Peeked inside your medicine cabinet lately? Chances are—even if you eat locally, compost food scraps, and clean with nothing but vinegar and baking soda—its contents are a medicinal flashback to your childhood.
“When it comes to our medicine cabinets, it’s habitual to reach for over-the-counter drugs,” says Madelon Hope, M.Ed., LMHC, a clinical herbalist and director of the Boston School of Herbal Studies. “These medications are the ones our mothers gave us, and those memories condition our responses today.” If this sounds like you, it’s time for a bathroom-cabinet makeover.
While there are times you may still want to use conventional meds, such as ibuprofen and antibiotic ointment, natural remedies can be just as fast and effective as over-the-counter fixes—sometimes more so. Best of all, they often have far fewer (if any) pesky or potentially harmful side effects. You don’t have to replace everything in your cabinet all at once, of course, and not every natural remedy is right for everyone.
But if you’re looking to transform your medicine cabinet from retro-conventional to at least partially au naturel, here are a few items you’ll want to consider keeping within reach.
Good for: Insect bites, stings or skin irritation
Because: Calendula (made from marigolds) is a centuries-old remedy for any skin itch or ouch, from bee stings to sunburn to eczema. The plant’s skin-relieving properties come from its mixture of essential oils, which are both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory.
How to: Apply an ointment containing 2 to 5 percent calendula, as needed, up to four times daily.
Tip: If you have ragweed allergies, apply a dime-size test patch the first time and watch for an allergic reaction (red or itchy bumps). Why? Because calendula (i.e., marigolds) and ragweed are both members of the Aster (Compositae) family and may cause an allergic reaction in those who are hypersensitive.
Lavender & Tea Tree Oil
Good for: Cuts, burns, athlete’s foot, minor infections or as a natural disinfectant
Because: Both are natural antiseptics, so they are great for killing germs, and each has its own medicinal prowess. Although best known for its relaxing aroma, which is proven to quell anxiety, lavender can also cool the pain of minor kitchen burns and sunburns, as well as prevent scarring. Meanwhile, tea tree oil is an equally powerful disinfectant, so a drop or two of essential oil can be smoothed onto cuts to stave off infection. Plus, its antifungal properties make it a natural weapon against the common toe fungus that causes athlete’s foot. In one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, tea tree oil was more than twice as effective as a placebo in relieving the burning and itching of athlete’s foot.
How to: Both essential oils are natural antiseptics, and too much may dry the skin, so use sparingly.
Tip: Add a few drops of lavender and tea tree essential oil to a spray bottle filled with water to make a disinfecting spritz for countertops, doorknobs and even yoga mats.
Arnica Tablets and Cream
Good for: Bruises, bumps, muscle aches and sprains
Because: Arnica is made from extracts of the mountain daisy, a flowering plant common at high elevations in Europe. Reportedly, the herb’s healing properties were discovered when people noticed that mountain goats nibbled on the plant after a bad fall. Quaint as that sounds, arnica has some serious scientific backing. Studies show that an active component in arnica, called helenalin, impedes the body’s inflammatory response to injury by preventing the release of an immune system regulator called NF-kB.
One caveat: The plant itself can be toxic, so use only arnica gels and tablets, not the raw herb.
How to: For whole-body trauma, like after surgery, or widespread muscle aches, take five tablets of homeopathic arnica four times daily until you experience relief. For a milder, more isolated injury, like a bruise or sore muscles, apply topical arnica cream or gel as soon as possible and repeat three to five times daily until pain, bruising and swelling are gone.
Tip: Hope recommends arnica tablets labeled 12X, which are available commercially. If you can find 6X tablets, even better—they pack a more powerful punch.
Good for: Mild to moderate sunburn and household burns
Because: Aloe vera gel soothes and cools the surface of the skin, calming the heat and irritation of a burn. The viscous juice of the aloe vera plant contains natural inflammation fighters, called salicylates. As pain and swelling subside, other aloe ingredients (a.k.a. polysaccharides) goad the body into making antibodies, which speed healing. Petri-dish studies show that regenerating skin cells, called fibroblasts, reproduce up to four times faster when treated with aloe vera. “When it comes to sunburn, aloe vera works beautifully,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of Pain Free 1-2-3 (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
How to: Slather aloe vera gel onto a sunburn or minor kitchen burn every couple of hours until heat dissipates and pain lessens. Look for ingredient lists with aloe vera near the top. Aloe vera gels can be naturally drying, so you might want to apply a moisturizer once the aloe has done its job. (Particularly for burns, avoid aloe products with alcohol, which can further dry out the skin.) And skip the day-glo green aloe vera gels, which are laced with artificial colors.
Tip: It won’t fit in your medicine cabinet, but if you’re willing to think outside the box, keep an aloe vera plant in the kitchen. For burns, clip segments from the oldest, bottom-most leaves (so you don’t stunt the plant’s growth) and slather the juice on your red, inflamed skin. It should quickly relieve the pain. If the pain returns, simply clip another segment and apply more gel.
Eucalyptus Essential Oil
Good for: Upper-respiratory infection
Because: Squeezed from the leaves and branch tips of eucalyptus trees, eucalyptus oil also has antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, all of which may help fight off infection and speed recovery. Eucalyptus oil is also an expectorant, meaning it helps expel mucous from the lungs.
How to: Put two or three drops of eucalyptus essential oil in a pot of boiling water and inhale the steam. For children with chest colds, add a few drops to a vaporizer and run it in their bedroom at night. During the day, a couple of drops of essential oil placed under the nose can keep congestion at bay. Smell familiar? Eucalyptus owes its activity to menthol, a key ingredient in most vapor rubs.
Tip: A little eucalyptus oil goes a long way. Too much of any essential oil can be a skin irritant, so use sparingly as a topical treatment.
Peppermint Tea, Tablets and Essential Oil
Good for: Stomach cramps and bloating (use tea or tablets), as well as aches and pains including headaches (use essential oil)
Because: Topically, in small doses, peppermint oil eases the pain of sore muscles and headaches by stimulating nerve receptors on the skin, which override pain signals, says Teitelbaum, who serves as medical director of the national Fibromyalgia & Fatigue Centers. “There is only so much signal that can travel along any given nerve, and I’d rather have a minty-fresh signal than an ouch signal.” Internally, peppermint can be inhaled, tossed back in a tablet or sipped as a tea. For a stuffy nose, a few drops of peppermint essential oil in a vaporizer can ease breathing.
For stomach troubles after a meal, a simple cup of peppermint tea aids digestion and supports the breakdown of food. For intestinal problems, though, peppermint tablets are best. Peppermint is a muscle relaxant, so the herb can relax muscles that are prone to cramping during digestion. In a 2007 study published in the journal Digestive and Liver Disease, patients with IBS who swallowed peppermint capsules one hour before eating felt a 75 percent reduction in symptoms, compared with only a 38 percent drop for those who popped placebos.
One caveat: If muscle-relaxing peppermint oils come into contact with the esophageal sphincter, they can cause it to loosen up, which can lead to heartburn. The fix is to use enteric-coated peppermint capsules, which protect the esophagus on the way down and get the cramp-relieving oils where they need to be—in the colon, explains Jamey Wallace, ND, clinical medical director of Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, Wash.
How to: For tension headaches, massage two to four drops of peppermint oil into the skin of the forehead (more than that can be irritating when applied directly to the skin). To soothe a cough, squeeze three to four drops of peppermint oil into hot water or a vaporizer and inhale the steam. For digestion, drink a cup of peppermint tea after a meal. And, if you’ve been diagnosed with an irritated colon, try enteric-coated peppermint tablets and follow instructions on the label.
Tip: Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, likes to keep peppermint spirits handy for a quick stomach soother. A blend of peppermint leaf extract and peppermint essential oil, peppermint spirits offer fast-acting relief from both stomach upset and gas. Place a dropper’s worth of spirits in a glass of water and drink up.
Valerian Capsules or Tincture
Good for: Insomnia
Because: Used as a sleep aid since the times of the ancient Greeks, valerian is one of the best-studied herbs for insomnia. A stack of studies show that valerian shortens the time it takes to fall asleep without leaving you with any of the “hangover” side effects common with prescription sleep aids.
Exactly how valerian works is unclear. Like most plant-based remedies, it’s probably a combination of factors. For instance, animal studies indicate valerian’s volatile oils have sedative properties. Other studies show the herb tricks the brain into releasing more GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a calming neurotransmitter, before blocking it from being sucked up by nerve cells, so the GABA continues to circulate and encourage sleep. How to: The herb’s potency varies depending on the product, so it’s best to follow dosage instructions on the label.
A common therapeutic dose is 300 mg of standardized (0.5 percent essential oil) valerian extract. Instead of taking it all at once, you might take three 100-mg capsules over the course of the evening to gradually ease your body into sleep mode. Or, if using a tincture (a concentrated, liquid form of the herb), dilute a dropper’s worth of valerian in a cup of water and drink one dose after dinner and another before bed. Madelon Hope advises keeping either a valerian capsule or diluted tincture by the bedside for middle-of-the-night wakeups.
Tip: In about 10 percent of people, valerian actually creates restlessness and anxiety, so take a fraction of a dose the first time to make sure you’re not one of the unlucky few.
Stocking your medicine cabinet with natural cures is a safe, practical way to prepare for life’s little accidents, infections and intermittent health challenges. It’s important to choose products you feel comfortable with, though, and it’s fine to steer clear of any products whose claims seem overblown, or whose ingredients give you pause.
While you’re experimenting, continue stocking those tried-and-true conventional remedies that give you both good results and peace of mind. Over time, you’ll discover which new natural favorites complement your cache of conventional standards, and which of them might eventually take their place. And if reaching for plant-based remedies feels a little strange at first, take comfort in the fact that many modern pharmaceuticals still depend on natural ingredients as a basis for their formulations. “Plant-based remedies got our ancestors through centuries of coughs, colds and infections,” says Blumenthal. And they are still doing that same job today