Ask most health professionals about home remedies and you are likely to get a disparaging reaction. Such treatments are relegated to the dustbin of old wives’ tales: quaint but ineffective. Physicians prescribe pharmaceuticals because they are based on “evidence-based medicine.” Many would likely say that you cannot know if home remedies work unless they have been rigorously tested in a randomized controlled trial.
Why Aren’t Home Remedies Tested?
Researchers are rarely willing to spend time or resources to find out if home remedies work. There are a couple of reasons. Home remedies are generally inexpensive. Home remedies cannot be easily patented.
Funding agencies rarely pay scientists to investigate home remedies. You cannot get rich selling something that can be found in the kitchen or purchased without a prescription.
There is one other big reason why no one wants to find out if home remedies work. Health professionals do not get rewarded for praising home remedies. Articles hailing simple solutions to common ailments do not advance your career. If anything, you might be criticized for suggesting a home or herbal remedy.
Are Home Remedies Held to a Higher Standard?
Sometimes readers of our syndicated newspaper column are disappointed that an inexpensive therapy didn’t perform as well as they expected. We also get asked very specific questions about how to make or use a home remedy.
Because scientists rarely perform large trials on home remedies, we often do not have data to guide us on how non-drug approaches might help. Exact instructions may also be hard to come by.
It can be like asking a chef about the precise amounts of spices she ads to her sauce. A pinch of this or that may be all you get in the way of directions.
Home Remedies Don’t Work for Everyone:
Mustard for Leg Cramps:
Here are a couple of examples of complaints about home-grown approaches. After reading about swallowing a spoonful of yellow mustard to quell leg cramps, one reader tried a complex mixture:
“I tried mustard with pickle juice, olive juice, vinegar, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. It did not work, but it tasted very bad.”
We are hardly surprised. That combination would likely make even the hardiest soul barf in disgust. As far as we can tell, no one has ever recommended such a mixture to ease leg cramps.
That said, there actually are data to suggest that strong flavors can stimulate transient receptor potential TRP channels in sensory nerves found in the mouth, throat and stomach. When activated, these nerves can help override the muscle contractions in leg muscles.
You can read scientific articles supporting this concept at this link. Here are just a few comments from readers who have found mustard helpful against leg cramps:
Sharon says it worked for her husband:
“My husband suffered terrible leg cramps. He laughed when I gave him a big old tablespoon of yellow mustard but his laughter stopped when it worked quickly. Don’t know nor care why it works but it is a great remedy. Try it before you scoff!”
Alfred adds that it is not “Voodoo science.”
“I have been using mustard for cramps for many years, and it always works. Before retiring, I would fly ~500 K miles per year on business and always carried a few of the mustard packets from fast food restaurants for the cramps. Usually worked in 2 minutes or less. This is not Voodoo science. It’s cheap, and it works every time.”
Kirk says the leg cramp home remedies work:
“Scoffers obviously either haven’t had truly excruciating leg cramps or are in the category of showing ‘contempt without investigation.’ It’s easy to condemn if you haven’t experienced nocturnal muscle cramps. What is there to lose in trying mustard? Guess there are some who want a one hundred dollar per tablet cure instead. To each his own. Those who think they know everything simply do not.”
Ann cuts to the chase:
“Mustard is my go-to remedy for leg cramps at night. Works every time and fast.”
What Do Doctors Have to Offer for Leg Cramps?
There was a time when doctors prescribed quinine for leg cramps. Those days are long gone. The FDA has banned quinine for anything but malaria. As far as we can tell, the FDA has not approved any medications for the treatment of nocturnal (nighttime) leg cramps.
As a result, health professionals have nothing in their black bag of tricks to relieve these incredible painful problems. Without randomized controlled trials the FDA is not about to give any medications the green light for this condition.
But pickle juice, vinegar or mustard can stimulate TRP channels. We just would not mix them together!
What About Nail Fungus?
Nail fungus is a common problem. There are lots of home remedies for this condition, but none of them work for everyone. This reader encountered some difficulties:
“I have a problem with my toenail, which is very thick underneath. My PCP said it is nail fungus. The podiatrist said it didn’t look like fungus but could not offer a diagnosis. I’ve tried Vicks VapoRub to no avail.”
Many health professionals would agree. A podiatrist wrote to say:
“I have never seen even one patient who has responded favorably to Vicks VapoRub, dilute vinegar soaks or Vitamin E oil for nail fungus.”
Home Remedies Work for Nail Fungus:
For every failure, however, we hear from scores of people who report success with home remedies. Here is just one testimonial:
“I had a fungal infection in my big toenail for five years. Finally, I tried Vicks VapoRub and it has worked! The black nail takes several months to grow out, of course. I apply the Vicks at night, as well as mornings when I’m not going out.”
How Well Do FDA-Approved Drugs Work?
Health professionals usually have confidence in FDA-approved drugs. This is what they call “evidence-based medicine.” But how good are they?
Sticking with nail fungus, let’s look at the effectiveness of the prescription anti-fungal product efinaconazole (Jublia). In one clinical trial, a “complete cure” was achieved in 17.8 % of the subjects after 48 weeks of Jublia applications. In another study, 15.2% of the volunteers achieved a cure after 48 weeks.
How much does Jublia cost? According to GoodRx, the average retail price of a 4ml bottle is $759.49. You could need many bottles to complete a 48-week course.
Vicks VapoRub costs about $8 for almost 4 ounces. That could last for several months of treatment.
What About Arthritis Pain:
Another reader had a couple of flops but did find something that helped ease arthritis pain:
“Grape juice and pectin did not work for me. Gin-soaked golden raisins didn’t help either. My back and knees are shot, so I was relieved to try tart cherry and turmeric with ginger and black pepper. No miracles, but it does take the edge off.”
Is there science to support tart cherry juice for arthritis? Darn straight. Although there are not huge double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, there is science to support this approach. You can read about it at this link.
Tart cherries may even help ease the incredible pain of gout. Tony says home remedies work for his inflammation:
“I’ve been a long time sufferer of gout (at least 30 years. Reading The People’s Pharmacy articles and website has helped me enormously. Experimentation with different remedies has proven useful to me.
“Tart Cherry juice, from Trader Joe’s has greatly helped when attacks occur. Everyday I eat a small handful of dried Montmorency tart cherries, which I purchase from either Sam’s Club or Costco. In addition, I also take a couple Turmeric tablets which also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.
“The secret to the gout treatment is to get on it IMMEDIATELY. Cherry Juice, Turmeric, and Celery Seed Extract have helped me. As a caveat, …watch your alcohol intake. It is a major contributing factor.”
So…Do Home Remedies Work?
Judging from some of these messages, you might assume that mustard doesn’t work to ease leg cramps, that grape juice and Certo (plant pectin) is disappointing for arthritis and topical applications of Vicks are a bust against nail fungus. Many health professionals would agree.
For every failure, though, there are lots of people who find home grown approaches intriguing and helpful. We have gathered hundreds of non-drug treatments for common ailments in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. You can find it in your library or the book section of our online store at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.
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