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Q:I’m trying to wean myself off over-the-counter drugs and take a more natural approach to my health. What would you recommend?-Donna F., Detroit
A: You’re not alone. More and more Americans are finding that natural remedies are safe and effective-without the side effects of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Here are a few natural suggestions for five common ailments to get you started:
The first order of business in improving bowel quality and regularity is to drink more water. Take your body weight in pounds and divide in half-that’s the number of ounces of pure water you need to drink daily. Another low-tech approach to constipation is increasing your fiber intake through diet. I like apples, celery, and steel-cut oats as accessible high-fiber foods. Eat at least one of them daily. Exercise is also critical to good bowel tone. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes weekly. Walking is a great way to start, and then ramp up from there if you can. If you haven’t had a bowel movement by the end of the day, try a gentle herbal laxative to ensure that you have a bowel movement daily, at a minimum.
I prefer magnesium as a laxative, especially for women, who tend to be deficient due to mineral loss through menstruation. Start with 250-500 mg of magnesium in capsule or powder form at bedtime, and see how that works for you. If you develop loose stools, cut back on the dose. Senna is a stronger herbal laxative that can help in more dehydrating situations such constipated associated with airplane travel.
The first order of business is to determinewhich type of headache you’re experiencing. If heat applied to the upper shoulders helps, you’re likely having tension headaches, and regular heat application plus stress management should provide relief. If ice is more helpful, even temporarily, you’re likely experiencing a migraine-type headache, especially if the pain is preceded by sensory changes (flashes of light or altered sense of smell or hearing). In general, these types of headaches are due to too much blood flow to the head. In conventional medicine, vasoconstrictors (triptans) are used to reduce this rush of blood. Ice packs may also help temporarily relieve symptoms, but like the triptans, they often cause a rebound headache when the constricting effect wears off.
For a more natural approach, the herbal medicines feverfew and butterbur help many (but not all) migraine sufferers. The real key to lasting relief, however, is to identify and avoid known migraine triggers. These include various high-tyramine foods such as chocolate, cheese, red wine, and cured meats. Too much or too little sleep; poor posture; computer glare; and out-of-control emotions can also contribute to migraines. For some, an enema helps relieve migraine pain.
Did you know…
aloe vera juice is a natural antacid
Antacids account for a large share of OTC drug sales in the U.S. The problem is, excess stomach acid isn’t the issue in most cases of heartburn or GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease). The real problem is stomach acid in the esophagus, which can eventually lead to bigger problems. The reason that stomach contents reflux uphill is because the valve, or sphincter, at the base of the esophagus isn’t working properly. So the only cure is to restore the proper functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).
Known LES irritants include chocolate, coffee, strong mints, and processed foods, especially sugary ones. Avoid these substances if you want to cure your heartburn. Further, if you have a waist that measures more than 35 inches (for women) or 40 inches (for men), you need to lose belly fat. Excess abdominal girth increases the upward pressure of the stomach on the esophagus.
There are two other tricks for keeping the stomach contents flowing down. The first is to simply raise the head of your bed slightly. The second is performing “heel thunks”-drink a big glass of room-temperature water first thing in the morning or anytime you feel heartburn coming on, then rise up onto your toes and drop down sharply onto your heels 10-12 times in a row. This move can help pull the stomach down and away from the aperture in the diaphragm, where the esophagus passes through. The longer you keep your stomach out of this hole, the more likely the hole will tighten up.
To help wean yourself off antacids, take ¼ cup aloe vera juice before all main meals and 2-3 caps of DGL (a type of licorice) after meals.
The inability to fall asleep readily and difficulty staying asleep are somewhat different issues, but most insomnia is a type of anxiety, mitigated by the flight-or-fight chemical adrenaline. Many herbal tonics support adrenal health and help balance energy levels, which allow us to work, exercise, and digest during the day and then drop into an alpha state during the night. My favorite herb for this is ashwagandha, which tones, but also relaxes. Try 500-1,000 mg of bedtime for 6-12 months until you re-establish a healthy sleep pattern. Other effective bedtime herbs include valerian (especially if pain is part of your disturbed sleep quality), passion flower, Jamaican dogwood, California poppy, or the mineral magnesium (if muscle tension is an issue). For trouble with sleep onset, melatonin is brilliant. Low doses (1-3 mg) are generally enough.
Acute stuffiness may be part of a cold or flu, and thus rest, liquid diets (bone broths are especially nutritive) and extra vitamin C (up to 10 grams daily) can help. Chronic sinus congestion is more likely to be caused by fungi than bacteria, especially if secretions are clear or white, not green or yellowish. If you suffer from a chronic stuffy nose, you are likely a mouth breather at night, which quickly turns your pillow into a fungus factory. Wash your pillow-cases in very hot water weekly, and change your pillow every 3-6 months.
Application of antifungal herbs to the nasal passages is an effective approach to reducing sinus congestion. I prefer pleasant-smelling blends that include wintergreen, eucalyptus, thyme, or other volatile oils. A light layer can be applied with a cotton swap (diluted with olive or coconut oil) to the nasal passages at bedtime. You can also combine loose, dried herbs with a cup of hot water in a bowl, put atowel over your head, and breathe the steam in deeply for 10 minutes.
Some people also have good luck with a combination of garlic and cinnamon, taken internally. Others find they need to move to a vegetarian diet (fish and eggs are usually okay in moderation) to reduce inflammation and congestion.