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Why Home Remedies Deserve Respect

Scientists love data! That is why they embrace drugs. Do home remedies deserve equal respect? There is surprising evidence that many work!

Before there were pharmaceutical companies, drug commercials on television, pharmacists or physicians, there were herbs and home remedies. There is archeological evidence that our stone age ancestors used garlic and mustard seeds 6,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians relied upon cinnamon, thyme and cumin to preserve food and embalm the dead. Healers in cultures all over the world employed plants and common sense to help people get well. Home remedies deserve respect because they work!

Many Doctors Do Not Believe Home Remedies Deserve Respect

One reason that many healthcare professionals reject home remedies is because they do not understand how they work. There is a common belief in modern medicine that we have scientific explanations and lots of data to prove that medications are highly effective.

Home remedies are relegated to the scrap heap. They are perceived as unscientific and worthless.

One visitor to this website characterized them this way:

“You often discuss old wives’ tales. While some remedies may end up being helpful, the vast majority throughout history haven’t been. I’ve never seen you describe any of those. This is irresponsible.

“When people choose home remedies over conventional medicine, they could get very sick or die. In reality, when home remedies work, pharmaceutical companies usually figure out why. Then they isolate the compounds that provide benefit. If it were not for modern medicine, we’d still be taking mummy powder and mercury to cure colds.”

The Origins of the Pharmaceutical Industry:

We were surprised to be challenged with mummy powder and mercury. As far as we can tell, neither has been a popular home remedy within the last few centuries. We have certainly never recommended either one.

During the late 19th century in the US, many patent medicine peddlers sold products containing mercury, lead, arsenic or other toxic ingredients. These “snake oil” salesmen were not promoting home remedies, however, but rather commercial products.

Many of today’s giant pharmaceutical companies got their start selling botanicals. Pfizer’s first medicine was Santonin. This “natural” product was derived from the leaves of several Artemisia plants. It killed intestinal parasites and enabled the drug company to grow very quickly.

The success of this anti-worm medicine allowed Pfizer to create a number of other successful products. They contained ingredients such as camphor, chloroform, morphine and iodine.

Do We Know How Drugs Work?

As a pharmacologist I was trained to always seek the “mechanism of action” of medications. A favorite question on final exams required grad students to explain how a particular pharmaceutical exerted its beneficial effect.

The trouble is that we do not always know how a medicine actually works. Take Prozac (fluoxetine) as an example. This antidepressant and its chemical cousins have been wildly successful.

Neuroscientists have believed that most people suffer depression because of a chemical imbalance in their brains. Low serotonin levels have often been blamed.

Investigators searched for evidence that low serotonin levels are responsible for depression. They reviewed 17 studies and came to a surprising conclusion (Molecular Psychiatry, July 20, 2022):

“The main areas of serotonin research provide no consistent evidence of there being an association between serotonin and depression, and no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations. Some evidence was consistent with the possibility that long-term antidepressant use reduces serotonin concentration.”

Did you follow that? When people use antidepressants like fluoxetine for a long time, serotonin levels may go down instead of up. Ooops! There is a challenge to the serotonin theory behind the mechanism of action of fluoxetine.

What About Tylenol for Fever and Pain?

The same can be said of a surprising number of successful medications. Here is how a professor of family medicine at Tufts answers the question (Sept. 14, 2022): “How Does Acetaminophen Work?”:

“Who hasn’t taken acetaminophen? Known by brand names as Tylenol, Panadol, or just ‘non-aspirin pain reliever,’ we’ve used it to treat our headaches, pains, and fevers. Ubiquitous in medicine cabinets, it has been around a long time—acetaminophen was first synthesized in 1878 and first used to treat pain and fever in 1893.”

“Though it has been studied for almost 150 years, how it works remains a mystery.”

Home Remedies Deserve Respect Because They Help:

People know that Tylenol will lower a fever or relieve a headache. They do not care how it works. They just appreciate that it does. All they need to do is measure their temperature or monitor their pain level.

For centuries, people relied upon common sense, tradition, observation and the plants that grew near them for healing. There were no drugstores or randomized controlled trials (RCTs).

Herbalists were respected for their knowledge, especially if their recommendations proved useful for common ailments. People relied upon their own experience to tell them what might work and what to avoid.

The ancient Egyptians did not know anything about the microorganisms that made food go bad or caused dead bodies to decompose. They experimented with the natural products in their environment and discovered that spices like cinnamon, thyme and cumin could be helpful. They were masters at embalming and preserving pharaohs for thousands of years. They may not have known the mechanism but they knew what worked.

How Do Home Remedies Work?

When we describe home remedies, we are referring to simple treatments that have often been passed down from generation to generation. Based on practical experience, people generally abandon the use of things that do not work and preserve those that do.

If your toaster stops toasting bread, you will throw it away and shop for something new. You won’t keep popping your bread in the broken toaster hoping that it will work sometime in the future. People do the same thing for home remedies—keep using those that work and drop those that don’t.

Cod Liver Oil:

Home remedies deserve respect and persist over decades or centuries because they work. Examples include the use of cod liver oil in the winter.

Grandmothers in northern countries used this home remedy to protect families from respiratory infections. They did not know why it worked. They just knew that it helped. The vitamins in this remedy, especially vitamin D, have been shown to enhance immunity BMJ (Feb. 15, 2017). You can learn more about cod liver oil at this link.

Pickle Juice & Yellow Mustard:

Another example is swallowing mustard or pickle juice to alleviate muscle cramps. For years, football coaches recommended this practice, but no one knew why it worked.

Then researchers discovered transient receptor potential (TRP) channels and their role in muscle cramps. A randomized controlled trial demonstrated that stimulating these sensory nerve pathways with strong flavors could stop cramps (Muscle & Nerve, Sept. 2017).

Cherry Juice:

Perhaps there is no better example for why home remedies deserve respect than cherry juice! This is another old wives’ tale with scientific evidence to back it up.

The polyphenols in cherries have significant biological activity. They lower uric acid, which is elevated during a bout of gout (Current Issues in Molecular Biology, Nov. 2022). In addition, they can reduce inflammation. Several studies demonstrate that people prone to gout are less likely to suffer an attack when they are consuming cherries.

Dave reveals why he believes home remedies deserve respect, especially cherry juice vs. gout:

“Theoretically, I should be the last one to get gout. I am thin, 5’10”, 135 lbs., physically active and on a vegan diet. Nevertheless, I have had frequent gout attacks, even when on the prescription drug allopurinol. My doctor suggested tart cherry juice. I have been gout free for the last two years.”

Not everyone gets relief from tart cherries. And not everyone gets relief from a gout attack by taking medications. Here is Robert’s story:

“I have suffered from moderate to severe instances of gout over 10-15 years. After the initial diagnosis, and after taking some prescription medication, I learned about cherry extract.

“For me, tart cherry extract in juice form has been the most successful, and it is readily available at my health foods/supplement store and online. One to two tablespoons each morning mixed into my favorite juice has helped me minimize significant recurrences.

“Tart cherry extract also seems to have helped speed recovery in those few times when an attack has begun. So, at least for me, I can say there is both a preventive and a curative benefit, and I don’t have to take drugs with their attendant side-effects…a win-win, eh?”

There is also evidence that tart cherry juice eases inflammation. You may find our interview with Dr. Malachy McHugh of substantial interest. He describes his sophisticated research into cherry juice and exercise recovery.

He also describes the research on how cherry concentrate affects joints and the brain. Here is a link to a “Randomized double-blind crossover study of the efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in treatment of osteoarthritis (OC) of the knee.”

Home Remedies with Scientific Support:

There are dozens of home remedies with scientific support. We first wrote about hot water for itchy bites and poison ivy in our first book, The People’s Pharmacy (St. Martin’s Press, 1976). We based this remedy on a highly regarded medical textbook, Dermatology: Diagnosis and Treatment (1961) by Sulzberger, M.B., et al. We have heard from hundreds of readers that it works.

We can’t say that researchers have done dozens of randomized controlled trials to test this strategy. ( How could you do a double-blind controlled trial with and without hot water? It’s either hot or it’s not!) What we can say is that people can tell when something is itching unbearably and when it is not.

Here is just one testimonial from Stephanie:

“Nothing works for everyone or for every ailment. The hot war treatment worked AMAZINGLY well for me. I didn’t mention the negative effects of the hot water treatment because I didn’t have any negative effects. I got relief from the itching of poison ivy when nothing else worked. And I get the same relief from the itching of mosquito bites.”

The hot water treatment is just one of the reasons that home remedies deserve respect. We could give you a complicated explanation involving TRP receptors, but we don’t think that is necessary. Either it works or it doesn’t!

Soy Sauce for Burns:

As far as we can tell, no one has ever performed a scientific study to test the benefits of soy sauce against the pain of a burn. We have accumulated hundreds of stories about this home remedy. Of course, a serious burn required immediate medical attention! We are talking about minor household burns that would likely hurt like heck.

Either a burn hurts, or it doesn’t. Here are just a few examples:

Jill shared this story from this link on our website:

“I have used soy sauce ever since I read about it years ago. I don’t waste time on water. Grab a paper towel, fold it into a pad, saturate with soy sauce and hold on the burn. Resoak many times. By the next day: no burn, no blister, no pain. A definite miracle. We were told about this by a dermatologist after my sister burned the heck out of a bare stomach when a glass bottle filled with hot grease exploded. No scar, no blisters. Amazing!”

Ronnie did his own soy sauce experiment. His conclusion: home remedies deserve respect:

“I have also found that soy sauce immediately after a burn to be efficacious. I keep soy sauce in the refrigerator, and apply it immediately and directly after a burn. I tried an experiment once when I had a splatter burn in different locations on my wrist. I put soy sauce on part of it and just cool water on the other part. What a difference!”

Final Words: Why Home Remedies Deserve Respect!

Common sense is the most important ingredient in any treatment, including prescription drugs. We are enthusiastic about double-blind trials for remedies when they are available, as well as for pharmaceuticals.

Experience also counts. If you burn your hand in the kitchen and pour soy sauce over it, you will learn instantly whether it stops hurting or not.

Paying attention, as old wives have done for centuries, is critical to learning what works and what doesn’t. If you would like to learn more about simple treatments and the science behind them, you may be interested in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. Here is a link. You may also appreciate our book, Spice Up Your Health: How Everyday Kitchen Herbs & Spices Can Lengthen & Strengthen Your Life. It has a lot of science to support these wonderful spices including turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and rosemary. Here is a link.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. Do you think home remedies have a role in healing or do you think they are a waste of time? We would love to hear from you. Do you have a favorite home remedy that works? Please share it.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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