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Do home remedies work?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

While alternative medicines and home remedies offer relief when you are unwell, it is vital to see a doctor and not attempt self-treatment, says Ronita Torcato

There's a widely used remedy for coughs and colds that Goans of a certain vintage swear by and it involves the use of that heady patented concoction called feni. To be really effective, it's got to be shaken and stirred with sugar and  drunk neat.  For teetotallers there's hope: fresh lemon juice added to hot tea with or without honey reduces phlegm. Warm nimbu pani also gives symptomatic relief.

Then again, there's the tried and trusty onion, which Goan grannies roast on the fire with a spoonful of sugar in the top which has been scooped out. Which child could resist? Like that song in The Sound of Music that Maria, the governess played by Julie Andrews' sings, "Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down in a most delightful way..." Our grandmothers were well aware of this simple truth, without ever having heard the song!

Winter brings its characteristic tale of colds  and sniffles. Which reminds us too that garlic  and  honey also work like magic.

Witchdoctors are another story but (some) of the old shamans of yore knew these things contained certain compounds which worked to heal. Yet another home remedy is the use of spittle for sore eyes. Why spit works, Heaven alone knows.

As things stand, herbal medicine is extremely popular as a complementary or alternative mode of treatment with an annual turnover of US$60 billion. Even Queen Elizabeth II has widely embraced homoeopathy but that's another story. In India, the Ministry of AYUSH, which was formed in November 2014, promotes the use of alternative systems.  Ayurveda in Public Health, a compendium of research papers brought out by the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences, notes: “AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Sidha and Homoeopathy) have been in existence since centuries and [are] well accepted as a part of mainstream health provider in India.” One paper in the publication points out, ”Due to its countrywide presence, easy availability, affordability and safety, traditional systems have survived through centuries.”

It must be mentioned here that our grandmothers were not using garlic, chilli and turmeric or plants like aloe vera because they were disappointed with conventional allopathy. Far from it. It's just that these herbs and spices and plants provided instant relief, in the absence of the doctor.

At this point, one must state that one is not giving a free pass to all herbal remedies or drugs across the board. In fact, one would be remiss if one failed to point out that not all are  safe and devoid of harmful effects. Those who claim this is so, are quacks.

For, herbs are quite capable of producing  adverse reactions. I once applied some aloe vera gel in my hair only to be felled by a blowout of eyes and  upper cheeks. By which I mean, redness, soreness, swelling, puffing, the works. It was  a severe allergy, the allopath to whom I rushed told me. What a pity! Aloe vera works like magic on cuts, bruises and burns, but it's monstrous for my hair and scalp! "It works for me because it's a pure and natural remedy with absolutely no side effects," exults Payal S. Good for her. Thumbs down for moi!

It is pertinent to note, though, that doctors across the board always discourage self-medication by patients and individuals. Even so, there is an  increased patronage for alternative treatments (Kerala spas are a thriving business) and  herbal medicines (even as some are known to have toxic and adverse effects) for reasons such  as being uncomfortable about discussing health  issues;  lack of confidence in the doctor resulting in the fear of possible misdiagnosis and wrong treatment; paucity of time to visit the doctor (statistics show that few women do), and costs.

No domestic stats are available but  Americans spend USD 20 billion on herbs (and other dietary supplements) and more, much more — a  whopping $200 billion each  year — on prescription drugs! If Americans (and other people across the globe) notch up higher bills on allopathic meds, it's because herbals are cheaper. For example, pure garlic is dirt cheap compared to garlic pearls which you can buy across the counter. Ditto ginger. Fresh ginger, which is great for arthritis, costs a song in comparison with prescription drugs that cost an arm and a leg!

Interestingly, local doctors approached by this writer are loathe to comment, merely saying that they don't prescribe herbal medicines. As a medico attached to the Global Hospital Parel summed it, requesting anonymity, ”I would rather speak about my own specialisation instead of alternative medicines which I would never use in any case, nor would I prescribe them to any patient.”

It must be also noted that while some herbals are efficacious enough, others are untested and do not meet safety standards. So while some home remedies may offer immediate relief, especially in cases of seasonal colds and coughs, they cannot be the only form of treatment in more serious cases; it is always a good idea to seek help from a professional.

Short Takes

Herbal medicines are particularly attractive thanks to  the body’s natural capacity for healing and self-repair.

However, they can sometimes cause allergic reactions; it is always wise to see a doctor and avoid self-medication.

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