The 10 best natural remedies for common ailments

From curing hiccups to relieving heartburn and preventing dandruff, we've got the drug-free treatments to feel better fast.
By Karen Robock
The 10 best natural remedies for common ailments

Natural treatments

There's a health care revolution happening right now. (Although, if you want to get technical, it started hundreds of years ago.) For generations, women have performed mini medical miracles with homemade solutions for everything from colds to constipation — and science is finally backing them up. "There really is a lot of wisdom in the ages," says Dr. Philip Hagen, co-editor of the Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies. "And if it saves you a trip to the doctor, it's worth a try." So what kind of remedies can you whip up at home?

Here are safe and simple cures that really work for 10 common ailments:

medicine bottle

1. How to stop hiccups

Although not life-threatening, hiccuping is annoying and uncomfortable. Resulting from involuntary contractions of your diaphragm (the muscle between your chest and abdomen), hiccups are caused by a misfired message from your brain that gets stuck in a continuous loop.

The cure: Swallow a teaspoon of sugar or gargle with ice water for about 30 seconds. Hagen says both tricks probably send a signal to the brain that disrupts the message loop, which then allows your diaphragm to relax.

Call your doctor: If hiccups last more than 48 hours or become so severe it's difficult to eat or breathe. In rare cases, persistent hiccups can be a symptom of a stroke, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.

woman drinking a glass of waterPhoto, Masterfile

2. How to ease eczema

The itchy rashes, scaly patches and skin cracks that signal eczema usually appear on your hands or neck or on the insides of your elbows or the backs of your knees. It can be a chronic condition associated with allergies.

The cure: Add a sprinkle of baking soda or uncooked oats to a warm bath for a skin-soothing effect. If the area becomes infected, your doctor may recommend adding a capful of bleach to your bath to get some relief. According to the Mayo Clinic, bleach kills skin-irritating bacteria. Make sure you spend only five to 10 minutes in the tub and don't submerge your head.

Call your doctor: If you're too itchy to sleep, you suspect your skin is infected or your condition doesn't improve within a few days of treatment.

Read more: Seven foods that naturally fight eczema

bare legs with soap suds in showerPhoto, Art Vandalay/Getty Images

3. How to treat acne

Although they're not a major health threat, breakouts aren't the best for your self-esteem. They occur when pores get clogged with oil and dead skin cells, making them inflamed and infected.

The cure: Apply a topical treatment containing 5 percent tea tree oil. Some studies have shown it can be just as effective for whiteheads as a similar dose of benzoyl peroxide. But take note: Tea tree oil is a no-no if you have rosacea, because it can cause inflammation and just make the condition worse. Finally, always avoid oily cosmetics and clean your phone often.

Call your doctor: If pimples are persistent or you have deep, inflamed cysts — these might require medical treatment and stronger prescription medication.

Read more: How to treat adult acne

oil in glass bottlePhoto, Masterfile

4. How to heal minor burns

Cooking accidents are one of the main causes of first-degree burns, but as long as the top layer of skin isn't broken, and the burn isn't bigger than three inches in diameter, you can care for it without leaving the kitchen.

The cure: Place the burned area under cold running water for several minutes, until the pain subsides (this will also reduce swelling). Then apply a thin layer of lotion containing aloe vera — or a segment of an aloe leaf, cut lengthwise — directly on the burn. "Use caution when applying lotion to a potentially infected area; calendula, for example, can seal in infection and prevent proper healing," says Suzanna Ivanovics, a Toronto-based naturopathic doctor.

Call your doctor: If the burn doesn't appear to be healing after a week, or if you develop a fever or feel light-headed.

a woman putting cream on her handsPhoto, Istockphoto

5. How to fight colds

Sneezing and congestion could result from a cold caused by a viral infection in your upper respiratory tract.

The cure: A bowl of chicken soup. "Onion and garlic in the broth are anti-inflammatories, and the steam helps clear up congestion," says Ivanovics. "Chicken broth may also contain enzymes that have an anti-microbial effect," adds Hagen. Try this healing chicken soup recipe to banish your cold

To soothe a sore throat: Combine one cup each of apple cider vinegar and sage tea with two teaspoons sea salt and a pinch of cayenne. Bonus points if you squeeze in some fresh lemon. Gargle for two minutes.

Call your doctor: If symptoms don't improve after two weeks.

woman smiling drinking soupPhoto, Elsa Dillon/Juicy Images

6. How to head off headache pain

Under pressure? Tension headaches can last half an hour — or up to a week — and feel like a band tightening around your skull.

The cure: Research shows the herbs feverfew and butterbur may reduce the severity (though you should not take them if pregnant). A daily dose of coenzyme Q10 and magnesium can also provide some relief for migraine sufferers. See a naturopathic doctor for dosage guidelines.

Call your doctor: If the headache doesn't subside after a day or two. Go to the emergency room if the pain is extreme, your speech is slurred or you feel faint.

feverfewPhoto, Istockphoto

7. How to prevent dandruff

Telltale flakes are caused by an oily scalp or a yeast-like fungus called malassezia.

The cure: This remedy rebalances pH and soothes skin, says Ivanovics. After shampooing, rinse hair with a mix of one cup of apple cider vinegar and half a cup of water; massage into scalp, then rinse with warm water. Towel dry, then massage two tablespoons of coconut oil into scalp; leave for two hours, then wash.

Call your doctor: If dandruff persists or your scalp becomes unbearably itchy — you may need a medicated shampoo.

woman washing hair in showerPhoto, Istockphoto.

8. How to remove warts

Warts are caused by a virus that triggers a rapid growth of cells on the outer layer of skin, causing unsightly bumps on hands, feet, legs or the face that can be painful to the touch.

The cure: A study in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found covering warts with duct tape killed the virus, possibly by irritating the area and triggering the immune system. Change tape twice a day, soaking and exfoliating with a pumice stone between each application. Repeat until the wart disappears (up to two months). No duct tape on hand? Cover the wart with a piece of banana peel. According to Ivanovics, the enzymes in the peel break down the outer layer of the wart. Stick a small piece under a bandage twice a day. 

Call your doctor: If it becomes really bothersome or painful. An in-office liquid nitrogen treatment will remove the wart and reduce the risk of spreading.

duct tapePhoto, Istockphoto

9. How to calm heartburn

A big spaghetti dinner or too many glasses of merlot could be to blame for that burning sensation behind your breastbone. Heartburn happens when the muscle that closes the esophagus doesn't seal, allowing stomach contents to flood back up and cause irritation. (Foods that are difficult to digest, like tomatoes, coffee and alcohol, are common triggers.)

The cure: Elevate the top end of your bed frame by six to nine inches with wooden blocks. "This takes pressure off the stomach and lets gravity work against acid reflux," says Hagen. Some experts recommend sugarless gum, which increases saliva and neutralizes stomach acid.

Call your doctor: If heartburn is so severe you can't get out of bed, or it occurs daily.

Read more: 10 things I learned about eating to naturally cure heartburn

bedroom, TV remote control on bedPhoto, Masterfile

10. How to eliminate constipation

When was your last trip to the loo? If you haven't had a bowel movement in three days, you could be suffering from constipation. Common causes include lack of exercise and a diet low in fibre or fluids.

The cure: Spin classes, fruit, veggies and water help keep you regular. This traditional remedy may also get things moving: Soak a flannel pillowcase in a cup of warm castor oil. Put the pillowcase on your tummy and place a hot pack on top for 20 minutes. Ivanovics says castor oil and heat relax muscles and stimulate the bowel. (Warning: Castor oil may induce labour.)

Call your doctor: If constipation is severe or lasts longer than a week.

castor oil in glass containerPhoto, Istockphoto

Four natural preventatives

Natural remedies can provide relief in a pinch, but they can also help defend against the onset of some common ailments.

1. Seasonal sinus allergies
Use a neti pot with tepid water and a sodium solution (available at drugstores) to rinse nasal passages daily. This reduces the severity of your reaction and clears congestion.

2. Prone to swimmer's ear
Mix one part white vinegar and one part rubbing alcohol, then pour a teaspoon of the solution into each ear, letting it drain out before you jump in the water. It protects ears from the bacteria and fungus that cause infection.

3. Frequent yeast infections
Eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir (a tart yogurt-style drink) and kimchee (the Korean dish pictured, made from cabbage). They're loaded with yeast-fighting 'good' bacteria.

4. Can't sleep?
Make a sleep satchel. Fill a cloth bag with dried lavender, camomile and rose blossoms and put it by your pillow — the scent helps induce a restful sleep.

Read more: Six natural ways to increase your serotonin levels

kimcheePhoto, Masterfile


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