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Update Your Medicine Cabinet with Holistic Remedies

If you're like most people, your medicine cabinet is packed with bottles and tubes, many of which you haven't touched in months--or years. It might be time to look at your arsenal and consider what's working and what's not. 

When you're coming down with a cold, does your regular remedy make you feel better? Is it free of unpleasant side effects and safe to mix with other medication? 

If not, try incorporating natural medicines, which work a little differently by "stimulating the body's self-healing processes," says Dana Ullman, MPH, author of "Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicines." "They work with the wisdom of the body and are generally safe."

When you use naturals in combination with or in place of standards, you may find gentler relief with fewer side effects.

"Everyone is different; what works for one may not work for another," says Todd Patton, MD, of First Med Urgent Care Center in Mineola, New York. 

"By trying things, you learn about yourself and how your body works." Ultimately, this can help correct imbalances before disease results.

Stuffy Nose
The old standby: The go-to medicine, pseudoephedrine, effectively dries up mucus, but it may also cause drowsiness. 

The new natural remedy: Next time you're feeling clogged, try Nazanol. A gentle decongestant in tablet form, this ultraconcentrated Chinese herbal formula, which contains Chinese skullcap root, supports healthy sinus function by regulating the flow of mucus without cranking you up or knocking you out. 

A 2007 study suggests that Chinese skullcap contains compounds called flavonoids that act directly on airway mucin-secreting cells, increasing or inhibiting mucus release as required. Try it with a few squirts of Simply Saline, Sinusin, or Sinusalia -- sodium chloride and homeopathic sprays that flush out nasal passages. 

Australian researchers concluded in 2010 that nasal saline irrigation is safe, although it may also lead to irritation. Nazanol can be hard to find, but it's available at Metagenics.com.

Muscle and Joint Pain
The old standby: Popular oral NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as Advil or Bayer, relieve discomfort by systemically blocking the effects of certain enzymes. 

The new natural remedy: Next time you have muscle or joint pain after a taxing workout, you might consider arnica-based skin creams, which work at the specific site of pain. Homeopathics include Arnica montana, a recognized anti-inflammatory for the shock and trauma of injury, which diminishes pain and swelling. 

Look for brands like Topricin and Traumeel. Three randomized double-blind trials conducted by the Institute of Social Medicine showed homeopathic arnica to be beneficial for patients who've had knee surgery. 

Swiss researchers reported in 2007 that arnica-based preparations worked as well as ibuprofen at easing osteoarthritis of the hands. Massage in gently for greater effect.

Cough
The old standby: Downing a cough suppressant may reduce dry hacking by loosening secretions or suppressing the brain's coughing reflex.

The new natural remedy: Try an alcohol-free cough medicine. These safe, tasty syrups temporarily relieve coughs without causing drowsiness. Look for food-based Maty's All Natural Cough Syrup or homeopathic versions, such as Hyland's Cough Syrup or Chestal Cough Syrup.

Flulike Achiness
The old standby: Multisymptom products that contain cough suppressants and antihistamines may cause drowsiness. 

The new natural remedy: If you act fast -- as soon as you start to feel run-down -- you may not need a full-blown flu-fighting medication. Try reaching for Oscillococcinum instead. Derived from duck organs, this remedy has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of influenza when taken within 48 hours of developing symptoms. 

Another practical option is echinacea blends. In 2007, University of Connecticut researchers concluded that evidence supports the claim that echinacea reduces the frequency of colds and how long they last. 

Not everyone responds to extracts from the plant alone. Esberitox chewables combine echinacea root with wild indigo root and thuja leaves. Another blend is Insure Immune Support.

Gastrointestinal Trouble
The old standby: Many of us like to hit the bottle -- of pink bismuth salicylate, the active ingredient in Pepto Bismol, which coats and soothes the stomach. 

The new natural remedy: Give nux vomica a try. Also known as poison nut, the remedy addresses digestive problems, especially the unpleasant side effects of overindulgence, such as heartburn. It's made by most major homeopathic companies, including Heel and Boericke & Tafel. 

While efficacy research is scant, a 2009 study found that the nux vomica plant contains a significant quantity of antioxidants. See if you can alternate use of nux vomica with bismuth salicylate, or use the drugstore cure only when indigestion is severe.

Sleep Problems
The old standby: Why knock yourself out with OTC sleep aids -- many of which rely on diphenhydramine, the antihistamine?

The new natural remedy: Herbals may be enough to encourage a natural slumber without next-day grogginess. If restlessness is anxiety-related, consider chamomile. In a first-of-its kind 2009 controlled trial, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that German chamomile extract taken in capsules provided significant calming benefits. 

Also, check out valerian. Used in Europe for centuries, the root of Valeriana officinalis may improve sleep quality and ease nerves. Although valerian's effectiveness has been validated, it's not clear how the herb acts on the brain: Presumably it stimulates production of a nerve-regulating chemical. 

Standardized doses are available from Nature's Way or Now. It may take two weeks or longer to experience valerian's benefits. Pregnant and nursing women should steer clear.

Minor Cuts or Burns
The old standby: After cleaning your wound with running cold water, you're probably used to dabbing on antibiotic-based ointment such as Neosporin or Bacitracin. 

The new natural remedy: Cover the cut or burn with a sterile bandage after washing; if it's closing nicely, a dab of mild calendula is a gentle alternative to a commercial cream. Available in tinctures, lotions, and creams for topical use on cuts and burns, calendula acts as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory.

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