Introduction

We have been collecting home remedies for more than 50 years. The first edition of our book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1976. In it we had a chapter titled:

“Sexy Trade Secrets and Home Remedies: What Your Doctor Does Not Know or Will Not Tell you.”

In reality, most of the home remedies we described in that section of the book came straight from respected medical journals. That’s because physicians have been writing about home remedies for a very long time. Some of the treatments we listed in that chapter included meat tenderizer for bee stings, a teaspoonful of granulated sugar for hiccups and hot water for itching. They came from the pages of JAMA, the New England Journal of Medicine and a renowned dermatology textbook.

For example, the sugar remedy for hiccups was described by Dr. Edgar Engleman in the New England Journal of Medicine (Dec. 23, 1971). Dr. Engleman was a Research Associate at the National Heart and Lung Institute, The National Institutes of Health. He and his colleagues reported that "one teaspoonful of ordinary white granulated sugar swallowed dry resulted in immediate cessation of hiccups in 19 of 20 patients." These were not ordinary hiccup patients. Twelve of the patients had been grappling with their hiccups for more than six hours. The remaining eight patients had been hiccupping for more than twenty-four hours. 

Evidence-Based Medicine?

Over the decades we have continued to collect home remedies. Sadly, mainstream medical journals appear less willing to report many of these seemingly strange treatments. Doctors have become enamored by the phrase “evidence based medicine.” In other words, experience is out and evidence is in. Something may have been used for hundreds, or even thousands of years, but if it wasn’t tested in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, then many health professionals reject it out of hand.

Now please don’t get us wrong. We love science. We especially value randomized controlled trials (RCTs). We also love common sense and experience. The trouble with home remedies is that they can rarely, if ever, be patented. If a drug company can’t make money on something readily available from the spice rack or kitchen cabinet, there is little motivation to finance a scientific trial.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is not likely to spend tax payer money on home remedies, even if they might be cost effective and safe. And most researchers cannot afford to spend money out of their own pockets to pursue a quirky remedy that colleagues are likely to make fun of. Because of such obstacles there are few clinical trials testing “old wives’ tales.”

As a result, we have relied upon listeners to our public radio show and readers of our books, syndicated newspaper columns and website to supply new and intriguing treatments for common ailments. Surprisingly, many of the most interesting home remedies we have collected in recent years actually have substantial scientific support. More about that later.

Kitchen Table Wisdom

A century ago a trip to the doctor in rural America might mean the better part of a day spent traveling. It’s little wonder that back then, folks didn’t usually consult a physician except for a serious medical emergency. When it came to a minor problem, more often than not they dealt with it at home. Grandparents passed their folk remedies down through the generations.

These days it is possible to get to a doctor’s office relatively easily. But modern medicine has become enamored by pricey pills. Even some generic medications have become unaffordable, especially when it comes to skin care. People have also discovered that many prescription medications are not as effective as they might have been led to believe. And such drugs often come with a long list of scary side effects.

Many people today still prefer to use home remedies for situations that are annoying but not serious. Not everyone has the chance to learn these simple methods from a knowledgeable grandma, though, so we have collected a few of our favorites here to share them with you.

Common Sense & Experimentation

Recipes for home remedies are a little bit like the recipes a good cook might use: there’s room for variation and interpretation, a pinch more of this or less of that. The most important ingredient in home treatment is good judgment. Don’t forget, there are times when you must seek professional medical help; if you are allergic to bee stings and you get stung, go immediately to an emergency room. But if your hands are chapped, you don’t necessarily need to see a dermatologist. You can probably find something at your neighborhood pharmacy … or local farm store … to solve the problem. As with all self-treatment, common sense is essential.

Top 5 Favorite Reader Remedies

(click on the links)

Listerine, Vicks & vinegar foot soaks  for nail fungus.

Angular Cheilitis (Perleche) home remedies for cracks at the corners of the mouth.

The Pros and Cons for Cinnamon as a Home Remedy

Leg Cramp Remedies: as close as the fridge

Home Remedies for Hemorrhoids

Science & Home Remedies

We can’t vouch for all of these tips and tricks we have received. As we mentioned, scientists don’t usually put time and money into testing home remedies to see whether they are safe and effective.

Every so often, though, an old wive’s tale will be vindicated by medical research. For example, we had been hearing about pickle juice and yellow mustard to ease muscle cramps for a very long time. These home remedies have been popular with athletic trainers and senior citizens.

It wasn’t until we interviewed Bruce Bean, PhD, a world-class neurobiologist at Harvard, that we began to understand a possible mechanism for this treatment. Dr. Bean, and his buddy Rod MacKinnon, MD (a Nobel prize winning neurobiologist) discovered the science behind such old-fashioned treatments. You will find details in the muscle cramp section. Suffice it to say that strong flavors (vinegar, mustard, quinine in tonic water) stimulate nerve receptors in the mouth, throat and stomach that can ultimately turn off misfiring nerves that cause muscle cramps.

The Raisin Remedy

Where do home remedies come from? How do people learn about them? We haven’t a clue who thought up the idea of soaking raisins in gin and decided nine a day is the right dose for arthritis. We first heard about this remedy from Jim Campbell in Hendersonville, NC, but the note he sent us credited several other folks. Lois Loebide in Toledo, OH, wrote it up in her parish newsletter, but she learned about it from a friend of hers in Hyannis, MA, who heard about it from a podiatrist in Washington, D.C. Who knows where he found out about raisins and gin!

We’ve never experienced anything like the enthusiastic response to this home remedy. Many people have written to us from all over the country to sing the praises of gin-soaked raisins:

“I was interested to read your column about gin-soaked raisins for arthritis relief. I heard about this home remedy from a friend who knew I had problems with painful osteoarthritis. I had tried all kinds of medicine, from aspirin to Voltaren, without much result. I started the remedy and after about a month I really noticed a difference. It was much easier to get out of bed in the morning. I can climb stairs without stopping halfway up. I can play tennis three or four times a week without suffering afterwards. These are just a few things that have changed since I started on the raisin remedy. It’s not a cure for arthritis, but it is a lot cheaper than the high-priced medicine that hurt my stomach and I believe it has helped me.”

We don’t know if the “raisin remedy” works or is just a figment of people’s imaginations. There are no scientific studies, but juniper (the flavoring in gin) has historically been used to treat stomach problems, bronchitis and even arthritis. Compared to many other arthritis treatments, this one seems benign.

Because the original recipe specified that the gin had to evaporate, the most frequently asked question was “Do these raisins ever dry out?” We heard from people who waited days or even weeks for the raisins to dry. Others ate their gin-soaked snack while still soggy. We now know the raisins never really dry out, but we asked pharmacologist Brian Thomas at Research Triangle Institute to test them for alcohol on his high-tech mass spec machine. The verdict — less than one drop of alcohol left in nine raisins — not enough to harm most folks.

Raisin d’Être

“Empty one box of golden light raisins into a large shallow container. Pour enough gin to completely cover the raisins. Let stand, uncovered, for about seven days until all of the liquid evaporates. Stirring occasionally will help the evaporation process. After the gin has evaporated, place the raisins in a closed container ... Eat nine raisins a day. If you don’t like raisins, put them on your cereal or in a salad.”

Attributed to “The Acts of Saint Lucas,” the newsletter of St. Lucas Lutheran Church, Toledo, OH.

More Arthritis Remedies

Arthritis used to be thought of as a condition of older people. Grandma Esther complained about a touch of “rheumatiz” in her fingers and Uncle Charlie needed a cane to hobble around because of a sore knee. Increasingly, though, arthritis is affecting younger people.

The Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is Anne Schuchat, MD. On March 7, 2017 she gave a briefing about “Arthritis in America.” In her talk Dr. Schuchat pointed out that arthritis is a growing problem. Doctor-diagnosed cases are now over 54 million. That doesn’t include people who haven’t been officially diagnosed. If we add in another 20 million or so, you have a very big number! She went on to say:

“This is not your mother’s arthritis. Contrary to popular opinion, arthritis is not an old person’s disease. About 60 percent (six – zero) of all adults with arthritis are less than 65 years old.”

Yikes! The numbers have been going up dramatically and no one seems to have an answer as to why. Yes, we are a fatter nation than we were 50 years ago. Extra pounds put a strain on joints. But we are also eating more pro-inflammatory foods (sugar and carbs) than ever before. We are also exposed to bacteria, viruses, pollutants and medications that can trigger inflammation and arthritis-like symptoms.

Over 40 percent of people with arthritis have the quality of their lives affected. Many have had to limit their activities. Dr. Schuchat spells it out:

“We are seeing this increase independent of aging of the population. When I say limited, I mean that adults may not be able to kneel on the ground, hold a cup, lift a grocery bag, or walk to their car. Today’s Vital Signs report finds that 24 million adult American lives are limited because of their condition. Dealing with limited abilities can be frustrating and have a negative impact on the quality of life.”

The Dangers of Drug Treatments

It is hardly any wonder that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have become so popular. When people are in pain they look for help. That’s why drugs like celecoxib (Celebrex), diclofenac (CataflamVoltaren), etodolac (Lodine), ibuprofen (AdvilMotrin, etc) ketoprofen (Orudis), meloxicam (Mobic) and naproxen (AleveAnaproxNaprosyn, etc.) have become so popular. But such drugs are now recognized to come with the potential to cause significant side effects (see the sidebar to your left for details). The latest scary discovery is that NSAIDs are associated with a risk of sudden cardiac arrest (European Heart Journal. Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapy, April, 2017). That’s why home remedies are catching on.

Ashwaganda

We will bet that you have never heard of this herb (Withania somnifera). It has been used in India for thousands of years and is very much a part of the Ayurvedic healing tradition. That said, Americans are mostly unaware of Ashwagandha.

Our colleague, Tieraona Low Dog, MD, is one of the country’s leading experts on botanical and integrative medicine. When we interviewed her on our radio show she noted that Ashwagandha could be helpful for people who are “wired but tired.” It has an anti-anxiety effect that may help you stop ruminating from bedtime into the wee hours of the morning. Ashwagandha appears to exert this effect through its action on GABA receptors (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Aug. 2, 2015).

This herb also appears to have anti-inflammatory activity (Journal of Biological Chemistry, Feb. 16, 2007). One of the active ingredients in Ashwagandha is withaferin A (WA). It inhibits NFkappaB, which suggests it may be beneficial against both inflammatory conditions and cancer. A review of medicinal Ashwagandha in the journal Biochemical Pharmacology (Nov. 15, 2012) points out:

“It is traditionally used for treatment of various divergent disorders, such as chronic fatigue, dehydration, rheumatism. The berries and leaves are traditionally used as topical treatment for tumors and ulcers. The health benefit of Ashwaganda is supported by clinical trials in case of inflammation and immune modulation, periodontitis, reducing anxiety and reducing arthritis pain.”

The authors point out that there have not been long-term clinical trials of Ashwagandha, there is a surprising amount of basic research documenting the powerful anti-inflammatory action of this ancient Ayurvedic herb. Words of caution: it may affect thyroid function and the digestive tract. Some visitors to our website have complained it upsets their stomach, makes them nauseated and gives them diarrhea. Learn more about this natural approach in our Guide to Alternatives for Arthritis.

Certo and Grape Juice

This home remedy is at least as old as gin-soaked raisins. We first heard about Certo and grape juice from a disappointed reader of our syndicated newspaper column in the spring of 1998:

“My wife and I tried your golden raisins and gin for arthritis and we were unimpressed. We have discovered something else, though, that seems to work for us. Take two teaspoons of Certo dissolved in three ounces of grape juice. Do this three times a day. We have been told to cut back to one teaspoon Certo in grape juice twice a day after the joints quit aching.

“We buy Certo in the grocery store near the canning jars. It’s simple and cheap and seems to be helping. I am on Coumadin so I can’t take anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil or Aleve.”

Our Answer on March 2, 1998

A. Certo contains pectin, a natural ingredient found in the cell walls of plants. It is used as a thickening agent in jams, jellies and puddings. Grapefruit pectin has been used to lower cholesterol, but this is the first we’ve heard of using pectin for arthritis pain. It seems safe, however, and we welcome comments. It did not take long for readers to respond (see sidebar to your left).

It wasn’t long before we heard from other readers

“I read your article on mixing grape juice with Certo for arthritis. It worked for me.

“I learned about this home remedy back in the 1970s from my mother-in-law. At that time my knee was swollen double size even after taking Motrin and Clinoril, so I tried the grape juice and Certo. The knee returned to normal size within a month.

“I took one tablespoon of Certo in 8 oz. of unsweetened grape juice once a day. I still use this treatment if and when the occasion arises.” May 11, 1998

In July we received another convincing story

“In a recent article you expressed surprise that Certo has been used for arthritis since the 1970s. Back in 1945 my 65-year-old grandmother suffered from arthritis in her knees. When a friend told her about the benefits of Certo in fruit juice 2 or 3 times a day, she tried it and was pain free within a few weeks.

“At the time I wondered whether this marvelous improvement was due to a placebo effect. During a two-week vacation in Florida she had no access to Certo and was a wreck when she returned. Grandma cried as she crawled to bed on her hands and knees. She returned to taking Certo, and was fine in two weeks.

“A few years ago I noticed persistent pain in my thumbs and shoulder and had to stop playing the piano. When my wrists and elbows became sore, I saw a nurse practitioner who diagnosed osteoarthritis and offered anti-inflammatory pills.

“I tried a tablespoon of Certo mixed with fruit juice (mostly grape juice) at breakfast and bedtime. Within a couple of weeks all symptoms disappeared, and I can now play the piano for hours.

“When I stopped taking Certo for nine days the pain was excruciating.  Going back on Certo banished it. Clearly it is not a cure, but seems helpful and has no worrisome side effects.”

 How To Make Certo & Grape Juice

Over the last two decades we have heard from hundreds of people who have tried this and similar remedies for arthritis. The recipes vary. One involves two teaspoons of Certo in three ounces of grape juice and is to be taken three times a day. Another involves a full glass of grape juice with one tablespoon of Certo. There are several variations on this basic theme. Since it is a home remedy, we encourage you to experiment to see what works for you and is convenient for your lifestyle.

Other Remedies for Arthritis

If you would like to learn more about other remedies and herbal approaches to easing inflammation we encourage you to check out our Guide to Alternatives for Arthritis. In it you will learn about Knox Gelatin, bromelain (from pineapple), boswelia, turmeric (and its active ingredient curcumin), ginger, stinging nettle, acupuncture, glucosamine, MSM, SAMe, avocado/soybean mixtures, hyaluronic acid and much more.

NSAID Side Effects

  • High blood pressure
  • Fluid retention, edema
  • Heart attacks and strokes
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Irregular heart rhythms (atrial fibrillation)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Digestive distress (indigestion, heartburn, ulcers)
  • Perforation of the stomach, small intestine and large intestine
  • Kidney damage, kidney disease
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Toxic skin rash
  • Stevens-Johnson syndrome
  • Liver damage
  • Blood disorders (anemia)
  • Breathing difficulties (worsening asthma)

Stories from Readers:

Bob in Chapel Hill, NC reports:

“I had to stop regular use of naproxyn because of kidney damage. After 40 years of practice in orthopedic surgery and stopping the prescribing of butazolidin because it caused leukemia and a number of other NSAIDs because those drugs caused heart attacks, I had to stop what I thought was ‘Safe’!”

Mary, writing about ibuprofen, says:

“Both my mother-in law and my mother almost died from this drug. I told the ambulance drivers I thought my mom was bleeding internally.  She was and almost died.

Itches and Ouches

Lots of people have been faced with stings — bees, wasps, yellow jackets and the like have a way of ruining a good picnic or outing. Quite a few folks have written to tell us that putting the cut side of an onion on a sting makes it feel better much quicker. Others like to mix up a little meat tenderizer with water to make a paste that can be dabbed on a sting. Still another refinement calls for mixing the meat tenderizer with enough white vinegar to dissolve it. This comes, we are told, from a lifeguard in Hawaii who maintains the solution is very effective against jellyfish stings.

We have also been told that baking soda mixed up with vinegar into a foaming paste will help a sting. Some people dispense with the vinegar and concentrate on a baking soda-and-water paste. One woman recommends moistening an Alka-Seltzer tablet and putting it on the sting as soon as it starts to fizz. Whether this might work any better than a plain baking soda paste, we have no idea, but it might be easier to pack a tablet into a pocket or picnic basket.

Of course a severe reaction to a sting is an emergency situation, not appropriate for home remedies. If a person who has been stung develops breathing problems, hives or widespread itching, or starts to feel faint or nauseated, call the ambulance immediately. Sting allergies can result in life-threatening shock.

For ordinary itchy bug bites, not stings, one of the most effective ways to stop the itching involves no expense at all. Hot water, uncomfortable but not hot enough to burn (120° to 130° F), for a few seconds may give relief that can last a few hours. We hear that this easy itch treatment may also be helpful for limited areas of poison ivy.

Hot water works for itches! I used the hottest water I could stand for a few seconds on my mosquito bites. It gave much more relief than scratching and lasted for hours. Why isn’t this technique common knowledge?”

A. We have been writing about hot water (hot enough to hurt but not so hot as to burn) for itchy bug bites for over 40 years. We first learned about this remedy from a 1961 edition of the textbook, Dermatology: Diagnosis and Treatment. Perhaps it is no longer mentioned in medical school, since dermatologists now have potent corticosteroid creams to ease itching.

Hot water can also be helpful in easing the itch from poison oak or poison ivy. It should never be used for hives, however, as it can make them worse.

Sting Stories

Sliced Onion:
E.H. shared this camping misadventure:

"Putting a slice of onion on a sting has always been the treatment of choice for me since childhood. Once I was hiking with a group and one of the hikers was stung over 100 times over his body but particularly on his head. We were close to camp so I ran and sliced an onion and wrapped the slices onto his head and body with a roll of gauze and he never swelled or had any pain."

J.T. had a different kind of sting story to share:

"When my brother was young he took a drink from a bottle of pop not realizing a wasp was inside it. The wasp stung him all the way down his throat and it was swelling up fast.

"We had a general store at the time so my Dad rushed and got a raw onion and made my brother eat it. The onion thankfully took the swelling down almost immediately. I think it probably saved his life as his throat was closing up."

Conquering Coughs

Almost everyone experiences a cold or two each year and coughs are a frequent fellow traveler. Although a good night’s sleep is important for immune function and recovery, a nagging cough can keep you awake for hours. Finding a safe and effective cough remedy is a lot harder than you might imagine.

Dextromethorphan (the DM in OTC Cough Meds)

The number one ingredient in most nonprescription cough medicines is a bit of a tongue twister, ie, dextromethorphan. That’s why you will frequently see “DM” or “DXM” on the label. The FDA has clearly given the makers of cold and cough remedies the green light for using dextromethorphan as an approved cough suppressant. How good is DM or other ingredients (antihistamines, decongestants, expectorants, mucolytics, etc.) for controlling cough symptoms?

One of the most thorough and independent evaluators of drug effectiveness is the international Cochrane Collaboration. In the case of dextromethorphan, the investigators “included 29 trials (19 in adults, 10 in children involving 3835 people (3799 adults and 1036 children (Cochrane Library, online, Nov. 24, 2014). All studies were placebo-controlled RCTs [randomized controlled trials].” Here is the key finding:

“We found no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medications in acute cough.”

In analyzing the Cochrane review, a family physician writing in the journal Evidence-Based Medicine (June, 2015) points out:

“Of the 29 trials, 18 showed no difference between the cough medication and placebo…

“This is a well-performed and relevant systematic review which concludes that there is no good evidence for the effectiveness of commonly used OTC medicine to alleviate acute cough…It remains surprising that there exists so little scientific support for such commonly used medicines.”

Home Remedies for Coughs

Why not make your own cough medicine? We just happen to have a favorite cough remedy that we have used ourselves with great results.

thymus citriodorus (lemon thyme)
Bigstock
Thymus citriodorus (Lemon thyme or Citrus thyme) in the garden

Thyme is Terrific!

Do you remember that lovely ballad from Simon and Garfunkel?

“Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine…”

Our ancestors used a variety of spices for healing purposes. Thyme was certainly a favorite. It has been used at least since Roman times for a variety of conditions. By the 17th century it was used to ease coughs.

Thyme Tea

We are fond of a cup of tea made with a half to a full teaspoon of dried thyme leaves. We are convinced that the thymol in thyme leaves calms a cough extremely well. At least one doctor agrees. A German review of the medical literature found strong evidence for a combination of ivy, primrose and thyme as a cough medicine (Forschende Komplementarmedizin, online Dec. 14, 2015). In that review, a Chinese herb called Andrographis paniculata also fared well as a cough treatment.

Tieraona Low Dog, MD contributed this recipe for Thyme Cough Syrup in our book, Recipes & Remedies from The People’s Pharmacy:

  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons dried thyme (or 4 tablespoons fresh)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup organic honey

Pour one cup near-boiling water over thyme and steep for 10 minutes. Strain. Add honey and lemon juice. Refrigerate for up to one week. For children 18 months and older: take one tablespoon as needed.

Vicks VapoRub on the Soles of the Feet

Vicks VapoRub in the familiar blue bottle is an American icon known round the world. Its distinctive aroma of camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oil brings back memories of loving treatment for childhood colds or congestion.

This product dates back more than a century. Pharmacist Lunsford Richardson moved his family to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1890. When his three young children caught nasty colds, the poultices and vaporizing lamp used to treat respiratory infections were messy and hard to use, so Richardson set to work to create a better product.

According to family legend, he had traveled in France where he observed the use of menthol, an exotic ingredient from Japan. He developed a croup and pneumonia salve containing menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil, cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, thymol and turpentine oil.

Richardson named his new creation for his brother-in-law Dr. Joshua Vick. Not only was Dr. Vick well-known and respected in town, he also had a name short enough to fit on labels pasted on the lids of the blue jars. Vicks is now sold worldwide.

Most people are familiar with the standard directions to “rub a thick layer [of Vicks VapoRub] on throat and chest” to calm a cough. Few people are aware of a completely different approach.

A Nurses Secret Sauce

Around the year 2000 a nurse called into our syndicated radio show to tell us that she calmed nighttime coughs by applying Vicks VapoRub to the soles of her children’s feet. She then put socks on the kids to protect the bed sheets. She admitted that it sounded “wacky,” but she assured us that it worked for her and everyone she told about this cough remedy.

We have been writing about this remedy in our syndicated newspaper column or on this website for more than 15 years, and we are always amazed at the positive responses we receive. By now there are hundreds of reports of success. Here is a link to just one such article:

Vicks on the Soles of Your Feet is Better Than Diamonds on the Soles of Your Shoes

Q. I was in the hospital for three weeks following major surgery for colon cancer. Needless to say, it was very painful to cough!

I had my husband bring Vicks VapoRub from home and asked the nurses to put it on the soles of my feet as a cough suppressant. They witnessed first-hand how well it worked to calm a cough. They said they couldn’t wait to try it on their kids.

A. Smearing Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet strikes many people as an improbable cough remedy. We have received an amazing number of stories from readers reinforcing this approach.

How Does Vicks Work?

The Cough Center

The part of the brain that controls coughing is way at the bottom of the brainstem in an area called the medulla oblongata. It is that part of the brain that manages automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate, vomiting and sneezing. The medulla borders on the spinal column.

Feet to Brain

The feet actually have lots of nerves. Ask any acupuncturist and she will tell you all about special meridians on the feet. Western medicine has very little understanding of how sensory nerves impact physiology. But Chinese healers have been aware of such pathways for centuries.

Menthol, which is one of the ingredients in Vicks, is found in most cough lozenges. It inhibits coughing by stimulating specialized nerve endings found in the skin as well as the mouth and throat (Ebihara et al, Current Pharmaceutical Design, vol. 22, No. 15, 2016).  It works through the transient receptor potential, TRPM8. This TRP channel also senses cold (Janssens et al, Elife, July 23, 2016). Stimulating TRP channels in the soles of the feet may explain how Vicks VapoRub calms a cough.

Sensory nerves in the skin can travel to the spinal cord. The cough center is right above the spinal cord. Just as stimulating TRP channels can calm muscle cramps we suspect that the same process works on the cough center.

DM-Containing Cough Medicine

  • Robitussin DM
  • Mucinex DM
  • Delsym DM
  • Tussin DM

A lot of people tell us that they don’t like the taste of dextromethorphan even when it is masked with fruit flavoring.

Onion Syrup: A Tasty Cough Remedy

Several readers have offered this old-fashioned cough remedy:

“I was born in 1931, the youngest of four siblings. Mother would slice onions and cook them in “sugar water” for cough syrup. I would fake a cough so I could have that delicious syrup!”

Another reader shared this

“My mother also prepared “onion syrup” when I was a child in the 40s & 50s, but she used honey instead of sugar.

A different reader shared this story:

On my first trip to India in 1986, I accompanied a local doctor to villages where she was teaching assistants to distinguish minor ailments that could be treated with local remedies from major problems that needed professional care in the nearest large village. One of the remedies used for minor coughs was an onion syrup sweetened with natural sugar processed from the local sugarcane fields.”

Q. When we were children, our mother made us a cough syrup by slicing an onion and covering the slices with sugar. The sugar sucks the juice out of the onion and makes a clear syrup.

I have had a raw cough and my lungs hurt from congestion. I used a tablespoon of the syrup and it stopped the coughing.

A.  A friend told us that her Hungarian grandmother made this syrup for her several decades ago.

In mid-18th century America settlers used the juice of roasted onion to treat children with croupy cough.

Soleful Vicks Stories

Karen in Wakefield:

“This definitely works. I tried it last night after suffering all day and night for two days. It was brilliant; the coughing stopped and I had a good nights sleep.”

Christine in Australia:

“My daughter told me this was rubbish and a hoax. I read on line that it was bogus but I have had a night cough for months. I had x-rays, etc. and finally tried the Vicks on the feet solution. It has totally worked! The foot idea, though new, produced the best results yet.”

Muscle Cramp Miracle

The Research Behind Cramp Remedies

Physicians often turn their noses up at the thought of home remedies. That is in large part because they don’t trust experiential learning. Hard scientists want hard data, not anecdotal stories from laymen.

This is why we are so delighted to offer you a scientific explanation for home remedies to calm painful leg cramps.

For years, we’ve been hearing from readers who swallow a shot glass of pickle juice, a glass of tonic water (containing bitter quinine) or a spoonful of yellow mustard to make a muscle cramp disappear. They often report relief within a few minutes. How could such strange and diverse remedies work so quickly to alleviate painful muscle contractions?

woman holding pickles
Look at those beautiful pickles. A proud woman smiles at the big jar of dill pickles she has successfully prepared. They’re going to be so good and crunchy.

Researchers have established that pickle juice promptly eases electrically induced muscle cramps (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May, 2010).  They have also demonstrated that the mechanism of action of pickle juice or mustard is not through electrolyte replenishment (Journal of Athletic Training, May-June, 2014). Now, there is an explanation for the pickle juice remedy. It likely also explains why a teaspoonful of mustard or a swig of tonic water also work so fast.

Muscle Cramps at Sea

Neurobiologists Rod McKinnon, MD, (a Nobel Prize winner) and Bruce Bean, PhD, (a Harvard professor) were kayaking many miles off Cape Cod when they were struck with severe muscle cramps. This was a dangerous development so far out in the ocean.

Neither of them was dehydrated or depleted of electrolytes like sodium, potassium or magnesium. Why did cramps strike at such an inopportune time? To hear the whole story, listen to our interview with Dr. Bruce Bean at this link.

After lashing their kayaks together and resting their weary arms, Drs. Bean and McKinnon were able to gradually make it back to Cape Cod. They spent the next decade trying to determine the causes behind muscle cramps and find a fast way to overcome them.

Although many health professionals still believe in the dehydration or electrolyte depletion theory, scientists noted that when muscles become fatigued there is “sustained abnormal spinal reflex activity” (Journal of Sports Sciences, June, 1997). Bean and Mckinnon determined that painful cramps are triggered by misfiring nerves. Over exertion (such as paddling against big waves) or running a marathon can take a toll on the nerves that connect to big muscles in legs and arms.

They had heard about the pickle juice remedy for muscle cramps and had seen the research proving that it could work. They hypothesized that strong flavors (like vinegar) triggered nerves in the mouth, throat and stomach through specialized TRP (transient receptor potential) channels. Stimulating such TRP channels sends a fast and powerful message to the spinal column. From there a message is sent to the nerves controlling muscles. That transmission turns off the misbehaving nerves that cause muscle cramps.

The Science Behind Hotshot

A flavorful drink containing cinnamon, ginger and a hot pepper extract (capsaicin) was created to stimulate the TRP receptors in the mouth, throat and stomach. The product was called Hotshot (online at www.Flex-Pharma.com).

Researchers performed a double blind, randomized, cross-over study of this drink on young, healthy volunteers (Muscle & Nerve, May 9, 2017). Here is what they discovered:

“Our data suggest that TRP channel activation may have dampened alpha-motor neuron hyperexcitability to mitigate cramping…

“These results are very promising for athletes and for those who experience muscle cramps during recreational activity…

“We conclude that consuming a beverage containing documented TRPV1 and TRPA1 channel activators mitigates self-induced muscle cramps but does not affect fine motor function.”

In other words, stimulating nerves in the mouth, throat and stomach with a flavorful beverage counteracts muscle cramps. It does not impact motor abilities such as writing with a pen or shooting a basketball. At long last we have a scientific explanation for why home remedies may work against muscle cramps.

Here is why we think TRP-channel activation explains the mechanism of action of so many home remedies for leg cramps. These leg cramp remedies work very quickly, often within two minutes. There is no plausible explanation other than a nerve activation one. It takes far too long for a substance to be swallowed, absorbed into the blood stream, circulate to the muscles and turn off the cramps.

Soap for Muscle Cramps?

We have been hearing for many years that placing a bar of soap under the bottom sheet in the general neighborhood of your feet can ward of leg cramps. Many people insist that this remedy works like a charm. Others maintain that it is ridiculous and is purely a placebo effect. We now suspect that the fragrance in soap is stimulating TRP channels. There may also be a direct effect on the skin that stimulates nerves in the spinal cord to turn off the hyperexcitable neurons triggering a cramp. Here are a couple of stories that support this approach:

“My left hand was cramping badly. My fingers were twisting and the pain was unbearable. I searched ‘hand cramps’ on the web, found your suggestion and held a bar of soap. It worked within two minutes and the cramp hasn’t returned.”

H.E.K. in DelRay Beach, Florida shared this story

“I have had a bar of soap under the bottom sheet of my bed for years and the leg cramps are gone. I even carry a bar of soap when I travel. When I tell people they laugh and stare at me with a questionable look. Their problem if they don’t want to even give it a try.”

How Soap Overcame Scary Throat Spasms

“I have been sleeping with soap under my bottom sheet for years and have had no leg cramps since I began doing so. I also suffered for years from a terrifying condition known as laryngospasm, during which the vocal cords suddenly seize up and close when taking in a breath, blocking the flow of air. Although the spasm only lasts for a minute or two, the time seems to move so slowly that death feels imminent.

“Once during just such a scary throat spasm, I rubbed soap onto the skin at the base of my throat. I hoped it would end the spasm, and it did! The laryngospasm eased within two seconds after I rubbed soap directly on my neck.

“Ever since then I’ve worn a silver chain around my neck with a net pouch containing a small piece of soap. Because I made the pouch with pretty netting, I get compliments on my necklace. I always explain what it is and why I take it off only when I shower or go swimming.”

Mustard Stories from Readers

Robert in Missouri says:

“I try to be as active as possible at age 86. After a day mowing grass, raking leaves, climbing ladders to clean gutters, etc. I would have terrible leg cramps at night. I started taking mustard and/or vinegar prior to retiring and the results were amazing.”

Suzanne in Richmond, VA offers:

I, too, have developed terrible leg & foot cramps that wake me at night. I’m 63. My physician suggested the tsp. of mustard. Tried it & the cramps just…STOP, quickly! I’m grateful & amazed…and I love mustard, so no problem with taste!

Ginnie in Dallas, Texas on mustard:

“I’ve been using the soap remedy for years…but lately it wasn’t working as well. So I decided to try the mustard thing.

“Now, the idea of a mouthful of nasty mustard in my mouth in the middle of the night sounded yucky…BUT…I just happened to have a bottle of honey mustard in the fridge. And guess what? It tasted good, and it worked! Yum! A tasty way to beat those darn cramps.”

Pickle Juice Stories:

“I would like to tell you about a remedy for leg cramps or spasms. One evening we were playing cards with some friends, and suddenly my husband bent over with a severe leg cramp.

Our host went to the refrigerator, got the jar of pickles and poured 1/4 glass of pickle juice. He told my husband to drink it, and the leg cramps eased almost immediately.”

Dawn in Mississippi reports:

“My husband has been to the ER twice for severe muscle cramps. They gave him powerful drugs including morphine, dilaudid, tramadol, Lortab, & Flexeril. Nothing worked.

“After a week of pain and not being able to sleep, he drank some pickle juice. Within minutes he was pain free and fast asleep!”

War on Warts

Earlier in this guide we mentioned that hot water can ease the itching of a mosquito bite. Surprisingly, hot water may also work on some plantar warts. These flattish warts on the sole of the foot can be hard to treat, and by no means all of them respond to hot water soaks. But this may be worth a try before seeing the dermatologist for surgery. Dr. Samuel Moschella of Harvard Medical School discovered an old medical reference to this treatment, and tried it.

Some of Dr. Moschella’s patients did not want to undergo surgery with the lengthy recovery time that can entail, but they were willing to soak their feet thirty to ninety minutes a week in warm water—110° to 113° F. Dr. Moschella told us that his method is under the patient’s control, is not invasive, is cheap, and doesn’t hurt (as long as the water is not so hot that it will burn!). This was written up in the Cleveland Clinic Quarterly (July, 1962).

Cimetidine Story

“Many years ago, when these heartburn drugs first came out, my husband was taking one of them on a continuing basis. I noticed the life-long warts on his hands had vanished, and they have never come back. It was later I had read somewhere that this drug might have been the cure.”

Castor Oil Story

“I used castor oil on a wart that developed at the hairline near my temple. I rubbed it on the wart 3 to 5 times a day. The wart started crumbling away after about a week until it was completely gone.”

Plantar Wart Remedies

Click on the highlighted links above to get more details on each of these plantar wart remedies.

Raisins or Beets To Reduce Nighttime Urination

Nocturia

The medical term for excessive nighttime urination is nocturia. It originates from Latin and Greek. Nighttime in Latin is “noctis.” Urine is roughly “oura” in Greek. Put them together and you end up with nocturia.

Getting up three or four times to pee in the middle of the night can be dangerous. For one thing, it increases the risk of a fall. For another it can disturb sleep. That’s not good either as it can make an older person groggy in the morning. Chronic sleep deprivation takes a heavy health toll.

NSAIDs Worry Us

Several years ago we heard from a reader who accidentally discovered that ibuprofen helped with nighttime urination:

“I hate having to get up three or four times a night to urinate. Around 3 or 4 in the morning I have trouble getting back to sleep.

“I have discovered that when I take ibuprofen for post-exercise soreness I am much less likely to be awakened by my bladder. I don’t want to take this on a regular basis, though, because I worry about intestinal irritation.”

Others have reported similar benefits. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in the journal Urology (Oct., 2008) reported that the NSAID celecoxib (Celebrex):

“is effective in the treatment of patients with BPH [benign prostate hypertrophy] complaining of refractory nocturia. Our results suggest a novel treatment option for this common condition.” An article in the American Journal of Epidemiology (May 1, 2011) cautioned that regular use of NSAIDs for such a purpose might not be a great idea. Side effects such as stomach ulcers, kidney damage and hypertension should discourage most people from relying on NSAIDs to diminish nighttime bathroom visits.

Raisins for Nocturia

We have no good explanation why some people get benefit from a handful of raisins before going to bed. But here are a couple of stories that are intriguing:

Armond in North Carolina says

“Raisins work. I take two tsp or 30 raisins before bed. I wake up the same time every night, twice only, to urinate. It used to be 5-6 times a night depending on what I had for dinner. I eat mostly vegetables and because they have so much water, I had to go more often. Raisins changed that. They work for me.”

An anonymous reader writes

“I read about eating raisins before bed to reduce nighttime urination and I love this idea. It worked the first night I tried it. Instead of visiting the bathroom every hour all night long, I made half as many visits to the bathroom.

“Last night I ate about a cup of raisins and the results were astounding. I got up only once in the middle of the night. I had no side effects either except a good night’s sleep!”

Some people report that a little mini box of raisins is all that it takes. Too many raisins could add calories. And always brush your teeth after eating and before climbing into bed!

Beets for Nocturia?

Beets and beet juice have been found to make blood vessels more flexible and lower blood pressure. We have also heard from visitors to our website that beets might help with nighttime urinary frequency:

Rebekah in Indiana writes

“I grew beets in my garden this year for the first time and they did beautifully. I love beets but I noticed something going on with my bladder not long after I started enjoying the fruits of my labor.

My bladder that never emptied all the way was emptying the way it did years ago and I was sleeping like a baby. I Googled the effects of beets on bladder and your website came up.”

Beet Soup to the Rescue

“I never liked beets, but my wife (who is Polish) does. I have come to enjoy barszcz, which is a sweet/sour soup made from beets with either a meat or vegetable stock.

“I am 63 years old and have the normal urinary symptoms of an aging prostate. When we have barszcz, I can pee like a 10-year-old. At night it is so satisfying to be able to empty my bladder completely and get back to sleep.

“I am not mistaken about the correlation as I have repeated the experiment many times. I now grow beets in my garden!”

Some people refer to beet soup as borscht.

Beet Soup Recipe

1 T butter

1 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup finely shredded cabbage

6-8 beets peeled

1 cup chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 t sugar

1 t salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 quarts stock

Melt butter in a deep saucepan, add chopped onion. Cook onion until wilted and add cabbage. Cook stirring until cabbage is wilted.

Grate or shred beets and add them to the pot. Add tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and broth. Simmer one hour. Adjust seasoning. Serve with boiled potatoes and sour cream and garnish with chopped dill if desired.

Saving Your Stomach

What we do to our stomachs is a shame: overeating or skipping meals, grabbing snacks on the go, and gulping down coffee, cola or cocktails. No wonder tummy-aches are common. Very often, though, they are susceptible to selftreatment. One of the cheapest and easiest approaches to simple heartburn, in fact, is just chewing gum or sucking on a piece of hard candy. This stimulates saliva, which helps wash acid back into the stomach where it belongs.

Herbal Remedies

A soothing cup of chamomile tea might be helpful in this case as well. It has been used for centuries to treat digestive problems, and modern research shows some of its components are effective anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory agents. When it comes to heartburn, of course, the mere facts that it is soothing and wet and won’t make things worse as it washes the acid back into the stomach are significant. Serious allergic reactions have occurred, though, so chamomile should probably be avoided by anyone sensitive to ragweed pollen.

When it comes to indigestion, the next step beyond chamomile tea might still be in your pantry. Bananas are a traditional Indian remedy for indigestion and ulcers. Try a banana for a bellyache.

Herbal indigestion aids have been used for centuries. Ginger may be one of the best. It is available in capsule form at most health food stores. Two capsules have been recommended as a starting dose. In addition, ginger has been shown to prevent motion sickeness. In one test it even outperformed an over-thecounter remedy.

Baking Soda

You won’t even have to leave the kitchen to find one of America’s most popular antacids. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is a time-honored acid-neutralizer. (It is the digestive aid in Alka-Seltzer.) The usual dose is onehalf teaspoon (use a measuring spoon to make it accurate) in four ounces of water. Baking soda is very high in sodium, though, so it isn’t for anyone on a saltrestricted regimen. There are important safety warnings on the box, including: “do not ingest food, liquid or any antacid when stomach is overly full to avoid possible injury to the stomach.” This precaution appeared after a hapless fellow stuffed himself to the limit, took bicarb for the discomfort, and suffered an explosion in his stomach that landed him in the hospital.

Other Herbal Helpers

  • Anise seeds
  • Caraway seeds
  • Catnip
  • Chamomile
  • Dill
  • Fennel seeds
  • Licorice
  • Peppermint
  • Sage

Pass the Bicarb!

We defy you to name one other product that has as many uses as plain old baking soda. From scrubbing the sink to cleaning the connections on a car battery to making chocolate chip cookies rise, sodium bicarbonate is almost indispensable.

Probably the foremost medical use for baking soda is as an antacid. It has also gained popularity as a dentifrice. Some people brush their teeth with baking soda, and a trip down the toothpaste aisle at your local drug store will show just how popular baking soda is in oral hygiene. It is less abrasive than some toothpastes and preliminary dental research suggests it may even be helpful in reducing the risk of gum disease. Baking soda in water is also an excellent gargle.

Its deodorant properties are legendary, but did you know that smelly feet could benefit? Wade, in Deer Park, Texas, offers the following advice:

“When I was a kid my feet smelled and sweat something awful. I confided to my barber and he gave me a solution for them.

“Take a pan big enough for your feet and fill it with water as hot as you can stand. Put two tablespoons of plain old baking soda in the water and soak the feet for 30 minutes for 30 nights.

“Throw away those synthetic sneakers because they hold in the moisture. Leather or canvas shoes with a clean pair of socks each day will breathe better. I’m 72 and my feet don’t sweat and I feel at ease if I have to take my shoes off for any reason.”

Thirty days of baking soda soaks may not last until you are 72, but it certainly does seem safe and inexpensive. Other readers rave about baking soda and cornstarch as an underarm deodorant.

Vim and Vinegar

Vinegar is a perennial American favorite when it comes to home remedies. Back in 1958, Dr. D.C. Jarvis had a big best seller in his book, Folk Medicine: A Vermont Country Doctor’s Guide to Good Health. In it, Dr. Jarvis gives credit to the farm families using their simple home remedies and tonics. These folks, and Dr. Jarvis too, put a lot of stock in a daily dose of vinegar as an all-purpose tonic. Presumably, this approach has been kicking around since Vermont was a colony — or maybe even before.

As far as we can tell, there is little medical evidence that vinegar will lower cholesterol in humans or protect against heart attacks, arthritis or anything else for that matter. But Patti in Shillington, Pa., is convinced:

“Raw apple cider vinegar is an old New England remedy for arthritis. It works the same as it would on an old teapot with heavy mineral deposits. The vinegar dissolves the calcium deposits on joints in the same way.”

So far as we know, calcium is not responsible for most arthritis pain. And vinegar is unlikely to clean out joints. That said, vinegar is very popular in juice to ease arthritis pain (see the purported Sam Houston recipe in the sidebar).

Vinegar vs. Cholesterol

Norma in Dunnsville, Va., brings up a good point: “I’m one of those people doing the vinegar trick. I make my own concoction and allow one tablespoon vinegar daily. It’s not too bad once you get used to it. Far more palatable to me than a glass of wine!

“My question: how will I know if in fact it is doing anything positive for me? I have read it is touted to remove fatty deposits from your blood which in turn would be good for your heart. Do I have to wait for an autopsy to determine the results? Or will a cholesterol test tell? Has anyone reported an improvement in cholesterol after vinegar cocktails for months? Maybe I’m just turning myself into a PICKLE.”

One reader reported positive test results:

“I add 1 to 2 teaspoons to my morning cranberry and orange juice and my cholesterol is down from 184 to 132. It’s tasty and a whole lot cheaper and safer than the medicines the pharmaceutical industry pushes on us.”

Animal studies suggest that vinegar just might be beneficial. A Japanese study has shown that acetic acid (vinegar) added to the diet can lower cholesterol and triglycerides in rats (British Journal of Nutrition, May 2006). Researchers wanted to know if apple cider vinegar (ACV) could also lower total cholesterol and triglycerides. They concluded that ACV lowers serum lipid levels in mice fed a high cholesterol diet (Journal of Membrane Biology, Aug., 2014).

More Vinegar Remedies

Other readers have suggested rinsing dry hands in cider vinegar, soaking hangnails in one teaspoon vinegar to 8 ounces of water, or even douching with 2 tablespoons white vinegar to a pint of warm water for vaginal yeast infections. We don’t recommend routine douching, but a woman with recurrent problems might ask her doctor about this remedy.

Vinegar for Heartburn?

Perhaps the most counterintuitive use for vinegar is against heartburn. We have already mentioned that baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) has been used as an antacid for ages. That makes sense to us. Taking a sip or two of acetic acid in the form of apple cider vinegar seems like the last thing someone with heartburn would want to try. Nevertheless, many readers insist that it helps them:

Zara in South Africa reports:

“This was the first time I suffered from the heart burn. I Googled and found that vinegar may help get ride of indigestion. I rushed to the kitchen and drank it mixed with water. Oh my goodness it really works fast! Thank you so much guys. Now I can finally sleep.”

DC-2 in the Mid West shares her success:

“I take a teaspoon straight, then drink about a cup of lukewarm water after to wash it down. Seems to work as well as any meds I have taken.”

A radio listener added this:

“I was listening to your radio program when a physician called in about the benefits of using vinegar for heartburn. He didn’t indicate the type of vinegar or the dosage.

That very day I experienced bad heartburn. I had balsamic vinegar on hand and took about half a teaspoon. The taste was pleasant. To my amazement, my heartburn was gone within a couple of minutes.”

Arthritis Remedies

We received this recipe from readers who say it is supposed to have been used by Sam Houston:

“Make a potion of: five parts grape juice, three parts apple juice, and one part cider vinegar. A daily dose of this potion, half a cup will do, helps relieve the aches and pains of Arthritis.”

Fighting Fungus

Marion in Conroe, Texas, found that vinegar doesn’t have to be swallowed to be helpful.

“Some of my friends use vinegar to soak a sprained ankle. Remember the nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill?”

Who would ever believe that vinegar would also be good against fungus? The old expression “there’s a fungus among us” is often true. Fungi love warm, damp places, whether they be old tree stumps or the crevices between our toes (athlete’s foot). For reasons that are not entirely clear, fungal infections of toenails become more common as we get older. The nail becomes thick and yellowish-brown. Prescription medicines may take 6 months or longer to work and can be very expensive. The vinegar soak has met with a lot of enthusiasm from some of our readers:

“For years I had a single toenail so infected by fungus that it was too thick to be cut with a nail clipper. For almost a year I had been treating it twice a day with an over-the-counter product, but I’d seen essentially no improvement in the nail.

“Then I read in your column about soaking infected toes in a 1/3 solution of vinegar (1 part vinegar to two parts of water) for 15 minutes a day and I tried it. After five weeks of soaking for 45 minutes a day, the fungus has completely disappeared and the nail is growing out normally.

“The product I was using is fairly expensive, and vinegar costs pennies by comparison. Thank you for the suggestion.”

We can’t find much research validating the vinegar cure for fungus, but an acidic environment does make it hard for fungi to survive. An ear, nose and throat specialist suggested vinegar soaks for an itchy ear that he suspected was due to fungal infection. He said to mix up a white vinegar solution (1 part vinegar to 5 parts tepid water) and rinse out the ear three times a day using an rubber ear bulb. This worked when we tried it. Of course, any infection that doesn’t heal should be seen by an M.D.

Home Remedies For Nail Fungus

Other treatments that have been tried with mixed success include:

  • Pierce a vitamin E capsule with a pin and squirt the oil between the toe and the nail.
  • Apply Vicks VapoRub twice a day
  • Soak feet in a solution of Pau d’Arco tea (available in health food stores).
  • Alternative soaks include rubbing alcohol or white iodine.

Gout

Gout is a miserable condition. It causes intense, excruciating pain, redness and swelling in one or more joints. In this condition, uric acid builds up in the bloodstream. Ultimately it precipitates in the form of needle-like urate crystals that lodge in joints.

The resulting inflammation causes redness, swelling, warmth and extreme tenderness. The joint that is most commonly affected is the big toe. That said, nearly any joint can be afflicted. Sudden severe pain in a joint deserves prompt medical attention for diagnosis.

Gout Triggers

Foods:

Health professionals often blame diet as a precipitating factor. Historically, “rich” foods were considered responsible for gout. That’s because purine-containing meats and seafood are broken down in the body to urate. A diet that limits purine is frequently recommended. That means reducing consumption of red meat and seafood like shrimp.

Beverages:

High-fructose corn syrup is a particular culprit and should be avoided (American Journal of Medicine, Nov., 2016). To do that, stay away from soft drinks and read labels on other prepared foods. Limiting alcohol consumption, especially beer, is also important. Coffee, on the other hand, might be protective.

Medicines:

Another significant contributor to gout can be medications. Tens of millions of Americans take drugs that raise uric acid levels. Diuretics are among the worst culprits. One reader shared this story:

“I was put on hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) for high blood pressure. I started having pain and tingling in my hands and then it became hard to walk or stand for any length of time. The pain would wake me up at night.

“My ankles, knees and hands hurt on a daily basis. I was told by my doctors to lose weight, which wasn’t helpful. I stopped taking the HCTZ and the gout pain went away.”

While there are medications that can ease the agony, many people would like natural remedies for gout. Which ones work?

Sour Cherries:

Perhaps the favorite natural remedy to lower uric acid is tart cherries. Fresh, frozen or dried cherries, cherry juice or Montmorency cherry extract all seem to do the job. Healthy women who eat cherries have lower uric acid levels in their blood (Jacob et al, Journal of Nutrition, June 2003).  Even consuming sweet cherries seems to lower inflammation (Kelley et al, Journal of Nutrition, April 2006). There don’t appear to be any clinical trials of sour cherries for gout, however.

Celery Seed:

Another natural product that may help is celery seed. Celery is rich in luteolin, a compound that slows the production of uric acid (Yan et al, Food Chemistry, Dec. 15, 2013). Green peppers also contain luteolin and could be beneficial.

Diet:

There is a long list of foods to avoid, including anything with high fructose corn syrup or sugar. People with gout are also advised to avoid foods rich in purines: liver, kidney, mackerel, herring, sardines or anchovies; and even vegetables like asparagus, cauliflower, beans, peas and lentils, mushrooms and spinach. We found a recommendation for a low-purine diet from the University of Pittsburgh that might help. People with gout who avoid or reduce their consumption of beer and other alcoholic beverages often do better.

DASH Diet:

The Health Professionals Follow-up Study collected data on 44,444 men over 26 years. During that time, those who followed a dietary pattern similar to the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) were about 30 percent less likely to experience an initial gout attack (Rai et al, BMJ, May 9, 2017). A Western-style diet with abundant processed meats, sweets, French fries and desserts raised the risk for gout. People starting a DASH diet have lower uric acid in their blood within a month (Tang et al, Clinical Rheumatology, June 2017).

Remedies for Gout

Stories from readers

Eloise shared this experience:

“My first attack of gout came after I went on what I thought of as a health kick with lots of beans and peas at 2 meals a day. I did this for a week or so, but hadn’t yet gotten control of my soda habit (one step at a time, right?). The combination was a bad one, and I was soon in excruciating pain!

Luckily, I had heard about Trader Joe’s Morello cherries. They’re cheap (about $3 for a large jar) and worked miraculously! I ate about a dozen, and within a couple of hours I started to feel relief. The pain was completely gone the next day!

If it started to flare up, I ate 6 more and was completely back to normal in 3 or 4 days. I now keep them on hand, and if I ever feel an attack come on, I immediately run for my ‘magic cherries.’ They’ve worked without fail!

Mary in Charleston, SC on celery:

“I had intermittent inflammation and pain in a big toe that was diagnosed as gout – to my amazement. My alternative medicine doctor said to try taking celery capsules (available from standard sources like the Big A).

“I took two a day (a double dose) for a couple of weeks, and the toe returned to normal. Just as a precaution I take one a day now and have had no more big toe or gout problems for the past 2 years.”

Brett in Wisconsin:

“I was a long-time user of Allopurinol, and it was very successful in managing gout. However, I am not in favor of taking any medications if I can find an alternative. Last December I had a situation where my Allopurinol was misplaced. I was traveling so I had to go without for a week. At that time I decided to stay off the Allopurinol and try Celery Seed Extract. Four months later I have yet to have a flare up. My uric acid levels are normal and no prescriptions!

Sleeping Solutions

Many a grandmother has soothed a sleepless child with a cup of warm milk, sweetened with a spoonful of sugar or honey. We used to think that the value of this common remedy lay mainly in the calm and loving way it is best administered. There’s a lot to be said for that, of course, especially when a person can’t doze off because of anxiety or eager anticipation.

We now know, however, that there is at least some scientific basis for the soporific effects of milk. Milk protein is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that serves as the fundamental building block for serotonin, the body’s natural sleepinducing neurochemical. Scientists tell us that carbohydrates enhance the effect of tryptophan so it can be helpful to add some sweetening or a cookie to the regimen. For some people, herbs like chamomile, hops, valerian, catnip, or St-John’s-Wort may aid drowsiness.

Sleepy-time Snacks

  • Cheerios and honey
  • Toast and jam
  • Bagel
  • Turkey sandwich
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Herbal teas
  • Malted milk
  • Graham crackers

Jet Lag

Our bodies have a hard time shifting through multiple time zones. People who travel from the East Coast to the West often wake up the first morning before dawn. Their brains were tricked by a natural chemical called melatonin. The further you travel the harder it is to adapt.

Bright sunlight may be one of the best ways to reset your biological clock. About 30 minutes to an hour of sunlight during the day can be helpful. The ultraviolet radiation suppresses melatonin and helps shift the body’s schedule to the new time zone.

If the problem is waking up too early, it’s best to get your light in the late afternoon. When falling asleep is difficult, as it may be for those traveling east, sit in the sun as early in the morning as possible.


Action for Asthma

A traditional treatment for asthma involves the medicine theophylline (Elixophyllin, Slo-bid, Theo-Dur, Theo-24, etc.). This drug is chemically related to caffeine. Although we would not recommend this home remedy for a serious asthma attack, the following anecdote demonstrates the power of this compound.

“You saved my honeymoon and I just want to thank you. My husband and I left for Hawaii immediately after the wedding. In all the excitement I forgot my asthma medicine. Although I don’t have to take it every day I always keep some on hand.

“The day after we arrived we took a long walk on the beach and by the time we got back I was wheezing. I almost panicked until I remembered reading in your book that coffee can act as an emergency treatment for asthma.

“Three cups controlled my attack and I didn’t have any more trouble. The rest of the honeymoon was great!”

Although it is not an adequate substitute for medication, two or three cups of brewed coffee may provide relief in a pinch for someone experiencing a mild asthma attack.

Your story demonstrates just how important it is to pack medication along with your toothbrush and other essential items.


Hiccup Remedies

There are dozens of home remedies for hiccups, from sipping water from the wrong side of the cup to swallowing a teaspoon of sugar dry. If you recall, we cited an article from 1971 published in the New England Journal of Medicine in which doctors shared their success with the sugar remedy to treat patients with long-lasting hiccups.

Is there any science behind hiccup remedies? In The first edition of The People's Pharmacy back in 1976, we suggested that:

"Actually, it is probably not the sugar itself but the small granules which do the trick. Salt would probably work just as well, but who can swallow a whole teaspoonful of salt? The way the whole thing works is probably by setting up a local irritation in your throat. Somehow the sugar particles stimulate a nerve, which then shuts off the hiccup reflex."

That was a crude guess, but not entirely off base. We now suspect that the granules end up stimulating the vagus nerve. This network of nerves collects information from the body’s major organs starting above the throat and reaching down to the colon. An article in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences (online, July 23, 2014) reviews the history of hiccup remedies this way:

"The common denominator of most of these maneuvers is their ability to directly or indirectly increase efferent vagal activity."

The vagus nerve runs from base of the brain and "innervates" the tongue and mouth and descends to the diaphragm and stomach.

The "Valsalva Maneuver" stimulates the vagus nerve. The author above describes it this way:

"The Valsalva maneuver is performed by a moderately forceful attempted exhalation against a closed airway."

A German physician put it a bit more graphically in 1858:

“The patient had to take a deep breath and then hold the body under strong tension in such a way as if to press for passing stool.”

In 1888 a French physician, Dr. Georges Dresch, suggested a somewhat different approach to vagal stimulation. He told his medical colleagues to try:

"...obstructing both auditory canals with the fingers while applying a certain degree of pressure; the patient was supposed to also take a few sips of any liquid while the procedure was performed."

Joe was able to demonstrate this technique on Good Morning American many years ago with the help of Diane Sawyer.

Favorite Hiccup Remedies:

Our readers often share their favorite hiccup remedies with us. Many of them have scientific support, as described above.

Q. I really appreciate the tips, updates and news in your syndicated newspaper column. When I read advice about halting hiccups, I’m reminded about the only sure-fire way I’ve ever found to stop hiccups–and I learned it from the “Bullwinkle Show” when I was a kid. Honest!

Bullwinkle’s advice? Take seven sips of water while holding your breath. This simple trick has always worked for me–and everyone I’ve ever shared it with–for more than 20 years. Make sure each of the seven sips is completely swallowed.

A. Many hiccup remedies involve sipping or swallowing. In one, the hiccup victim must drink from the wrong side of the cup. (It’s necessary to bend over.) In another, the sufferer drinks several swallows of water while an accomplice presses on both ear flaps (technically called the tragus). Here is a detailed description of this approach from another reader:

“I hope you will publish this hiccup cure, as it never fails. I was tormented with hiccups for years. They were so loud they could be heard up the block.

“Once I was in a car with a friend for ten hours and hiccupped the whole time. He never believed I couldn’t help it. That ended our friendship.

“I tried sugar, scaring and other things; then in college I found something that has never failed. I never worry about hiccups anymore since I can always get rid of them.

“The simple solution is to drink water while standing up and holding the ears closed. After years of being helped with this, having a second person hold my ears, I realized I could do it myself. I hold my ears closed with my thumbs, and hold the water glass with the four fingers of each hand. (I like the solo method much better. It keeps me from spitting the water out in laughter, for one thing.)

“How much water is needed depends on how bad the hiccups are. One glass usually works. If not, a second will do it. I think only once in decades have I had to use a third glass.

“If there is only a water fountain and no glass, hold the water in your mouth, stand up and swallow while holding your ears, then repeat. Finding this cure was worth the price of my senior year college tuition. I learned it in nutrition class.”

Strong Flavors Stimulate TRP Receptors:

Q. In the past, when I would get the hiccups, they would last all day, off and on, no matter what I did. One day I was having a really persistent bout going on and thought, “I wonder what would happen if I took some Rolaids?”

I popped a few flavored Rolaids into my mouth, crunched them down, and—Shazam—within seconds the pesky, annoying hiccups were gone. It’s worked for me several times since and it’s a real relief.

A. We suspect that your crunched-up Rolaids stop hiccups by indirectly stimulating the vagus nerve thanks in part to the strong flavors. Scientists have found that transient receptor potential (TRP) channels influence nerves throughout the body. Menthol (mint flavor) activates TRPM8 (Current Neuropharmacology, March 2008). We don’t know if this leads to interruption of the vagus nerve misfiring that creates hiccups, but it is conceivable.

Q. I have been meaning to write you about this for a long time. I have used one or two green olives for hiccups for many years, as have all my family members.

I don’t know why it works, it just does. It stops them almost immediately. It even worked on a friend who had been through surgery and had suffered for three weeks until I gave him an olive. Have you ever run across anyone else who has used this? I’m rather curious as to why it works.

Bartenders are a common source of hiccup remedy recommendations:

“A tablespoon or two of Angostura bitters taken all at once always cures my hiccups. A bartender told me about this many years ago!”

People who drink alcohol are especially susceptible to hiccups. One favorite bartender recipe is to have the hiccupping person suck on a lemon wedge that has been sprinkled with a few drops of Angostura bitters. Bartenders have also offered their hiccupping patrons a wedge of lemon, a shot of white vinegar or a green olive.

Here is one reader's story about vinegar:

“I have been using vinegar as a remedy for hiccups for over 20 years. I know of no instance when a teaspoon of vinegar did not eliminate even the most stubborn case of hiccups. Usually I use white vinegar, but I have used balsamic and rice vinegar with success. I believe this answers the question of why green olives cure hiccups. It is not the olive but the vinegar in the brine!”

Chocolate for Hiccups:

A sweeter taste is chocolate:

“My father was recovering in the hospital for several weeks last summer, and many, many times he had lengthy bouts of severe hiccups. As he was recovering from abdominal surgery, these were extremely painful.

“His doctors tried anti-spasmodic drugs to end them, but that didn’t work. I read about chocolate as a remedy in your book, bought him a bag of chocolate chips, and voila. He is in his seventies and a skeptic. When he mentions this cure to his doctors, they think he is making it up. He was thrilled.”

Here is the original article that stimulated this success story:

Q. The absolute best cure I’ve ever found for hiccups is CHOCOLATE. Don’t believe me? Try it.

Keep some 70 to 90 percent cocoa dark chocolate on hand. (Lindt is good.) Smooth a bite of the chocolate on the roof of your mouth and be amazed at how fast your hiccups disappear!

Don’t worry about chocolate making you fat. Unsweetened dark chocolate is beneficial. (Milk chocolate, though, is not good for dieters.) You’ll thank me for this cure.

A. We first heard about using chocolate as a home remedy for hiccups from a listener who called our syndicated public radio show. Her Danish grandmother had always dispensed a few chocolate chips to a child with hiccups.

We have since heard from others who agree that chocolate can help stop hiccups. Here’s one reader’s hiccup cure story:

“I discovered this remedy one day after repeated bouts of hiccups. I became aggravated and decided that if I was going to have them, I was going to have them with chocolate. They stopped immediately, much to my surprise. The chocolate remedy has been foolproof for years now.”

Presumably some of the cocoa flavanol compounds are able to stimulate the vagus nerve to counteract hiccups (Experimental Physiology, Jan., 2013). We can’t think of a tastier remedy to chase away the hiccups.

When Hiccups Become Worrisome:

Q. You have written about hiccups that will not go away. My husband had hiccups for four days and finally saw the doctor when his ribs started hurting.

His physician told him to use an enema suppository. He did, and the hiccups were gone within 24 hours. I hope this helps someone else.

A. Persistent hiccups require a medical workup to rule out any serious underlying cause such as a heart attack, pneumonia, pancreatitis, hepatitis or cancer.

When all else fails, doctors have found that massaging the rectum can be surprisingly effective. Over three decades ago, an article in the Journal of Internal Medicine (Feb. 1990) reported that digital rectal massage resulted in a quick cure for intractable hiccups. Perhaps that is why your husband’s doctor suggested a suppository. We’re glad this approach worked so well.

Persistent hiccups could signal a serious problem such as an electrolyte disturbance (American Journal of Emergency Medicine, June 2017). Consequently, if they last for two days or more despite trying everything you know about how to stop hiccups, you should seek medical attention. 

A Word to the Wise About Home Remedies:

The warning above about persistent hiccups is true for just about any condition. Home remedies can work for minor ailments. If they don't work or if the condition persists or gets worse, always consult a physician!

If You Love Home Remedies

If you appreciated the handful of simple approaches you found in this guide and would like to learn more about home remedies, we recommend The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies: Q&As for Your Common Ailments from  (National Geographic). Look for it at your library or order directly from this website in our bookstore at this link.


Publication Information

Published on: January 17th, 2019 | Last Updated: October 4th, 2021
Publisher: The People's Pharmacy

© 2021 The People's Pharmacy

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