From inflammatory relief to the best flu medicines, try these natural pharmaceutical alternatives for common ailments.
Herbal remedies can often be just as effective as pharmaceuticals.
Photo by Anneka DeJong
Although we aim to lead healthy, natural lives, sometimes the pain and discomfort of illnesses or chronic pain make a trip to the pharmacy especially tempting. And while the occasional dose of Sudafed probably won’t hurt you, chemical pharmaceuticals often mask symptoms rather than address underlying illnesses, and they can cause side effects that range from mild to severe. We researched the most commonly purchased over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in the U.S. and are happy to report that nature has effective alternatives when it comes to the ailments these drugs treat, from pain relief to the common cold. Here are some of the most common issues for which Americans turn to OTC drugs and the natural remedies and options you can use instead to get back on your feet. Always talk with your physician before making changes to your health regimen and be sure to include any herbal remedies when reporting what you take for supplemental or medicinal purposes.
• Echinacea: Rather than simply masking symptoms, it’s best to support our bodies in fighting viruses. Research has found that taking an immune-boosting echinacea preparation at the first sign of symptoms can shorten the length of a cold or flu by anywhere from a fourth to a third of its typical duration (or, from 10 days to seven days), according to Varro Tyler, distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy at Purdue University. When it comes to effectiveness, a consistent dose is key: Take 900 mg, or four to five droppers, of echinacea tincture a day at the first sign of illness, throughout its duration, and for a few days after symptoms subside.
• Astragalus: Astragalus is an adaptogen that has been shown to fight viruses, bacteria and inflammation, which may provide ongoing immune-system support. As a decoction (the traditional method in Chinese medicine), astragalus is often used in daily doses of 9 grams to 15 grams of dried, sliced root, simmered for several hours in a quart of water. The decoction is ready when the water reduces down to a pint. In capsule form, follow manufacturers’ dosage instructions.
• Garlic: This culinary herb boosts immune function, inhibits a broad range of microbes, and also promotes expectoration, helping cold and flu sufferers get good, productive coughs. During cold and flu season, take garlic supplements, or simply include more of it in your diet. (Do not take garlic without first consulting your physician if you are taking blood thinners.)
• Elderberry: Elderberry can inhibit the enzyme that flu viruses use to penetrate cell membranes. In syrup form, one study showed that it can inhibit type A and type B influenza viruses, with no known side effects. Elderberry’s sweet flavor also makes it a helpful remedy for treating children. Take 4 tablespoons of elderberry syrup per day for adults or 2 tablespoons for children for three days.
• An herbal massage oil: To increase airflow to a congested chest, try a massage oil with 1 ounce sunflower oil, 6 drops rosemary essential oil, 4 drops peppermint essential oil and 3 drops ginger essential oil. Mix the ingredients in a glass bowl and rub over the chest, upper back, neck and shoulders as needed. It’s a good idea to do a spot test on skin first to check for a reaction. Never apply essential oils near the noses of infants or small children; people with asthma may also be sensitive to essential oil vapors.
• An herbal bath: A nice, warm soak with essential oils can help relieve the muscle aches that often accompany flu. Try oregano, marjoram, thyme or peppermint essential oils. All of them are antimicrobial and soothe aching muscles. Add 3 to 4 drops of any one essential oil, or a total of 6 drops from a blend of oils. To dispense essential oils into a bath, first mix them with a couple of tablespoons of milk, cream or skin-friendly oil (such as jojoba or olive oil), then pour them under running water. Avoid getting essential oils near your eyes.
• Comfrey: Comfrey is a plant used for pain relief and first aid. It can be easily grown in your yard. Used topically, comfrey has been shown to reduce pain and swelling from muscle strains, tendonitis, sprained ankles and back pain. Note that, due to potential side effects on the liver, comfrey should only be used topically, for four to six weeks. Avoid using on cuts or abrasions.
• Fennel: Fennel seeds contain analgesic and antispasmodic chemicals that help ease pain. It works well as a tea that has a pleasant licorice flavor, and works for joint pain as well as menstrual cramps. However, due to its estrogenic effects, it should not be used by pregnant or nursing women.
• Feverfew: A remedy many people swear by for headaches, including migraines, feverfew can reduce both the frequency and severity of headaches when taken regularly. It is available in 60-mg capsules of fresh, powdered leaf (1 to 6 capsules daily), or 25-mg capsules of freeze-dried leaf (2 capsules daily). You can also make tea—steep 2 to 8 fresh leaves in hot water, but do not boil them, as boiling breaks down the active parthenolides.
• Arnica: Arnica can be applied topically as a cream, gel, ointment, tincture or salve to help muscle pain or swelling. Because arnica can cause adverse effects when taken internally, it should not be used on open wounds. Tinctures for external use should have a 3:1 to 10:1 dilution, and salves should contain a maximum of 20 to 25 percent tincture, or 15 percent arnica oil. Topical preparations can cause a reaction. First, test it on a small patch of skin. If a reaction occurs, discontinue use.
• Devil’s Claw: This South African herb helps ease muscular tension or pain in the back, shoulders and neck. Devil’s claw extract has been shown to reduce osteoarthritic hip or knee pain by 25 percent, and improve mobility within just a few weeks. It’s considered safe at the typical dosage of 750 mg, taken three times daily, but can also be used as a tincture or tea. Note that it should not be taken with blood-thinning medications, and isn’t safe for pregnant women, nursing mothers or young children. Those with ulcers, liver or kidney disease should also avoid use.
• Turmeric: Well known for its pain-relief properties, turmeric contains the powerful anti-inflammatory curcumin, which, studies show, can ease arthritis pain. It can be taken internally as a supplement, added to your diet as a culinary herb, or made into a paste and applied topically for sprains, strains and arthritis. Find instructions to make a pain relief cream with turmeric and other herbs at motherearthliving.com/spicy-pain-relieving-cream
• Capsaicin: The natural chemical that gives hot peppers their heat, capsaicin makes a good topical anti-inflammatory treatment. It manipulates the body’s pain status by hindering pain perception, providing analgesic action and triggering the release of pain-relieving endorphins. Topical creams containing .025 percent capsaicin help osteoarthritic pain. A higher concentration of .075 percent is helpful for nerve damage. Avoid touching your eyes when using topical capsaicin products.
• Ginger: Ginger is a great natural remedy for almost all digestive issues, including diarrhea, because it can calm inflammation in the intestines. Drink ginger fresh, as a tea, or try 500 mg in capsule form, or 2 mL of tincture, taken every two hours.
• Marshmallow root: This root may be helpful in treating a variety of gastric irritations by soothing the bowel. Take 500 mg of the dried root in capsules or a 3 mL tincture up to three times a day for maximum effectiveness.
• Slippery Elm: Slippery elm can help soothe irritated intestines and the digestive tract. Like marshmallow root, it may be helpful for several forms of digestive trouble. Drink it as a tea (3 to 4 cups a day), or take it three times daily in capsule form (500 mg) or tincture form (5 mL).
• Deglycyrrhizinated licorice root extract: DGL may help peptic ulcers and other digestive inflammation, without the potential for causing high blood pressure that other licorice preparations have. Chewable DGL tablets or capsules are both safe and effective forms. Chew 2 to 4 tablets (380-mg each) before each meal.
• Yarrow: Long used by Native American cultures as a gastrointestinal aid, yarrow also shows antimicrobial fighting power against a number of bacteria. This medicinal plant is generally taken as a tea, using 3 grams of the flowers. However, it should not be used by pregnant women.
• Chamomile: Chamomile’s antipeptic, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties make it soothing for ulcers and nausea. Chamomile is at its most effective when taken as a tea, four cups each day. Chamomile is a mild emmenagogue, so pregnant women should consult a medical professional before taking it.
• Psyllium: Psyllium seeds are a common ingredient in bulk-forming laxatives. The seeds and husks are high in mucilage, which helps aid the body’s normal process of evacuating the bowels. A typical daily dose is 2 teaspoons of powdered seeds or 1 teaspoon of powdered husks stirred into a large glass of water and taken immediately, 30 minutes to an hour after a meal. The seeds and husks occasionally produce rare allergic reactions and can be dangerous in case of intestinal obstruction. See your doctor if constipation continues.
• Senna: Senna contains sennosides, which can help with constipation by acting as a local irritant on the colon, promoting evacuation. Note that using senna can sometimes cause cramping. It should not be used for more than a week at a time. Longer use can cause the bowels to become dependent on it, and chronically sluggish, and cause other harmful effects. The usual dose for adults is 15 to 30 mg daily; follow the manufacturer’s directions for dose and frequency. It should not be used by women who are pregnant or nursing, and it may reduce the effectiveness of prescribed heart medications. Because there are a number of medications or ailments it may interact with negatively, it’s best to talk with a doctor before trying senna.
• Dandelion Root: Dandelion root stimulates the production of bile, which helps to naturally soften a stool and move it quickly through the colon. Boil 2 tablespoons of fresh dandelion root into a tea, or try taking an extract of 250 to 500 mg with each meal.
Soothe tickly throats and coughs with this all-natural blend.
• 3/4 cup wildflower honey
• 1/4 cup water
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• 1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1. Stir all ingredients over medium heat until simmering. Remove from heat and let steep, covered, for 10 minutes.
2. Strain honey mixture and store in a sealed glass jar. Lasts refrigerated for up to 3 months.
Used externally, orange essential oil can help treat intestinal spasms, constipation and diarrhea. To make a therapeutic massage oil, mix 3 drops of orange oil into 1 tablespoon of sweet almond oil. Massage the oil into the abdomen, starting in the lower right-hand quarter, then massaging in a clockwise circle from that corner, up along the rib cage, across the upper abdomen, then down along the left side and into the pelvic area.
Regardless of whether you suffer constipation, diarrhea or indigestion, one of the best ways to prevent digestive issues is to keep a balanced microbiome, or collection of good bacteria, in your gut. Good gut bacteria can help our bodies absorb vitamins and strengthen the immune system. Maintaining a balanced microbiome may be supported with a plant-based diet that includes live-culture foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles or kimchi. Find out more about healthy bacteria.
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