Modern medicine deserves credit for extending our lifespans and finding cures for formerly fatal diseases, but ancient medicinal traditions can excel at treating nagging problems that fall through the cracks in the modern medical system. All of the following suggestions rely on treatments people have used for thousands of years. They’re all safe and easy to use at home. However, if you plan to use these treatments in addition to, or in lieu of, pharmaceuticals, make sure to discuss it with your doctor first. Some medical doctors incorporate these simple therapies into their practices. You can also consider seeking out the advice of a qualified, certified alternative health therapist, such as a naturopath, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner or Ayurveda practitioner.
Get Quality Sleep
Modern science and ancient health traditions agree that sleep is critical for good health. In one study, people awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse on a test than people with a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent (the legal limit for driving under the influence is 0.08 percent). When they went without sleep for even longer periods, response speed and accuracy dropped into the range of people given the maximum alcohol dose (blood-alcohol level of 0.1 percent).
During sleep, our bodies release growth hormones that rebuild muscles and heal injuries, as well as enhance our cognitive function. And yet, hectic daily life makes it easy to neglect our sleep habits. A regimen of natural strategies can help improve sleep, often more safely and effectively than prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids. A 2012 study found that hypnotic sleep drugs, such as Ambien, were associated with increased chance of death, even at low levels of use, as well as increased incidence of cancer. (For a full list of natural alternatives for better sleep, visit mother earthliving.com/sleep.) But if you’re going to try just one tactic for better sleep tonight, turn to lavender essential oil. Exposure to lavender essential oil has been shown to significantly inhibit anxious behaviors in rats. Another 2006 study showed that lavender essential oil had a beneficial effect on insomnia and depression in women college students.
TO USE: Place a drop of lavender essential oil on each palm, and rub them against your temples. Sound too simple? This technique is not only backed up by modern science, it’s also a tried-and-true method that’s been around through the ages. Aromatherapy, or the use of botanical oils for healing, has been used therapeutically for around 6,000 years. Lavender itself was used in many ancient cultures, from ancient Egypt to ancient Persia to ancient Greece.
Unfortunately, eliminating stress itself is, well, impossible. Modern sources of stress tend to be mandatory—work, bills, the inevitable traffic frustrations. And these are exactly the types of stress that confound our bodies. After all, our adrenal systems are designed to help us run from immediate sources of danger (lions! tigers! bears!) or fight off attackers, not to fight the stress of office politics or high cell phone bills. The good news is that ancient medical systems have gleaned insight into helping our bodies adjust to both physical and mental stressors. For instance, Ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine practiced in India for more than 3,000 years, has long prized ashwagandha as a type of health-boosting tonic called an adaptogen. Modern studies have shown that ashwagandha can, in fact, help increase stamina and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol in animals.
TO USE: Try a daily dose of ashwagandha tincture in a glass of water, following the dosage instructions on the tincture you select. You can also try a powdered preparation or take the plant in capsule form. The roots of the plant are traditionally used to make medicine.
Nip That Cold in the Bud
The common cold is another health problem your doctor likely won’t be able to help with. Unless the patient develops a secondary infection or other complications, cold sufferers are advised to rest and treat symptoms with OTC options. But there is an ancient herbal antiviral that is clinically shown to reduce the intensity and length of a cold: elderberry. The plant is considered sacred by Celts, and on the Isle of Man elder is regarded as particularly powerful in traditional pagan ceremonies. Black elderberry’s antiviral properties are bolstered by its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well. If taken in syrup form, it’s delicious!
TO USE: Eat black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) syrup on waffles, add it to tea or—in the midst of a cold or flu attack—take it by the tablespoon several times a day. Much of the clinical research available focuses on black elderberry, but American elderberry (Sambucus nigra sbsp. canadensis) has been traditionally used by Native Americans to treat illness. Note: Beware uncooked elderberry, which can be toxic.
Bitter is Better
Who wants to eat bitter foods? In today’s age of easy access to sweet, salty and fatty foods, bitter tastes can be under-represented and underappreciated. However, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and other traditional medical systems stress the importance of balance, and remind us that we should not skip an entire taste category. It turns out that bitter foods play an important role in the way our bodies process nutrients. Bitter foods can stimulate enzyme production and encourage bile flow, helping support healthy digestion. Modern science supports the traditional use of bitter foods to boost overall health, too. A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that green tea appears to help the body burn calories and fat, improving metabolism.
TO USE: Bitter foods can actually be quite delicious. You might be surprised at how much you enjoy a hot cup of black coffee, a refreshing dandelion green salad or a bit of rich dark chocolate. Want to experiment with bitter ingredients? Try this simple recipe for ravioli with bitter greens: Homemade Bitter Greens Ravioli Recipe.
Heal Itchy Skin
Modern medicine doesn’t offer a cure-all for skin conditions such as eczema. The cause of uncomfortable flare-ups is often unknown, and recommended therapies generally involve ongoing treatments such as topical steroids. But fortunately for those seeking a natural, DIY remedy, you can also try a simple (and effective) oatmeal bath. This method of soothing dry, itchy, irritated skin is in line with ancient use of oatmeal baths in Greek, Roman and Egyptian societies. In addition, it’s a method recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology to reap the beneficial soothing and anti-itch effects of oats.
TO USE: You can soothe irritated skin at home with two pantry staples: oatmeal and chamomile tea. Simply blend oats to pulverize them, and combine with loose-leaf German chamomile tea in a reusable muslin bag. Pop the entire muslin bag in a warm bath, and reap the moisturizing and protectant properties of the colloidal oatmeal. The anti-inflammatory and wound-healing effects of the chamomile will help irritated skin heal, as well.
Go for a Walk
It can’t be that simple, right? Just go for a walk? But a brisk daily walk can be tied to our overall health. Even the old-fashioned term for such a stroll connotes health: the daily constitutional. It was the old-school way to suggest someone get regular exercise. And it has a major advantage over the modern equivalent. Today we might suggest someone join a gym or try an indoor exercise class. But advice to take a walk outdoors has a big advantage over advice to “hit the gym”—fresh air.
Researchers at the University of Essex found that simply viewing nature scenes positively affects our state of mind. Simply being outside may also improve the body’s ability to heal. A 2005 study by University of Pittsburgh researchers showed that spinal surgery patients experienced less pain and took fewer pain meds when exposed to natural light.
Just heading out for a walk is a simple way to incorporate physical movement into your day without overcomplicating things. You don’t need much to get started. If you have a solid pair of shoes and 15 minutes, you can reap the benefits of clearing your head and moving your body.