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Show 1375: The Science Supporting Home Remedies

Hockey player Oliver Peer uses pickle juice against leg cramps. Joe and Terry discuss the science supporting home remedies.
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The Science Supporting Home Remedies

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This week, Joe and Terry Graedon entertain your questions and stories about home remedies. What do you do for leg cramps or heartburn? Call in your favorites at 888-472-3366 between 7 and 8 am EST, or send us an email beforehand: radio@peoplespharmacy.com. We’ll explore whether there is science supporting home remedies.
You could listen through your local public radio station or get the live stream at 7 am EDT on your computer or smart phone (wunc.org). Here is a link so you can find which stations carry our broadcast. If you can’t listen to the broadcast, you may wish to hear the podcast later. You can subscribe through your favorite podcast provider, download the mp3 using the link at the bottom of the page, or listen to the stream on this post starting on February 26, 2023.

The Science Supporting Home Remedies for Muscle Cramps:

Muscle cramps may wake you up at night, but they also plague plenty of active athletes. We first heard about the idea of drinking pickle juice to ease cramps in the context of football practice on hot summer days. But it turns out hockey players get leg cramps, too. Oliver Peer of the Flint Firebirds describes how he uses pickle juice–and occasionally a spoonful of yellow mustard–to stop any cramps that occur during a game.
You might think that is a peculiar remedy, or perhaps you just suppose that pickle juice works by replenishing electrolytes lost to sweat. At least it would be an explanation, right? But it turns out that when physiologists study muscle cramps, they have confirmed the benefits of pickle juice and ruled out electrolytes as the mechanism of action.
How the heck might this remedy work, then? The basic science behind the most plausible explanation wasn’t conducted until the 21st century, even though the treatment has been popular for decades. Neurobiologist Bruce Bean explained the importance of transient receptor potential (TRP) channels to us back in 2017.  We suspect that TRP activity might explain why quite a few home remedies work.

Vicks VapoRub Has Menthol and Thymol:

Pharmacist Lunsford Richardson developed Vicks VapoRub as a patent medicine around the turn of the 20th century in North Carolina. Richardson didn’t know exactly why or how his ointment could help calm a cough. (And he surely didn’t imagine people would put it on the soles of their feet.) A hundred years later, we have learned that both menthol and thymol can have anti-tussive activity. What’s more, menthol activates a TRP channel, TRPM8, that senses cool temperatures. That may eventually help explain how it is working against coughs.

Have You Tried Neosporin on Your Nail Fungus?

Many listeners and readers have tried a number of home remedies against nail fungus, including Vicks VapoRub. Some of the herbal oils in Vicks, such as thymol, have antifungal properties. You’ll find many of the same herbal oils in Listerine mouthwash, by the way. As a result, we weren’t surprised to hear that these medicine chest standards can help defeat nail fungus with regular use.

Science Supporting Home Remedies with Neosporin:

We were somewhat surprised to hear from people who found that the antibiotic ointment Neosporin sometimes clears up ugly nails. After all, antibiotics should have no impact on fungal infections, and yet people were telling us that it worked well and relatively quickly. Then we found research indicating that some nail infections are bacterial rather than fungal (Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, March 1, 2021). That makes the success of Neosporin much less surprising!

Criteria for Remedies Worth Trying:

Years ago, a nurse who told us about using Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet for a nighttime cough offered few simple criteria. We have adopted them. We agree that a home remedy is worth trying if it:

  • Can’t hurt
  • Might help
  • & doesn’t cost very much
Please tell us about your favorites! You can email us: radio@peoplespharmacy.com or call 888-472-3366 between 7:00 and 7:50 am EST on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

This Week’s Guest:

Oliver Peer is one of the most prolific goal-scorers in the Ontario Hockey League, the top developmental hockey league in the world. The 20-year-old forward leads the Flint Firebirds in goals, assists and points.

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available Monday, February 26, 2024, after broadcast on Feb. 24. You can stream the show from this site and download the podcast for free.
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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..
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