Home remedies that really work

Published: June 2008

Eating artichokes for low libido. Standing on your head while drinking a glass of water for hiccups. Rubbing a radish on your skin for warts.

While people swear by their favorite home remedies, most—including the three described above—remain unproved. Every now and then, however, a piece of folklore is scientifically validated. Sometimes that happens because a supposed cure rings true to a researcher, who decides to put it to the test. In other cases, personal experience—or a particularly persuasive grandmother—motivates a researcher to take a promising remedy out of the kitchen and into the lab.

In recent years, a handful of such cures have held up under the microscope.

Allergies & sinusitis

A saltwater bath for the nose
An ancient Indian yogi treatment for a stuffy nose from allergies, sinusitis, or other causes is now a hit on drugstore shelves and YouTube videos. Nasal saline irrigation—a saltwater rinse for the nasal passages—has proved to be a safe, cheap, and effective remedy for chronic nose and sinus inflammation.

A 2007 analysis that combined the results of eight randomized, controlled trials concluded that saline irrigation relieves symptoms when used alone or with medication. And a 2008 study published in the Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery randomly assigned 401 children with cold or flu to receive standard medication or medication plus a daily nasal wash of processed seawater.

Over the next three months, the saline group had fewer nasal and cold symptoms, used fewer medicines, and had fewer school absences. The study was funded by Goemar Laboratories, maker of the seawater rinse used in the study. "Saline irrigation won't reverse an infection, but it helps remove mucus from the nasal cavity," explains Andrew Lane, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center. Lane points out that seawater has no advantage over any other saline solution. All the rinses may also clear out allergens and bacteria, and cause cilia—tiny hairs in the nose that push mucus along—to work more effectively.

There are two kinds of irrigation kits, made by different companies, which cost about $15 to $40. One pushes saline into the nostrils with pressure from a squeeze bottle, bulb syringe, or water pic. The other—a pot with a small spout—uses gravity to deliver the saline. "People claim success with both kinds," says Lane, "but gravity drainage is probably the mildest." Try it in the morning and at night, and clean the device daily.

Belly & bladder problems

The wonders of gum
It might lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight, but it can still have medicinal value. Research shows that after abdominal surgery, chewing gum for one hour, three times a day, significantly hastens the resumption of normal bowel function and reduces the time patients spend in the hospital. Eating and drinking are also effective but can cause nausea.

"Chewing gum doesn't put as much in your system if you're not ready for it, yet it might help stimulate intestinal activity," says Jeffrey Drebin, M.D., professor and chief of gastrointestinal surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. "I encourage my patients to chew gum as soon as they're awake enough not to choke on it."

A 2002 Japanese study showed that gum-chewing patients recovered faster after laparoscopic colon surgery. In 2006 researchers at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in California found that gum chewers who had undergone conventional large-incision surgery moved their bowels 26 hours earlier than other patients. So with your surgeon's approval, pack some gum, preferably sugarless, before heading to the hospital.

Studies suggest that chewing gum also relieves heartburn, which results when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus, a disorder called gastroesophageal reflux. In a 2005 British study, 31 people with the condition consumed a fatty, heartburn-inducing lunch on two days, and were randomly selected to chew gum for 30 minutes afterward. Acid levels were significantly lower when they chewed gum. An earlier study found that chewing gum for one hour after breakfast reduced symptoms for up to three hours.

Chewing gum stimulates the production of saliva, which neutralizes acid in the esophagus. "It has the same effect as an antacid," explains C. Mel Wilcox, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Alabama. The treatment may especially appeal to pregnant women who want to avoid medications.

Chewing gum may also dull the appetite. In a 2007 study sponsored by the Wrigley Company, 60 people were offered a sweet and salty afternoon snack after chewing gum or not chewing gum. They reported less hunger and consumed fewer snack calories after chewing gum. But a 2006 study from Purdue University researchers found no such effect.

Yogurt for bellyaches
Before refrigeration, people preserved milk by adding fermented milk to it. The result was a yogurt drink loaded with "friendly" bacteria. A growing body of research suggests that those bacteria, known as probiotics, may provide multiple health benefits.

Probiotics take up residence in the intestines and prevent disease-causing bugs from settling in. They're found in live-culture cheese, kefir, and yogurt, as well as in supplements. According to a 2005 report by the American Society for Microbiology, probiotics show promise for relieving diarrhea, eczema in children, and urinary-tract and vaginal infections. Other research suggests that probiotics might also improve digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome, offset side effects from antibiotics, and shorten the length and severity of the common cold.

To try probiotics for one of these problems, look for a yogurt or yogurt drink that contains live active cultures, preferably Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, the two most widely studied strains. Or consider yogurts or drinks labeled "probiotic," which may have higher amounts of those organisms.

Yogurt that contains the beneficial bacteria usually bears the National Yogurt Association's Live & Active Cultures seal. You could try probiotic pills, but they often contain less good bacteria than yogurt and don't include as many healthful nutrients.

The probiotics in live-culture yogurts and other foods pose few, if any, risks to healthy adults, children, and toddlers. But they may be risky in people with severe health problems or compromised immunity.

For example, in a 2008 study Dutch researchers randomly assigned 298 patients with severe acute inflammation of the pancreas to receive conventional treatment plus either probiotics or a placebo, both administered through a feeding tube into the small intestine. Twenty-four people in the probiotics group died, compared with 9 in the control group, a result that the researchers could not explain.

So talk with your doctor before trying probiotics if you have a serious acute or chronic illness.

Cranberries and the bladder
North American Indians were the first to tap into this berry's infection-fighting powers, and today it's promoted as a swift and sure remedy for urinary-tract infections. Skeptics have long held that the benefits have nothing to do with the berry, but rather reflect the bladder-flushing effects of the water in the juice, or the inhospitably acidic urine created by juices like cranberry juice.

But research has demonstrated something truly special about the juice of a cranberry. In a series of lab tests, an Israeli team found that it kept infectious bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall. Juice from blueberries, which are closely related to cranberries, also worked. But several other fruit juices—including grapefruit, mango, orange, and pineapple—had no such effect.

A 2008 analysis of 10 studies comparing cranberry products with a placebo, other juices, or water found that a daily dose of cranberry juice or capsules significantly reduced bladder infections, particularly in women who get them often. It's still not clear whether cranberries are best taken as juice, tablets, or capsules, or what the optimal dose might be.

Drinking cranberry juice as soon as symptoms appear may clear up an early bladder infection. Look for drinks that list cranberry juice as their first or second ingredient. If symptoms worsen or last for more than a day or two, contact your physician.

Colds & coughs

Chicken soup for a cold
Grandma was right: Chicken soup helps fight the common cold. Studies show that it can reduce symptoms, although it doesn't appear to prevent or shorten the illness. Inhaling the warm steam of the soup loosens nasal secretions, which helps drain sinuses. The soup's heat may also ease throat soreness, and the broth helps prevent dehydration.

What's more, research shows that chicken soup may have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. Steven Rennard, M.D., a pulmonologist at the University of Nebraska, and his colleagues used his wife's grandmother's recipe to cook up a batch of vegetable-filled chicken soup. They conducted test-tube analyses of soup samples and found that it prevented excessive buildup of virus-fighting cells called neutrophils, which trigger the inflammatory responses that make cold sufferers feel so rotten. Rennard reports that the soup was effective without matzo balls, although "it doesn't really taste right without them."

Honey and coughs
A simple folk remedy appears to trump over-the-counter cough medicine. In a 2007 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 105 children ages 2 to 18 who suffered from upper-respiratory infections received no treatment, honey, or a honey-flavored over-the-counter cough suppressant. Parents rated their children's cough symptoms and quality of sleep. Those treated with honey did best.

The study was supported by a grant from the National Honey Board, an industry-funded agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The researchers said that honey might soothe irritated membranes in the back of the throat, and has well-established antioxidant and antiviral effects.

That's welcome news, because in January 2008 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that over-the-counter cough medications posed unacceptable risks to children under age 2. And in 2005 the American College of Chest Physicians declared that OTC cough remedies were largely ineffective for people of any age.

The researchers in the Archives study gave one-half teaspoon of honey to children ages 2 to 5, 1 teaspoon to children 6 to 11, and 2 teaspoons to those ages 12 to 18. That higher amount is a reasonable dose for adults as well. You could try a smaller dose for children ages 1 to 2. But honey shouldn't be given to children under age 1 because it can cause infantile botulism, a rare but potentially life-threatening health problem.

Staying warm to stop colds
Mothers who warn their children to bundle up in winter might feel vindicated. A 2005 study suggests that being cold may indeed lead to a cold—a notion that scientists long dismissed as folklore.

Welsh researchers recruited 180 volunteers during the cold season and chilled half of them by placing their feet in cold water for 20 minutes. Within five days, 29 percent of the chilled group caught colds, compared with only 9 percent of the others. Other research suggests that chilling the feet causes blood vessels in the nose to narrow. That limits the supply of infection-fighting white blood cells in the nasal passage, where cold viruses most often enter the body.

The researchers say that previous studies that found no link between getting chilled and colds were too small and did not use natural exposure to cold viruses. While the more recent study is not definitive either, it certainly adds another reason to stay warm in winter, particularly by wearing warm socks and water-resistant shoes. For more protection, wash your hands frequently and avoid people with colds.

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