As a pharmacist for almost two decades, Suzy Cohen knows the importance of medication—but she also has learned to "think outside the pill" and recommend natural options that often are just as good or better at promoting health without the risk of dangerous side effects.
Here are the remedies she recommends most often. All are free of significant side effects unless otherwise noted, but always talk with your doctor before using any supplements.
Tea Tree Oil For Wounds
This oil kills germs, reduces pain and helps wounds heal more quickly. You can use it in place of antibiotic ointment for minor cuts, scratches and burns...to treat toenail fungus... and, when diluted, as a gargle to kill the germs that cause sore throat.
How it works: It's a strong antiseptic that kills bacteria as well as fungi.
How to use: Moisten a cotton ball or swab with one or two drops of the oil, and apply it to the area two to three times daily until it heals.
For a gargle for sore throat: Mix a few drops in a cup of water, gargle and spit it out.
Caution: Do not swallow it.
Ginger For Nausea
Studies have shown that ginger can relieve nausea—due to pregnancy, seasickness, etc.-as well as or better than over-the-counter drugs.
In one study, published in The Lancet, volunteers were given either ginger or Dramamine (a nausea-preventing drug), then were seated in a chair designed to trigger motion sickness. Those given ginger were able to withstand the motion 57% longer than those given the drug.
How to use: Put one teaspoon of peeled, grated fresh gingerroot in a cup of boiling water. Let it steep for 10 minutes, then drink (you can filter out the ginger if you want). Or chew and swallow a piece of crystallized ginger, sold in health food stores.
Caution: Ginger can increase the risk of bleeding when taken with blood-thinning drugs, such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Rhodiola Rosea For Stress
This herb acts like a natural form of Valium by reducing physical and emotional stress. The supplement is made from the root of the Siberian plant.
How it works: Herbalists classify Rhodiola as an adaptogen, a class of herbs that "sense" chemicals in the body and either raise or lower them, according to need. It normalizes levels of brain chemicals that affect mood, such as monoamines and beta-endorphins, which help counter the effects of stress. Rhodiola also may increase serotonin, which enhances feelings of well-being.
How to use: During times of stress, take 100 milligrams (mg) of rhodiola rosea in capsule form, two to three times daily. It's best taken on a cyclical basis-two months on, two weeks off.
Calcium Plus Magnesium For Cramps
People who experience frequent and/or painful menstrual or muscle cramps often have a deficiency of calcium and magnesium.
How it works: Calcium and magnesium regulate the contraction and relaxation of muscles.
How to use: Before going to bed, take 500 mg to 600 mg of calcium, along with 150 mg to 200 mg of magnesium (using the chelate or glycinate forms-check the label). Combination formulas are easy to find and fine to use.
For menstrual problems, start 10 days before you expect your period to begin each month and continue until your period is complete.
Gaba For Insomnia
Gamma-aminobutyric acid GABA) is a neurotransmitter (mood-related brain chemical) that is naturally present in the body. It's taken in supplement form to reduce insomnia, as well as anxiety and depression.
How it works: GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows activity in the brain and makes it easier to fall asleep.
How to use: Take 500 mg to 1,000 mg one hour before bedtime if you have trouble getting to sleep. If your problem is that you wake in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, take it then. Don't exceed recommended doses on the package. Do this for two weeks. If it doesn't help, talk to your doctor.
Caution: Combining GABA with prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids can cause excessive sedation.
Capsaicin Cream For Pain
Capsaicin is the chemical compound that puts the "hot" in chili peppers. It is effective for easing muscle aches, back and joint pain and nerve pain caused by the herpes virus (postherpetic neuralgia).
How it works: When applied as a cream, it causes nerve cells to empty their reservoirs of substance P, a pain-causing chemical. This results in less pain from the underlying disorder.
How to use: Start with a 0.025% concentration. Apply it two to three times daily-the initial burning sensation diminishes with continued use. If needed, you can always buy the stronger 0.075% concentration but it's best to work your way up to this strength.
Caution: Wear latex gloves when applying capsaicin-and wash your hands thoroughly after using to prevent residual cream from getting into the eyes, nose, etc.
Probiotics For Digestive Discomfort
A healthy digestive tract contains trillions of bacteria, many of which have beneficial effects. These so-called "good" (probiotic) organisms promote digestive health, improve immunity and aid in the synthesis of B vitamins, among many other functions.
How they work: Probiotic supplements replenish beneficial bacteria and crowd out harmful organisms that can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea and other digestive problems.
How to use: Take a daily supplement of a least 10 billion organisms that contains a variety of living organisms, such as L. bulgaricus, L. bifida and B. longum. Some yogurts contain these live active cultures, but avoid those that contain sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Biotin For Cracked Nails
The B vitamin biotin is the only nutrient that has been shown to improve nail health in generally healthy adults. People with a deficiency of biotin often have fragile nails that crack easily.
How it works: Biotin is absorbed by the nail matrix, the part under the fingernail where nail cells are generated.
How to use: Take 2,000 micrograms (mcg) to 4,000 mcg of biotin daily, as well as a B-complex supplement. Most people will notice an improvement in nail strength and thickness in one to two months.