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Folk Remedies

Jan 10, 2011 08:20PM ● By Anonymous

So, how did a warty, dyspeptic Neanderthal, limping from an infected saber-toothed tiger wound, find relief? He looked to his surroundings, to what nature offered as a panacea. He looked to indigenous plants and herbs to soothe his aches. He looked to folk remedies, and he told all his friends.

Folk remedies are those that have been passed down within communities, from generation to generation, by demonstration and by word-of-mouth. Every culture has folk remedies as part of its lore. Folk medicine persists as an essential element within a community, and those entrusted with the knowledge are held in high regard. Traditional Chinese honor the chen-jen, the Irish revere the seventh son of the seventh son, Hispanic cultures exalt their curanderos, and people in the Ozarks respect their granny-women.

Often, folk medicine mixed elements of the natural world with superstitious, mystical, and religious practices. Many of these practices run counter to scientific knowledge and are vulnerable to skepticism: eat nine chicken lice on bread and butter (jaundice), rub on black hen’s blood (acne), stuff the ear with wool from the left forefoot of a six-year-old black ram (earache). Got warts? Granny-women recommended going to a crossroads and throwing nine rocks in different directions, and “the warts will follow.” (My Irish ancestors had an even better idea: take a cat to a graveyard at night, listen for a noise, then throw the cat toward the noise, “and the warts will follow.”) Sinus problems? Tie garlic and chicken fat in a silk stocking around your neck. Bitten by a mad dog? Hold a church key in your hand. Balding? Try a cow patty as a toupee! To “cut” the pain of childbirth, folk practitioners placed a knife under the bed during labor. (Knives figure prominently in ancient ritual and superstition. To relieve a headache, “pick up a knife and make a cross with it then throw it on the floor.”)

Like modern folk, our forebears wrestled with the curse of the common cold. Among their solutions: eat a roasted Spanish onion before bedtime; drink whiskey with rock candy dissolved in it; sip sage and catnip tea; or soak your feet in hot water and mustard. One rather odiferous remedy suggested rubbing the chest with kerosene, turpentine, or a mixture of skunk grease and mutton tallow. (At least this would seem to reduce the chance of infecting others!)

While we may be tempted to dismiss many folk remedies as childish or based on ignorance, the fact is that many folk cures were grounded in common sense and an admirable knowledge of native flora. Herbal folk remedies, now embraced by many in the medical establishment, are as old as mankind. Researchers excavating 60,000-year-old skeletons in Iraq’s Shanidar caves found the pollen from ancient herbs entombed with the Neanderthals. When the remains of a 53,000-year-old “Ice Man” were discovered in the Swiss Alps, among his personal effects were several plants thought to combat intestinal parasites. Drawings of herbs appear on the walls of France’s Lascaux caves dating to 25,000 B.C. And the oldest medical document ever unearthed, the Ebers Egyptian papyrus (1550 B.C.), contains over 700 formulas for healing using plants and seeds.


Many herbal and natural remedies have worked their way into general acceptance, including:

Juice from the Aloe Vera plant as a balm for skin irritation and burns

Cayenne pepper as a topical arthritis medication

Leeches to promote healing by increasing blood flow to diseased limbs

Spider webs to aid blood clotting

Sea Salt (a favorite of Ben Franklin) considered an antibiotic/antifungal effective in treating gastric disorders, conjunctivitis, and even Lyme disease

Dandelion juice and stems, which are filled with vitamin A and C and contain more carotene than carrots, to promote healthy kidneys, heal wounds and fight bacteria

Live culture yogurt for yeast infections

Ginger as a nausea remedy

Horehound mint to soothe sore throats

Chewing willow bark, whose main ingredient is acetylsalitic acid (aspirin)

Since we were kids, we’ve heard that good health requires that we eat our fruits and veggies, but who knew how beneficial it might be just to wear them? According to folk traditions, a raw, grated celery poultice can reduce swollen glands. Rice poultices can alleviate skin woes such as acne or burns. Lemon juice on cuts can help stop bleeding and acts as a natural insecticide for flies and mosquitoes.

A warm cabbage leaf placed on the head can reduce headaches or clear up eye infections. Bothersome rashes, dry skin, and eczema are said to respond to avocado paste.

The champion ingredients in dozens of folk formulas seem to be apple cider vinegar and honey. Researchers in New Zealand found that honey halted the growth of major wound-infecting bacteria and, in some cases, was superior to antibiotics. Honey has been favored for years as a folk treatment for pimples, high cholesterol, baldness, athlete’s foot, sore throats, arthritis, infertility, chronic fatigue and bad breath. Apple cider vinegar, reportedly used by Socrates as an energizing tonic, is widely utilized to alleviate allergies, sinus infections, bronchitis, acne, sore throats, arthritis, hiccups, wasp stings and warts. When taken daily with water, it is said to lower blood pressure by as much as 40 points!

The next time you get a nasty saber-toothed tiger bite, consider going to your pantry instead of to your medicine cabinet. Take a swig of apple cider vinegar, slap on some honey, and call your doctor in the morning!

What Ails You? Folk Cures 101

Leg cramps – sleep with a bar of soap between the sheets (sounds crazy, but even Ann Landers used to recommend this); eat more bananas; or drink pickle juice.

Foot odor – juice a dozen radishes, add 1/2 teaspoon glycerin, and spray on (don’t be surprised if rabbits stalk you); soak in vinegar, or tea.

Age spots – rub with honey; apply apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, or onions.

Hiccups – drink ginger tea; suck a lemon wedge; put sugar on your tongue; sip peppermint oil in water; or eat peanut butter.

Headache – massage rosemary oil or peppermint oil on your temples; place raw onion slices on your forehead.

Cellulite – drink one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in water daily, also apply directly undiluted; massage with ground coffee mixed with olive oil.

Memory – drink sage tea…can’t remember what else…

What’s Up? does not give medical advice. Thrive is simply a discussion of current information, trends, history, and practices. Please seek the advice of your physician before making any changes in your lifestyle or health routine.