9 clinically proven natural remedies for common ailments

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published May 14, 2020

Key Takeaways

Some treatments for common ailments don’t always require a trip to the pharmacy. Certain remedies that have been proven to be clinically effective can actually be administered rather quickly in the comfort and convenience of your home—and all without the need for a script or the use of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

Home remedies fall under the practice of complementary and alternative medicine and have been used for eons. And we tend to use home remedies more often than we think. For example, as a kid, how often did your mom give you ginger ale when you had an upset stomach or tea with honey when you had a sore throat? You likely always felt a lot better after mom’s treatments. But did you ever stop to wonder how or why they work? Well, if you did, we have some answers. Below are some common home remedies for run-of-the-mill health ailments and the science behind why they work.

Green tea for arthritis

Tea time, anyone? For those with rheumatoid arthritis, there's a good reason to relax with a spot of green tea, according to a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. In the study, 120 participants with at least 10 years’ clinically diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis were treated with infliximab, supervised exercise, or green tea for 6 months. Those who received either green tea alone or green tea plus either infliximab or exercise showed improvement in several arthritis biomarkers—including C-reactive protein, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, number of swollen/tender joints—and bone resorption markers. The investigators observed “more clinical improvement in the disease activity of rheumatoid arthritis patients treated with green tea along with exercise compared with rheumatoid arthritis patients treated with infliximab or exercise combinations. This may have been due to the higher potential antioxidant activity of green tea (89.6% to 96.5%).”

The Arthritis Foundation also supports the use of green tea for arthritis: “Green tea is packed with polyphenols, antioxidants believed to reduce inflammation and slow cartilage destruction. Studies also show that another antioxidant in green tea called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) blocks the production of molecules that cause joint damage in people with rheumatoid arthritis.”

Oatmeal for itchy skin and bug bites

For centuries, oatmeal has been used to assuage itch and irritation due to various skin conditions, including bug bites. Results from a preclinical study showed that, even at low concentrations, avenanthramides (phenols found in oatmeal) have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which account for oatmeal’s anti-itch properties.

“We found that avenanthramides at concentrations as low as 1 parts per billion inhibited the degradation of inhibitor of nuclear factor kappa B-alpha (IkappaB-alpha) in keratinocytes which correlated with decreased phosphorylation of p65 subunit of nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kappaB),” wrote the authors. 

“Furthermore, cells treated with avenanthramides showed a significant inhibition of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) induced NF-kappaB luciferase activity and subsequent reduction of interleukin-8 (IL-8) release. Additionally, topical application of 1-3 ppm avenanthramides mitigated inflammation in a murine itch model,” they added. 

Chicken soup for cold and congestion

Although we can’t prove that chicken soup is truly good for the soul, researchers have shown that it does mitigate neutrophil migration to sites of infection/inflammation in those with upper respiratory infections. The individual components of chicken soup—such as vegetables, chicken, and broth—may also boost inhibitory potential.

One key bioactive ingredient in chicken soup may be the amino acid cysteine, which thins mucus membranes in the lungs. Moreover, the steamy broth may moisten nasal passages, prevent dehydration, and fight inflammation.

Honey for wound healing

People the world over have known about honey’s healing secrets for ages. Honey is packed with bioactive ingredients that promote wound healing, and its immune effects promote regrowth. The acidity of honey releases oxygen from hemoglobin that mitigates the actions of proteases, which are destructive. Furthermore, it contains the bioactive compound hydrogen peroxide that—in manuka honey, at least—confers antibacterial properties. Lastly, the high osmolarity of honey draws fluid into the wound bed to facilitate the flow of lymph.

Honey can also be applied to burns, according to the authors of a Cochrane systematic review: “Honey appears to heal partial thickness burns more quickly than conventional treatment (which included polyurethane film, paraffin gauze, soframycin‐impregnated gauze, sterile linen and leaving the burns exposed) and infected post‐operative wounds more quickly than antiseptics and gauze.”

Sugar for hiccups

A spoonful of sugar may be just the trick when dealing with annoying hiccups, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. But how does it work? Good question. Based on scientific studies involving frictional stimulation of the pharynx at the levels of C2 and C3, granulated sugar may temporarily treat hiccups via such stimulation of the pharynx. 

“Stimulation of the pharynx reliably inhibits hiccups, although the effect may be only temporary... Presumably similar pharyngeal stimulation is achieved by sipping iced water, gargling, swallowing granulated sugar, and various other manipulations of the uvula or nasopharynx. Hiccups may also be inhibited by stimulating other parts of the upper respiratory tract and external auditory meatus,” wrote the authors of an article in the BMJ.

So, if you don’t have any sugar on hand, you can try sipping on some iced water or gargling some mouthwash—basically, anything that will stimulate the back of your throat. 

Flaxseed for constipation

Flaxseed is rich in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, as well as lignan precursors, which are fiber-associated compounds. Because of this, it can make a great remedy for constipation. In a single-blinded, randomized controlled trial, researchers compared the effects of 10 g of flaxseed baked into cookies consumed twice a day with placebo in 53 patients with type 2 diabetes and symptoms of constipation. After 12 weeks, the researchers found that symptoms of constipation, BMI, and lipid levels all improved in those taking flaxseed. Moreover, the flaxseed cookies were well-tolerated, without negative side effects, and compliance was good. 

Ginger as an antiemetic

This herb has been employed for eons as a natural antiemetic. It acts peripherally in the gastrointestinal tract by increasing gastric tone and motility secondary to anticholinergic and antiserotonergic actions. Ginger has also been reported to increase gastric emptying. The combination of these functions may help explain how ginger is able to relieve symptoms of gastrointestinal upset like dyspepsia, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. According to the authors of a review published in Integrative Medicine Insights: “The best available evidence demonstrates that ginger is an effective and inexpensive treatment for nausea and vomiting and is safe.”

Peppermint for nausea and digestive issues

The menthol in peppermint relaxes gastrointestinal tissue, making it a boon for those with upset stomach and other digestive problems. It’s been used for centuries to treat digestive issues like gas, bloating, and indigestion. "The main component of peppermint is menthol, which has a relaxation effect on gastrointestinal tissue and topically performs as an anesthetic that helps relieve sore muscles and body aches,” Sharon Zarabi, RD, CDN, CPT, bariatric program director, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, NY, told MDLinx.

Furthermore, in one powerful meta-analysis, peppermint oil vs placebo was effective in treating global complaints of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including abdominal pain. Even better: Peppermint oil posed no adverse effects, and the number of patients needed to treat to avoid one patient from having persistent IBS symptoms was three, with four patients needed to avoid one case of abdominal pain

Coffee for headache?

This seems to be a tricky one.

Low quantities of caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, chocolate, and so forth may help relieve the pain of headaches. “Before a headache or migraine, blood vessels tend to enlarge, but caffeine has ‘vasoconstrictive’ properties that cause the blood vessels to narrow and restrict blood flow, which can aid in head pain relief,” wrote the National Headache Foundation (NHF). 

They added: “When caffeine is added to the combination of acetaminophen and aspirin, the pain relieving effect is increased by 40%. If you feel a headache coming on, a cup of joe might lessen the severity of your symptoms.”

But, a word of caution: For those who regularly consume large quantities of caffeine, “caffeine rebound” can result. Although caffeine itself is not a direct culprit in the cause of headache, caffeine rebound—which results from caffeine withdrawal—can result in headache and other discomfort. This rebound effect is estimated to affect 2% of the population

“Although most headache sufferers can consume up to 200 mg per day, the NHF advises patients with frequent headaches to avoid daily use. But this doesn’t mean you have to cut your caffeine off, try slowly decreasing your intake, and remember it’s always best to enjoy in moderation,” the NHF recommends.

Another thing to keep in mind is that drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages may exacerbate migraine headaches. “People prone to migraines may experience more headaches after coffee consumption (perhaps by effects on serotonin or brain electrical activity), but coffee itself, or the caffeine it contains, is not considered the actual cause of migraines. Certain foods or drinks like coffee are thought to trigger episodes of migraine, but the true cause is not known,” wrote Robert H. Shmerling, MD, in an article for Harvard Health Publishing.

So, the next time you reach for a prescription or OTC drug to treat a minor ache or pain, remember these common home remedies that may also do the trick. After all, no need to expose yourself to medication if something natural could help. Alternatively, you can use these natural remedies as adjuvant therapy.

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