As a fancy vegan, I’ve decided to eschew many common over-the-counter cures from my local CVS because of the animal testing policies of their producers.
(Aveeno, I’m looking at you…oats and “all natural” labeling does not an ethical product make.)
For this reason, I’ve been forced to turn to quack hippie homeopathic cures for a lot of things. As a lady of science, I can’t just take a witch doctor’s word that this or that plant plucked from the ground will magically cure what ails me. I need empirical proof, though trial and error, either my own or through proper scientific research. Proof and experimentation can be expensive though, especially when your snake oil can be found in the Whole Body aisle at Whole Foods. Thus, I’m here to separate the cures from the crap for you, in case you are interested in healing hives, stopping sniffles, and incapacitating insomnia without a ton of chemicals.
Outside of ethical concerns, I have other reasons for staying away from the chemical way. I’ve always been sensitive to cold medicine and pain killers (I took DayQuil once last year and it made me faint…in the middle of giving a physics lecture to a classroom of college students). I either get really nauseous or dizzy when I take these kinds of products, which kinds of defeats the whole point: aren’t treatments supposed to make you feel better?
Another reason I wanted to explore more natural options is because a lot of drugstore “cures” for ailments just cover up symptoms. They don’t actually make your cold go away, nor does a hydrocortisone cream stop the internal mechanism that is causing your eczema. In fact, prolonged use over time can lead to greater problems (such as steroid creams leading to thinned skin, or on a global scale, overuse of antibiotics leading to super bugs).
Let’s start with some that you’re probably already familiar with and work our way out to the more exotic:
Zinc lozenges, such as Cold-eeze: Studies have shown that these are actually effective, which surprisingly doesn’t exclude them from being a homeopathic remedy. The mechanism by which they work is not fully understood, but they have been proven to shorten the duration of a cold by up to 42%. Personally, I can’t stand the taste of them. They really give me the gags. But if I can’t take time off (which is always) and I feel a cold coming on, I plug my nose and suck on a bunch. (You really have to take the recommended amount to get it to work; it’s the zinc overload that fights the cold). The worst side effect is that it can make your mouth sore and make you want to puke a little. It’s better than being flat on your back with a cold for a whole week.
Arnica and Tiger Balm: I take ballet, which inevitably means I have a sore something or other occasionally from a battement too high or plié too deep. There are a few homeopathic remedies I’ve tried. Arnica is a flower that gets crushed into a cream or gel and as far as I can tell, you get more pain relief from rubbing the ointment in than from the remedy itself. Tiger Balm, on the other hand, is awesomesauce. It’s the natural world’s version of IcyHot. It has menthol, camphor, cinnamon and clove oil in it, so you get this great cooling sensation on top of your skin along with a gentle warmth underneath. It does make you smell like these ingredients though, so be warned–you might end up smelling like a koala on a bender. It’s their potency that makes it work, and also that makes it stink.
Oatmeal, tea tree, and calendulal: I descended from olive-skinned Sicilians who enjoy a balmy, sunny climate year round. So, my skin is happy here in New England for a paltry 25% of the year. The other 75% is spent cursing my family name in a constant cycle of itching and not sleeping due to terrible, terrible eczema. These are three main homeopathic/natural routes by which I try to keep it in check, and while all three are effective, the effects are short lived. (I’m sure there will be future posts in which I chronicle my ongoing battle and the ridiculous things I apply to my skin/ingest to manage it).
Oats, as it turns out, are good for your insides and your outsides. Eczematous (is that a word? It is now) skin has a higher pH than regular skin. This means it is slightly alkaline. Oats act as a buffer, meaning they lower the pH back towards normal, so there’s good reason why a colloidal oatmeal bath feels so good when you’re itchy. (Apparently a baking soda bath would have a similar effect, and I hear some recommend a bleach bath, but that idea just scares me). When you see the term “colloidal oatmeal” it’s not a special kind of oatmeal; it just means the oats have been ground so fine that they completely dissolve in water and form a new, inseparable solution. You don’t have to shell out big bucks for that individually packaged oatmeal baths, either. All you need is to grind up one cup of oats in a food processor until a fine powder has been made. Then, dissolve in a warm (not hot) bath.
Tea tree has antiseptic properties, and can help keep bacteria out of areas that you might scratch. (It’s also pretty good at keeping skin clear of pimples; I have this toner from Lush and it’s effective and smells clean and lovely) Calendula too has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. I’ve not used straight calendula oil, but it’s been an ingredient in products that I’ve found effective for stopping itch. Such as this aptly named product from Derma E:
It has all three of these itch-fighting ingredients in one cooling, minty cream. (I am just getting into their line of skincare and so far I am impressed. Their moisturizers actually get absorbed into the skin, rather than sitting on top, and the whole product line is cruelty-free, paraben free, and made in the USA.)
Senna leaf: Senna is a leaf that can be made into a pill or a tea and has laxative qualities. It really works. ‘Nuff said.
And now for the snake oil…
St. John’s Wort: Generally believed by the homeopathic community to be a mood booster, firmly believed by me to not do a damn thing. I prefer a vegetarian vitamin B complex (that
includes a high dose of B-12) to regulate my mood and metabolism.
Echinacea: This pretty flower in pill form was a staple in my household growing up, and I remember drinking Echinacea tea when I was sick. I tried it again in my adult life, and concluded that it was the hot beverage and not the flower that was making me feel better. There have been studies that show echinacea is sometimes effective, sometimes has side effects, and is sometimes a waste of money. You’re better off with zinc if you can stomach it.
Melatonin: I have some friends who swear by this hormone as a sleep aid, but when I was struggling with a few months of insomnia, it did nothing for me. Studies have shown that it might be helpful for people who wake up in their sleep (those with interrupted sleep cycles) but I was the kind of insomniac who could not find her way to the land of Nod in the first place. I was better off with a bottle of red and a hot bath as my GPS.
That’s it for this episode of Cure or Crap! Tune in next time when we address natural food fads, such as aloe juice, flax oil, and chia seeds. Yes, people are now obsessed with eating those very same seeds we grew on our terracotta sheep back in the day! You can taste the hype!