Maralyn Fisher, 76, a retired boutique owner who lives in Manhattan, suffers periodic bouts of nausea. Whenever she feels the queasiness coming on, she pops a ginger mint into her mouth and waits for it to ebb. It almost always does. “I don’t like taking a lot of standard medicines,” says Fisher, who keeps the candies in her purse and at her bedside. “I believe in it because it works.”
Fisher is among millions of Americans who use what are known as home remedies, a description frequently used interchangeably with “complementary” or “alternative” medicines to distinguish them from Western practices, which often rely on doctor visits and conventional drugs.
Pandemic fears have made them even more attractive. A recent survey conducted by the health technology company DrFirst found that consumers are increasingly turning to at-home treatments to avoid going to a hospital emergency room.
“They are easy to get, many people believe natural is safer, and they feel comfortable using them,” says D. Craig Hopp, deputy director of the division of extramural research at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health. “They are very popular. People take these things thinking they will work, and many of them do.”
While home remedies and other nontraditional approaches are not typically regarded as mainstream, natural plant-based therapies have long been dominant in many developing countries and enjoyed heavy use historically, especially during earlier pandemics.
“Once upon a time, this is all there was,” Hopp says. “All you had to treat your illness was whatever you had around you. Nature was your medicine cabinet. Some stuck, some didn’t. The ones that stuck did so for a reason. Over time, we have applied science to figure out how and why they work. For some, we have solid evidence; for others, we don’t.”
Even when proof is scant or nonexistent, many people still believe in them, citing positive anecdotal experiences. Many, for example, believe in the wonders of hot chicken soup to ease cold and flu symptoms. Some research suggests that a steaming bowl of chicken soup curbs neutrophils (white blood cells that proliferate during an infection). But it also tastes good and makes you feel better.
“It’s a warm liquid so it probably loosens up mucous membranes and lessens the congestion,” says Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian at the Mayo Clinic.
Here are several popular home remedies, and what the science says:
Ginger. It has been used for thousands of years to treat or reduce the risk of a variety of ills and is a well-established anti-nausea agent, including for morning sickness and the side effects of chemotherapy. Even eating the cookies seems to work. “When my wife was pregnant, she carried ginger snaps with her and they helped,” Hopp says.
Peppermint. Peppermint has been touted as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive problems, and some people apply it to the skin for headaches, muscle aches, joint pain and itching. In aromatherapy, peppermint oil is promoted for treating coughs and colds, reducing pain, improving mental function and reducing stress according to NCCIH. Some research suggests that peppermint does help relieve IBS symptoms. Other evidence finds that, applied topically, it might help ease tension headaches.
Olive Reid, 62, a semiretired academic administrator at the University of Maryland, has used it for 25 years to stop her migraines. With the onset of an aura — sensory disturbances such as light flashes that presage a migraine — she douses the oil on a tissue and inhales it. Some research supports this. “I feel the impact immediately,” she says. “Within minutes, it’s gone.” But don’t get it in your eyes. “It stings,” Reid says.
Lavender oil. Lavender oil is popular in aroma therapy to treat anxiety, but research has been inconclusive, according to the NCCIH. Lavender taken orally might help with anxiety and depression, but studies are limited, the NCCIH says. At least one study suggests the odor of lavender repels insects. “Deer won’t eat it, so maybe there is something about the scent,” Hopp says. (I use lavender scented skin lotion, shampoo and conditioner, and it seems to keep the bugs away.)
Ice/Heat. With an acute injury — an ankle sprain for example — use an ice pack before reaching for a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. Ice reduces swelling and inflammation during the first 48 hours after an injury. Use heat — a heating pad, hot bath or hot tub — for chronic conditions to relax and loosen tissues, and stimulate blood flow to the area. Never use heat on an acute injury; it will worsen the swelling.
Honey. A cup of warm tea or warm lemon water sweetened with two teaspoons of honey can ease a persistent cough, according to the Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies. “Honey is great for a cough, cold or sore throat,” Hopp says. Do not give honey to children younger than 1 year old because of the risk of infant botulism.
Turmeric. Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family native to Southeast Asia and used in various dishes. It has been promoted for arthritis, digestive disorders, respiratory infections, allergies, depression and liver disease, among others. (Curcumin, which gives turmeric its yellow color, is a major component of turmeric, and the activities of turmeric are commonly attributed to curcumin.) The NCCIH says curcumin is difficult to study, because it is unstable, so its health effects remain uncertain. “We can’t find any clear evidence that it has benefit,” Hopp says. “In this case, the marketing is ahead of the science.”
Cinnamon. This popular spice has been promoted as a diabetes treatment to lower blood sugar. While there have been numerous studies, they have been difficult to interpret because there are many varieties of the spice, according to NCCIH. One 2019 review of 18 studies in diabetics found cinnamon reduces blood sugar, but has little effect on hemoglobin A1C, which measures blood sugar over time. Also, some of the studies didn’t specify the type of cinnamon used, and others were low quality for other reasons, according to NCCIH.
Garlic. Garlic has been touted for having a positive impact on cardiovascular disease, specifically in lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the bad blood cholesterol. Although research results have been mixed, the NCCIH says that the most reliable data suggest taking garlic supplements may reduce total cholesterol and LDL. It’s considered safe to take in the amounts typically found in foods. “It’s also great for [warding off] vampires.” Hopp says jokingly.
Petroleum jelly or aloe for skin care. Petroleum jelly can keep skin moist, and prevent diaper rash and chafing. Aloe vera also keeps skin soft and supple, and may be used in treating rashes, irritation and sunburn. Buy an aloe vera plant and keep it in the house for a fresh supply. Pluck off a leaf, make a small cut, and squeeze out the gel. “I can’t point to any science on aloe vera, but I put it on every burn I have,” Hopp says.
Finally, while experts agree that many home remedies are valuable, they warn there are times when they shouldn’t replace conventional care.
“People gravitate toward home remedies because they believe it’s better than taking a pill,” Hopp says. “At the same time, you have to decide when to seek a doctor’s advice. When you’re talking about nausea, and upset stomach, fine, have at the ginger. But I wouldn’t urge someone to use cinnamon and forgo the Metformin.