedies for flatulence, says Light. "That's why we traditionally add these spices to beans and apple pie, foods your body might otherwise have trouble breaking down." Take these spices individually -- a little cinnamon on toast or ginger tea after a meal -- or get them all in a cup of homemade chai. "You already have all these spices in your cabinet," says Light. "Why not use them to create a tasty digestive formula?"
Add 1/3 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger to 8 ounces of hot water and steep for several minutes. Strain, sweeten with a bit of raw sugar or honey, and enjoy before or after a meal.
For relief of occasional constipation, look no further than your favorite pasta topper. "Basil is fantastic for constipation," says Catty. As she explains it, this common culinary herb helps de-stress the body, while the flavor helps digestion. "I tell my clients to eat pesto at night," says Catty, "and they call the next morning to say 'right on!' "
Make your own by adding a packed cup of fresh basil leaves to a food processor along with a clove of garlic, a pinch of salt, and 2 tablespoons of pine nuts (skip the Parmesan cheese when making pesto for this use). Turn the processor on and drizzle in olive oil until you achieve the desired consistency. Eat three spoonfuls whenever you're in need of relief.
INSOMNIA: SESAME OIL & MILK
To treat insomnia at home, start with the obvious: Instead of working or watching the news before bed, says Hansen, write in a journal "or make a to-do list so those worries don't distract your mind."
While you're decompressing, indulge in one of her favorite sleep solutions: "If you fall asleep easily but don't stay asleep, a sesame oil foot massage will ground and calm you," she says. If your problem is falling asleep, "warm milk works wonders," she says.
For the massage, gently rub cold-pressed sesame oil into the soles of your feet for five minutes; begin with the toes and work toward your heel in circular motions. To make a relaxing nightcap, add 8 ounces of milk to a saucepan with a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg and warm gently (don't bring to a boil). Remove from heat and sweeten with a little honey or maple syrup.
SKIN INFECTIONS: HONEY
Raw honey has dozens of uses, healing infections from scrapes and sores among them, says Catty. "The osmotic action promotes granulation of the tissue and draws infection out of the body." Manuka honey, available at natural-foods stores, can even be used for uncomplicated skin infections from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), adds Low Dog. "I'd encourage everyone to keep a jar on hand."
Spread a thick layer over infected skin and cover with a secure bandage or plastic wrap. Leave in place for 24 hours, if possible. "Even if it looks yucky," says Catty, "it's healing underneath." Repeat as necessary. Seek medical care for serious, worsening, or ongoing infections.
Raw garlic's strong antimicrobial properties make it effective for fending off and treating the common cold. It works best as an early intervention, notes Haas. His favorite method -- chewing raw cloves with added honey -- is the most pungent, but not the only way to get it down.
Peel one or two garlic cloves, dip in honey, and chew. Or simply mince a few cloves, add warm water and a little honey, stir, and swallow without chewing; the garlic still does its magic. Repeat every two to three hours from the first sign of sickness.
FATIGUE: BLACKSTRAP MOLASSES
Ongoing fatigue can have many causes, so it needs a physician's diagnosis and care. But for women suffering from run-of-the-mill, postmenstrual fatigue, blackstrap molasses -- a good source of iron, calcium, and other minerals -- can work wonders, says Zand.
"It's a pick-me-up from the pioneer days, and a great restorative remedy for women suffering from what used to be known as 'tired blood.' "
Dissolve 1 to 2 teaspoons of blackstrap molasses in 1/2 cup of warm water or milk, such as almond, rice, or soy, and drink daily.
SINUSITIS: OREGANO, THYME & ROSEMARY
Steam is the best way to deliver the healing power of herbs to congested sinuses, says Welliver. "Oregano and rosemary have antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties," she explains. "Plus, they're bronchodilators, so they help you breathe."
Use the herbs separately or together, or up the healing ante by boiling up a pot of standard-issue Italian seasoning.
Add 3 tablespoons of Italian seasoning (or the dried herbs of your choice) to a large pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and transfer the pot to a table. Cover your head with a towel to create a steam tent; inhale for 10 to 20 minutes, or until the steam dissipates.
While clinical depression needs medical attention, a simpler solution can help the everyday blues. "Cinnamon puts sweetness back into your life," says Catty. "It's safe, it contains no sugar, and clinical research has shown it even helps stabilize blood sugar levels." Take some whenever you're feeling out of sorts. Going through an especially rough patch? "Lots of cinnamon," says Catty.
Pour 1 cup of boiling water over a stick of cinnamon and steep for 10 minutes. Drink, and smile.
For a dry cough, ground mustard helps loosen congestion and reduce inflammation. A topical pack is effective, but be sure to check it every three to five minutes. "Mustard can irritate or even burn the skin," says Welliver.
Combine 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground mustard with 1 cup of flour. Add warm water to make a thick paste. Spread over a piece of muslin or an old T-shirt. Apply olive oil to the chest to protect the skin, then place the mustard pack cloth-side down. Put a towel or cloth over that and lay a hot-water bottle filled with warm water on top, if desired. Recline and relax for about 20 minutes.
We hear a little kitchen facelift is another great cure for the blues.