Medicine Cabinet Makeover

This medicine-cabinet makeover will replace your conventional cures with healthier options.

Whether you're plagued by headache pain or only occasionally bothered by a case of the sniffles, your medicine cabinet is probably the first place you turn to for relief. But are its contents the best choices for your health?

Consider replacing some of those myriad pills, sprays, and bottles with natural alternatives. Some can reduce unpleasant side effects, save you money, or simply give you a leg up on your own wellbeing. Read on for tips on what to keep, what to toss, and why.

Be sure to consult your health-care provider before you change your regimen, and always disclose everything you're taking, whether natural or not.

Pain Relief
Before: Analgesics, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin (Bayer, Bufferin), and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin)
After: Analgesics, magnesium, riboflavin, feverfew
Why: Aspirin and ibuprofen are tough to beat for rapid headache relief, so hang on to them for emergencies. But natural approaches can help prevent migraines. That's good news, since overreliance on analgesics can make the brain's pain sensors overly receptive and cause rebound headaches. For migraines, the National Headache Foundation says two dietary supplements may be helpful: magnesium (500 to 750 mg daily) to relax the brain's blood vessels, which swell during headache, and riboflavin (400 mg daily) to reverse energy loss in cells during migraines. In addition, feverfew, a member of the daisy family, is believed to stave off migraine attacks; try a starting dose of 50 mg a day.

Common Cold
Before: Sprays (Sinex, Afrin, Dristan), tablets or caplets (Sudafed, Actifed, Drixoral)
After: Eucalyptus oil, neti pot, echinacea, homeopathy (Zicam)
Why: Traditional nasal sprays can be useful in the short term, but when their effectiveness wanes, you're likely to spray more often, creating a cycle of dependency. Pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in most oral decongestants, has a lengthy list of potential side effects, including nervousness, restlessness, and trouble sleeping.

For a safer alternative, add a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil to a bowl of steaming water. Drape a towel over your head, then breathe steam deeply to gently clear your nasal passages.

Or try a traditional nasal wash: Make a warm salt-water solution, lean your head over a sink, pour the water into the palm of your hand and inhale through the nose, one nostril at a time (or use a neti pot, a teapot-like device especially made for nasal irrigation). Spit out any remaining solution and gently blow your nose.

Though some studies have had mixed results, the herb echinacea can help shorten the duration of colds, as can Zicam, a homeopathic zinc-based nasal gel.

Before: Antihistamines (Allegra, Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec)
After: Quercetin, stinging nettle, butterbur
Why: Allergy symptoms arise when your immune system kicks into overdrive, calling armies of itch-and-swell-inducing histamines to battle generally harmless substances. Antihistamines can relieve a runny nose and quell a sneezing fit, but they do little to convince your body that a peanut, mold spore, or whiff of pollen is not, in fact, an invader.

Although more studies are needed, quercetin supplements (500 mg twice daily between meals beginning one month before allergy season) may help prevent allergies.

If symptoms have set in, try butterbur (75 mg twice daily) or stinging-nettle capsules (3 g twice daily). These herbs can ease symptoms without the drowsiness associated with many antihistamines.

Before: Liquid treatments (Pepto-Bismol, Bismatrol, Maalox, Mylanta)
After: Ginger, probiotics, digestive enzymes Why:Ginger has long been touted as a way to calm nauseous stomach due to seasickness or morning sickness, although studies have yielded inconsistent results. To use, try chewing a quarter-ounce piece of fresh ginger or grating and steeping it in just-boiled water to make tea.

Probiotics, available in supplements or in foods such as yogurt, may also help with nausea and aid digestion by restoring the balance of bacteria in the intestine. Similarly, digestive enzyme supplements may help natural enzymes in nutrient absorption and limiting gas or discomfort.

Before: Extra-strength analgesics (Midol, Pamprin, Premsyn)
After: Calcium, pine bark, and Agnus castus (chaste-tree fruit)
Why: The extra-strength analgesics use additives such as caffeine, pyrilamine maleate (an anesthetic), and pamabrom (a diuretic), all highly artificial approaches to help alleviate PMS-related cramps, bloating, backache, and fatigue. More natural approaches like calcium (1,200 to 1,500 mg per day from food or supplements) can help fend off aches.

Pine bark is also promising: A recent study in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine found that women who took 60 mg of pycnogenol (pine bark) each day for three months reduced their cramps and breast tenderness by up to 100 percent.

Similarly, 20 mg per day of Agnus castus (chaste tree) fruit extract has been shown to be more effective than widely prescribed fluoxitine (Prozac) in treating physical symptoms of PMS.

Muscle Strains and Bruises
Before: Topical rubs (BenGay, Icy Hot, Deep Heating)
After: Arnica gel (derived from the perennial alpine herb Arnica montana), capsaicin ointment (from hot peppers).
Why: Natural approaches, arnica in particular, are gentler yet can be just as effective as the menthols and methyl-salicylates (chemical cousins to aspirin) found in conventional ointments.

Cuts and Scrapes
Before: Antibiotic salves (Neosporin, Bacitracin)
After: Tea tree oil
Why:  While most cuts and scrapes heal on their own, antibiotics can help speed the process. But using a "triple antibiotic" cream for minor cuts is like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

A simpler alternative is tea tree oil, distilled from the Australian Melaleuca alternifolia plant, which can be applied straight to the skin and is a natural antiseptic, germicide, antibacterial, and fungicide.

A recent study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found tea tree oil as useful as standard antimicrobial soap for healing wounds caused from infections from the antibiotic-resistant hospital superbug Staphylococcus aureus.

Text by Jennifer Pirtle

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