Q. As a health professional, I appreciate many of the pharmaceutical issues you write about, especially when you provide scientific support in the form of published research. I sometimes learn about drug interactions that might be a problem and for that I am grateful.
That said, I strongly object to your continued reliance on anecdotes and home remedies in your newspaper column and website. As a scientist yourself, you should know better. You insult the intelligence of your readers when you tell people to put soap in bed to prevent leg cramps or eat raisins coated with gin to treat arthritis. If you would just stick to science The People’s Pharmacy would be a reasonably reliable source of information.
A. You are not the first health professional to castigate us about home remedies. Over the last 38 years we have heard from many physicians that home remedies are worthless and that only FDA-approved medicines are worthwhile.
We love science as much as anyone. We only wish that home remedies would be tested in a double-blind trial that could rule out suggestibility or bias. But even if all the home remedies we have discussed over the decades were purely placebo in nature, we still think they are worth discussing and here is why. Our mantra is that if they might help and won’t hurt and don’t cost very much, they are worth a try. Lots of people seem to agree with us.
Let’s take a few examples. As a health professional, what do you have to offer someone suffering from leg cramps? As far as we can tell, there are no FDA approved medications on the market to treat a Charlie horse.
Doctors used to prescribe quinine. It worked, but the FDA eventually said the danger was too great and banned this drug, first from over-the-counter sale and eventually even by prescription (except to treat malaria).
If putting a bar of soap under the bottom sheet near your legs prevents leg cramps, this has to be about the cheapest and least dangerous remedy for a painful condition. Hundreds of people have told us that they are pleased with the results of this simple approach. There is even an explanation and some research to support this remedy.
And if the soap doesn’t work, a teaspoonful of yellow mustard does the job for us. Again, inexpensive, safe, and for us, surprisingly effective! Others tell us the same thing. Not science, we grant you. But if a muscle cramp that wakes you in the middle of the night disappears within seconds of swallowing mustard, that’s a great remedy we don’t mind sharing.
Sometimes even a doctor gets with the program. Here is a message we received from a doctor’s spouse:
“My husband is a physician. When I told him about the ‘mustard cure’ for leg cramps, he laughed it off as just another old wives’ tale.
“Then when he had leg cramps during the night, I insisted on giving him a teaspoon of yellow mustard. Guess what? He is now a believer and has a small container of mustard on his nightstand!”
Until you have something better, cheaper and safer to offer, we are sticking with soap or mustard.
Here’s another odd suggestion: soy sauce for burns. Now we’re not talking about serious burns, but rather common household burns that we all suffer from time to time. Cold water is always the first step in easing such a burn. But after the cold water stops the initial tissue destruction from progressing, we think soy sauce or cold yellow mustard can also help. That’s because we have tried it and can attest that one minute the burn is painful and then next it stops hurting and doesn’t blister. We heard about this remedy from an Oregonian listener to our radio show.
We know this is not a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, but this story from Leigh caught our attention:
“I had read about soy sauce for burns here on The People’s Pharmacy website. While cooking I touched the heating element of my oven with the pad of my thumb. It was 400 degrees. I heard the sizzle and smelled the burning flesh and saw that the skin looked grey like ash.
“I put it under cold water then remembered the soy sauce remedy, I poured some on, let it sit and poured more on. The pain stopped. I left the sauce on and put a bandage over it, and continued preparing food.
“Hours later when I took the bandage off, the skin wasn’t even blistered; the next day the skin was just dry and cracked looking but never came off. I was amazed!”
Bleeding is another one of those situations where common sense can be just as valuable as a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Either you are bleeding or you are not bleeding. Your eyes will tell you. We first heard about using fine-ground black pepper to stop bleeding in 1996. The story came from Wendall, a woodcarver, who said that all his carving buddies used black pepper to stop the bleeding from nicks they picked up while carving.
Several years ago we received this message:
“Black pepper works great to stop bleeding! I build cabinets. While moving a large cabinet on rollers across a gap in my concrete floor, the cabinet slipped back into the gap and onto my middle finger, just as I was standing up. Not only did it bust open, but the action of standing up almost ripped it in two.
“I bandaged the finger, but the next morning it was still bleeding. My cousin told me about your suggestion of black pepper on cuts, so I tried it. It stopped the bleeding. Thanks for this simple remedy.”
Not long after that story on our website we heard from L.J.D.:
“My grandmother used pepper more than 50 years ago. I can still remember her pouring it on me every time I got a cut that wouldn’t stop bleeding. We recently used it on my dog when we accidentally cut her nail too close to the quick. Completely cover the wound. It doesn’t burn at all.”
We doubt that pepper would be a placebo for dogs.
So, here is our bottom line. Common sense is the crucial element in using home remedies. A serious burn requires immediate emergency medical attention. Ditto for a serious cut that won’t stop bleeding. But if a home remedy works for minor ailments, why not consider it? The medications you prize as a health professional can be helpful, but most drugs have side effects and one must always weigh benefits against risks.
For those who like the idea of common sense, grandmother’s wisdom and practical home remedies, we offer our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. You might even be surprised at the scientific support you will find behind many of these approaches. There are hundreds of remedies and references to convince even skeptics like you.
Share your own favorite home remedy below so our health professional can learn from you.