Sometimes the best cure is available right in your own home! Here are some home remedies to combat common complaints, from migraines to hiccups
For dry, itchy skin: Take an oatmeal bath
Several studies show the benefits of this traditional breakfast grain for treating skin symptoms. One 2020 trial, for instance, found that patients with eczema showed more improvement when their hand creams contained colloidal oatmeal. (Colloidal means the grains are pulverised into dust and mixed thoroughly into the lotion or solution.)
“Oatmeal has anti-itch, anti-inflammatory, soothing properties, and it improves the skin’s direct barrier,” says Dr Sandy Skotnicki, a dermatologist in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto. This is thanks to the grain’s natural antioxidants, proteins and other special compounds. The starch and fibre in oatmeal also help draw moisture to the skin.
Make your own colloidal oatmeal to soothe dry, itchy skin
You can make your own colloidal oatmeal by breaking down rolled oats with a coffee grinder or blender. Tie one cup of the oats into a sachet bag, and immerse it in lukewarm bathwater. Just be careful getting in—the bath might get a bit slippery. And don’t oversoak your skin, as this can cause irritation.
“The data has shown that a quick bath of less than 10 minutes every day can be helpful, followed by application of a moisturiser that helps repair the skin barrier,” says Dr Skotnicki, adding that it’s best to look for a product that says it treats eczema, even if that’s not what you have. “Not all moisturisers are created equal. Those are the best, in part because they’re formulated without allergens.”
With painful arthritis in your knees, you may be tempted to take it easy. Instead, set a goal of spending an hour a week—that’s just nine minutes a day—walking as briskly as if you’re trying to catch a train or you’re late for a meeting.
People who pick up their speed for that hour are 85 per cent less likely to end up with mobility problems from their arthritis, according to 2019 findings by researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago.
"Set a goal of spending an hour a week—that’s just nine minutes a day—walking briskly"
And it’s unlikely the physical stress of brisk walking will cause more wear and tear on your knees. Bioengineers at Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom showed that this kind of mechanical pressure on the joints in fact triggers a protective effect in cartilage cells that wards off inflammation and damage.
For constipation: Drink some olive oil
When you’re feeling stopped up, a daily spoonful of extra-virgin olive oil can help move things along. That’s been shown in experiments like one on patients with ulcerative colitis, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2020.
Not only did participants have fewer symptoms of constipation when taking extra-virgin olive oil (as opposed to canola oil, which was used for comparison), but their blood tests showed that their condition was less active.
Believe it or not, a spooful of olive oil can help with constipation
“It’s thought that extra-virgin olive oil can help hydrate and soften stools, making them easier to pass,” says Desiree Nielsen, a Vancouver registered dietitian and author of the recently published book Good for Your Gut.
Try taking olive oil in the morning, when your bowels are more active, and on an empty stomach. Nielsen notes that kiwis and prunes, which she often recommends to her clients, are even better studied for their laxative effects, but extra-virgin olive oil has added heart-health benefits. It’s also tasty, if a little peppery after it goes down.
For canker sores: Swish a bit of honey
Minor canker sores that only crop up two or three times a year are not usually a sign of an underlying problem, but they can nevertheless be painful. To speed up healing by a few days, try swishing a bit of honey around in your mouth.
Honey is high in antioxidants, which can protect the health of skin, and is also antibacterial, thanks in part to its sugar content.
In 12 out of 13 studies analyzed by the University of Canberra in Australia, using honey topically on canker sores, denture irritation, or mouth sores from cancer treatment either helped them heal faster or prevented them from becoming more severe compared to control groups.
You could also try putting a glob of honey on your finger and holding it directly on the sore, says Dr Yang Gu, an oral pathologist at Dalhousie University’s faculty of dentistry in Halifax, Canada. “Theoretically, your saliva will wash it off otherwise. Hold it there for one minute so it will be completely absorbed.”
Not all honey is the same—raw honey may be higher in antioxidants, and pasteurised (processed) honey may contain unwanted added sweeteners—but more research is needed before scientists can say for sure which honey sources are the most beneficial.
For heartburn: Change your sleep position
The burning sensation of reflux, caused when stomach acid flows into the esophagus, is often more bothersome when lying down. To help deal with this, many people are prescribed medication (such as a proton pump inhibitor) for their symptoms, but a change in sleeping position can be just as effective. The goal should be to take advantage of the effect of gravity.
You can often reduce reflux by elevating your head and shoulders at night, using a foam wedge under the mattress or placing 15-centimetre-high wooden blocks under the two upper legs of the bed. Sleeping on your left side may also make a difference, as this places the contents of your stomach further away from the sphincter, where it joins the esophagus.
"The goal should be to take advantage of the effect of gravity"
In a 2017 trial at the Cleveland Clinic in the US state of Ohio, people with nighttime acid reflux tried special sleep-positioning cushions that kept them inclined and on their left sides. After the trial, over 90 per cent of the participants wanted to continue sleeping with the cushions.
Because pillows designed for acid reflux can be expensive, you can use regular body pillows to help you sleep on your left side more consistently through the night, or you can set regular pillows against your back. You may need to experiment with pillows that don’t easily shift.
For smelly feet: Soak in black tea
Your feet contain about a quarter of a million sweat glands, more per centimetre than any other part of your body. And it’s the combination of sweat plus bacteria that’s to blame when they start to stink.
A black-tea soak can address both problems. Tea is high in an antibacterial compound called tannic acid, so it helps kill germs. Tannins are also astringents, which means they tighten pores when they’re applied to the skin. “Marathon runners use tea-bag soaks, because if you sweat less, you get fewer blisters,” says Skotnicki.
A black tea soak is a good home remedy for smelly feet
Tannic acid gels are available from compounding pharmacies, but you can make your own formula at home. Boil a couple of tea bags in about half a litre of water for 15 minutes. Dilute it with two more litres of water, and when it’s cool enough, soak your feet for half an hour. Do this daily for a week until you see improvement. You can then continue to keep foot odour at bay with once-a-week maintenance soaks.
For warts: Soak in hot water
Just as cryotherapy—treatment with extreme cold—helps get rid of common skin warts, so does extreme heat. “What you’re doing is killing the virus,” says Skotnicki. “If you increase the temperature in the skin cells where the virus lives, the virus can’t use the cell and it dies.”
A new device invented at the University of Southampton, in the UK, puts this principle into practice. It looks like a thick pen, which the clinician touches directly to the wart, and uses microwave energy to heat the lesion without affecting the skin around it.
In a trial, the device cleared three-quarters of treatment-resistant plantar warts; typically, a third or fewer would respond to cryotherapy. But you can also apply heat at home on your own. The goal is to use enough heat to have an effect but not so much that you’ll burn the skin. This can be achieved with hot water that’s between 43.3 and 46.1 degrees Celsius. (Use a candy thermometer to be sure you have the right temperature.) Immerse the area with the wart, aiming for a 30-minute soak. Do this three times a week. Within two to six weeks, you should start seeing results.
For migraines: Eat fatty fish
A recent study spearheaded by the US National Institute on Aging assigned people with frequent migraines into groups and gave each one a meal kit and instructions. Participants whose diets contained more fatty fish, such as salmon, and less linoleic acid (found in many vegetable oils), had fewer, shorter and less severe headaches compared to those with average American diets.
Fatty fish like salmon can prevent migraines
Certain oils are known to trigger responses in the body, such as inflammation. The study’s investigators believe that the oils people consume can trigger different responses in the nerve pathways involved in migraines.
For hiccups: Drink with suction
Whether it's holding your breath or gulping water, everyone has a trick for stopping hiccups—involuntary spasms of the diaphragm muscle below the lungs. The problem is, hiccup cures are usually hit-and-miss, says Dr Ali Seifi, associate professor and neurosurgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
“The remedies activate the phrenic nerve regulating the diaphragm muscle, or the vagus nerve regulating the epiglottis, which has a scientific basis,” he says. But such home remedies don't always do the trick.
"Whether it's holding your breath or gulping water, everyone has a trick for stopping hiccups"
Seifi’s solution is a special straw, which he dubbed the HiccAway, that requires five times the suction compared to a regular straw. “That’s the key,” he says. “It means higher and more prolonged contraction of the diaphragm muscle, which triggers a longer duration of nerve activation.”
That pressure, coupled with swallowing to activate the phrenic and vagus nerves, “resets” the brain. Over 90 per cent of participants in a 2021 study said the HiccAway stopped their hiccups when they tried it.
For a home version, Seifi suggests filling a glass with water and stretching a coffee filter (or layers of paper towel) over the top. Hold it tightly in place or secure it with a rubber band, then tip the glass toward your mouth and apply as much suction as it takes to drink the water. The physics may not be as precise as those of the special straw, he says, but “I have tried this myself, and it works!”
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