Natural Medicine Chest

When you've got a pounding headache, a stuffy nose, or indigestion, you might reach into the medicine cabinet. But you can also treat these (and many other) everyday ailments safely with natural remedies. 

Herbs, dietary strategies, and supplements can take longer to work than their conventional counterparts, but may prove more effective in the long run. 

Why? Because natural therapies target the root of a problem, rather than just suppress symptoms. Here's the lowdown on how to treat five common ailments with natural approaches.

Pain Relief
For mild headaches, consider Tiger Balm, says Andrew Weil, M.D., author of the upcoming "Why Our Health Matters." This Chinese ointment contains menthol, which creates a warm, tingling feeling that eases pain when rubbed into your neck or temples. 

Massaging a few drops of lavender essential oil onto your temples may also help for headaches triggered by stress, says herbalist Deb Soule, author of "A Woman's Book of Herbs." Indeed, past research has shown that lavender can promote relaxation. Or try plant remedies with a long history of traditional use and supporting scientific evidence: "Willow bark and meadowsweet both have anti-inflammatory properties that may help relieve headaches," Soule explains.

Take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of tincture as needed at the first sign of symptoms. For arthritis pain, turn to turmeric, boswellia, or fish oil, which all show promise in recent research; talk to a health-care practitioner about the best form and dosage.

Cold Cures
Take a dropperful of echinacea tincture in water four times a day at the first sign of symptoms, until they subside. Some studies have shown it can shorten colds, though results are mixed. Soule has found that elderberry syrup, which research suggests can fight flu, may also ease symptoms of a common cold. Take according to directions until a few days after symptoms have disappeared. 

Diet matters, too; eat plenty of raw or lightly cooked garlic, which contains antiviral compounds, and add thyme to soups or salad dressings. You also might try a neti pot, an Aladdin's lamp-shaped vessel that you fill with warm salt water and use to irrigate congested nasal passages. A small study showed that this practice can help decrease the symptoms associated with chronic sinus infections.

Cough Control
When you find yourself hacking, try natural remedies first, says Weil. Loosen phlegm and make coughs more productive by adding crushed eucalyptus or sage leaves to a pot of boiling water, carefully tenting a towel over your head, and breathing in deeply. Certain herbs may also help calm a cough; Soule's favorites include mullein leaf, licorice root, and marshmallow root. Look for teas containing one or more of these herbs, and sip a few cups throughout the day.

Constipation Remedy
Stay regular with dietary adjustments: Eat plenty of high-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and sprinkle freshly ground flaxseed on cereal or in smoothies. Also, be sure to drink plenty of room-temperature water. If you need a supplement, try triphala. This Ayurvedic remedy "helps move the bowels and can be taken every day," says Soule; drink a 1/2 teaspoon of powder in a 1/4 cup of hot water. Psyllium, a fiber supplement derived from the husks of plant seeds, is another good choice, says Weil. Start with a rounded tablespoon of the powder stirred into a glass of water. Drink that and follow with another full glass of water.

Allergy Assistance
The steam inhalation described in Cough Control can also break up nasal congestion, says Weil, though its not a core remedy for allergies. For seasonal allergies such as hay fever, he recommends the herb butterbur, shown to ease allergies without causing drowsiness. Look for brands guaranteed free of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, naturally occurring compounds that have been linked to liver damage. The herb, also indicated for migraine relief, is generally taken at meals in 50 to 100 mg dosages twice a day.

Quercetin, a flavonoid compound found in apples and onions, may also help fight allergy symptoms. Since quercetin is preventive, allow six to eight weeks for it to build up in your system. A typical dose is 400 mg twice a day between meals. Soule has also found tinctures, teas, or freeze-dried capsules of stinging nettles helpful. Take 1/2 teaspoon of tincture three times a day, starting a month before allergy season; two to three cups of nettle tea; or follow directions on the bottle for capsules.

Text by Jessica Cerretani

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