The People's Perspective on Medicine

Are Home Remedies Supported by Scientific Studies?

Companies rarely wish to fund research on home remedies; however, scientific studies do support some unlikely seeming treatments such as mustard for cramps.
Pain in the foot. Massage of female feet. Sore on woman legs. Pain in the human body on a gray background. Collage of body parts of several photos. Black and white photo with red dot

We have been talking about home remedies for decades. We love simple, inexpensive approaches to common problems so long as they work. But how do we know if they work, or if people just think they might? What we need are scientific studies to determine the effectiveness of some common treatments. Occasionally, we are delighted to find them.

Scientific Studies About Home Remedies:

Q. You frequently write about home remedies. Have any of them been subject to randomized control trials? If so, what have the results been? If not, why not? Is it because there’s no money to be made from the results or because there are no sound bases for them to be effective in the first place?

A. Home remedies are rarely subjected to randomized placebo-controlled trials because such studies are expensive to conduct. Without the prospect of patent protection, most drug companies are unwilling to invest millions of dollars in this kind of research.

TRP Channels:

On the other hand, there is more scientific evidence behind some home remedies than you might expect. For example, using pickle juice or yellow mustard to ease muscle cramps seems illogical. Nevertheless, we now have a scientific explanation. Such strongly flavored items activate transient receptor potential (TRP) channels on nerve cells to reverse muscle cramps. Dr. Bruce Bean explained this beautifully in Show 1054: The Scientific Explanation for a Weird Remedy (Archive).

Those TRP channels are behind some other home remedies, such as ginger to overcome nausea. Ginger, like capsaicin (the hot stuff in chile peppers), activates TRPV1, a heat-sensing channel. That’s why it tastes hot.

An Apple a Day:

The old adage that “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” got some unexpected support from scientific studies recently. Investigators reported that people eating two apples daily lowered their cholesterol modestly (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dec. 16, 2019). They also increase the flexibility of their blood vessels. Moreover, there is a great deal of research on the use of a dietary portfolio to control cholesterol levels (JAMA, July 23, 2003). 

Scientific Studies of Vicks VapoRub for Nail Fungus:

Our readers love Vicks VapoRub to treat ugly toenail fungus. There are very few scientific studies of this remedy. However, investigators at Michigan State University found that menthol, camphor and eucalyptus oil fight the pathogens responsible for nail fungus infections (Phytotherapy Research, April 2003). These essential oils work together with the “inactive” ingredients in Vicks and similar products: thymol, oil of turpentine, oil of nutmeg and oil of cedar leaf. Although we have not seen a randomized placebo-controlled trial of Vicks for nail fungus, Air Force investigators published a case series supporting its use (Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, Jan-Feb. 2011). 

Learn More:

You can learn all about these and the scientific studies that support other old wives’ wisdom in our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. If you learn about clinical trials on a remedy, please be sure to let us know about it!

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Favorite Home Remedies

A collection of some of our favorite bits of kitchen table wisdom and home remedies in an easy to use digital health guide.

Favorite Home Remedies
  • Koutsos A et al, "Two apples a day lower serum cholesterol and improve cardiometabolic biomarkers in mildly hypercholesterolemic adults: A randomized, controlled, crossover trial." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dec. 16, 2019.
  • Jenkins DJ et al, "Effects of a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods vs lovastatin on serum lipids and C-reactive protein." JAMA, July 23, 2003. DOI: 10.1001/jama.290.4.502
  • Ramsewak RS et al, "In vitro antagonistic activity of monoterpenes and their mixtures against 'toe nail fungus' pathogens." Phytotherapy Research, April 2003. DOI: 10.1002/ptr.1164
  • Derby R et al, "Novel treatment of onychomycosis using over-the-counter mentholated ointment: a clinical case series." Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, Jan-Feb. 2011. DOI: 10.3122/jabfm.2011.01.100124
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My doctor, an MD, told me to use Vicks for my toenail fungus.

Thank you.

Cold mustard, the yellow regular type, will sooth and help a burn. Have tried it on myself and my husband. He was skeptical but it helped his burn immediately. Put on cold from fridge and covered with a cold wet cloth, can be repeated as often as needed.

One teaspoon or two, if needed, of apple cider vinegar will stop hiccups.

Tea tree oil will help with nail fungus. Have to file nails to think them down and then put it on twice a day.

I’m all for so-called home remedies. I’ve been soaking my feet in my own urine that I collect for a day. Soak feet for about 20 minutes. Rinse with plain water.

I sit on the side of my tub and use a roasting pan. A 1/2 gallon pan does the job for me. After soaking I rinse under the faucet, clean the pan, and I noticed a difference in about one and a half weeks. Btw, I do this every two days.
It’s cleared up the dry skin and athlete’s foot as well.

Scientific studies rarely take into account the differences from one body to another, nor the individual’s emotional state. I personally don’t care whether remedies are supported by science, because if they work, that’s enough evidence for me.

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