Peppermint oil to help irritable bowel syndrome. Chile pepper seed rub to ease aching joints. Lavender to aid sleep. Hibiscus-flower tea to lower blood pressure.
Once dismissed by medical experts as grandma's superstition and folklore, herbal and natural cures such as these are getting a double dose of respect by mainstream physicians. Not only are they being recommended with increasing frequency, modern researchers are doing studies that find that many of these cures do in fact possess active biological agents that do just what Grandma told you they would.
One of the latest signs of how seriously such treatments are being taken is the new Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies (Time Inc. Home Entertainment, $25.95). It's not the first book to deal with home remedies — syndicated columnists Joe and Teresa Graedon of the People's Pharmacy have several, and an online search for home remedies gets millions of hits — but this carries the name of the prestigious Minnesota organization.
The book's focus on remedies that have been backed up by medical science helped win over Dr. Seema Modi, a geriatrician and family physician at Baylor Medical Center in Texas. Modi has many patients who have expressed interest in home remedies. Because such treatments are not always grounded in research, she had reservations about the book when she first saw the title.
"I was expecting 'Try a bar of soap between the sheets for leg cramps' — that's what I think of when I hear home remedies," she says. "But it's not that. To me this is like a book of medical common sense I wish I could prescribe to all my patients."
When the book does bring up suggestions such as cranberry pills or extract to cure bladder infections, an idea some of Modi's patients believe in more than she does, it is with the caveat that the authors have not found a rigorous study to support this.
Plus, the book provides helpful information about the cranberry remedy: that it shouldn't be used with the blood-thinning medication warfarin, because interactions between cranberry juice and warfarin, an anticoagulant prescribed to prevent blood clots, may cause bleeding.
Dr. Philip Hagen, a preventive and internal medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic who co-edited the Mayo Clinic book, says he has seen home remedies gain increased acceptance in the last 10 to 15 years.
"I think the public was ahead of doctors in embracing some of these things. I think there's a willingness of scientists and physicians to be open to saying there may be a biological reason that this works and doing a study to see if it does."
He found that peppermint oil eased irritable bowel syndrome because it contains a relaxant that settles the smooth muscle action of the large colon.
Knowing why it worked is helpful because it alerts doctors to potential side effects, he says. While peppermint oil relaxes the large colon, it also relaxes the smooth muscle valve at the bottom of the food pipe, which can worsen heartburn.
Lavender, a popular remedy for insomnia and anxiety since the Middle Ages, has been shown to increase slow-wave sleep in which the heartbeat slows and muscles relax, reports a 2005 study by psychologists at Wesleyan University.
Scientists have found that chile pepper seed rubs, which have been popular for centuries, contain capsaicin, which studies have shown to relieve arthritic symptoms and improve joint flexibility by stopping the destruction of cartilage.
Interest in home remedies has swelled as the recession and the cost of doctor visits and prescriptions strain household budgets, Hagen says.
Hagen says he continues to be open to learning about home remedies. Some favorites, he says, are the simplest: duct tape on a wart and saltwater for several ailments from sinus inflammation caused by allergies to sore throats and colds.
"It strikes me as amusing that something as cheap as salt and warm water can do so much. I often joke that I should keep a vial of saline in my medicine cabinet."