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9 Natural Remedies That Really Work

By Karyn Repinski, Prevention
Alternative remedies are widely popular — and enormously effective, if you know which to use. Take our quiz to find out how savvy you are.

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  • Quiz: Secrets to a Longer, Healthier Life
    1.) There are numerous claims touting the health benefits of garlic. Which is true?

    A) It destroys the bacteria that cause ulcers.
    B) It reduces the risk of heart disease.
    C) It's a natural insect repellent.

    ANSWER: B. Contrary to popular lore, consuming the odoriferous herb doesn't relieve gastric or duodenal ulcers or keep pesky pests at bay. (In fact, research shows poor results for both uses.) But many studies show that garlic lowers elevated blood pressure, protects arteries and eins, and reduces the risk of blood clots, says Ronald Hoffman, MD, a complementary medicine practitioner in New York City and author of Alternative Cures That Really Work. There's no standard dosage for garlic, but a recent study used a concentration of garlic extract equivalent to eating about two medium cloves a day. To maximize the health benefits of fresh garlic, crush it at room temperature and let it sit for about 15 minutes before cooking — this triggers an enzymatic reaction that boosts the herb's healthy compounds.

    2.) Which herb reduces the swelling and pain of varicose veins as well as compression stockings (a traditional treatment)?

    A) Horse chestnut
    B) Gotu kola
    C) Butcher's broom

    ANSWER: A. Compression stockings worked faster, but horse chestnut brought equal relief after 12 weeks in a Lancet study. Horse chestnut contains a compound called escin, which seals leaking capillaries and improves the elasticity of veins. The most common dosage of horse chestnut is 300 mg twice daily. (Be sure the herb is standardized to contain 50 mg escin per dose.) Horse chestnut is the only botanical remedy studied against support hosiery, but combining it with other scientifically proven botanicals — including gotu kola and butcher's broom — may reduce symptoms even faster, says Michael Murray, ND, coauthor of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Gotu kola tones the vascular system and improves circulation (look for an extract that provides a daily dosage of 30 to 60 mg triterpenic acids), while butcher's broom contains anti-inflammatory and vessel-constricting compounds called ruscogenins. (Use an extract standardized to contain up to 11% ruscogenin at a dosage of 100 mg 3 times a day.)

    3.) You'll find fast relief from the pain of tension headaches with:
    A) Feverfew
    B) Tiger Balm
    C) Magnesium

    ANSWER: B. A topical ointment containing camphor, menthol, cajeput, and clove oil, Tiger Balm ($6; com) relieved acute tension drugstore.headachesjust as well as acetaminophen (Tylenol) did in one study. Feverfew helps prevent migraines, but there's no evidence it soothes tension headaches. In some people, low levels of the mineral magnesium trigger tension headaches and migraines, so ask your doctor about taking a supplement.

    4.) True or false: Ginkgo biloba eases depression.

    ANSWER: FALSE. Ginkgo helps keep you mentally sharp by increasing blood flow to the brain. "But just because your brain works better doesn't mean you'll be less depressed," says Hoffman. Instead, consider St. John's wort. "It's excellent for minor depression, especially if you're healthy and not taking other medications," says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, director of The Fellowship, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. If you're depressed and suffer from chronic pain from conditions like contarthritis, Low Dog recommends SAM-e, which eases depression and acts as an anti-inflammatory to relieve aches (avoid it if you have bipolar disease). In studies, both remedies were as effective as Rx antidepressants. Take 300 mg doses of St. John's wort 3 times a day; start with 1,600 mg of SAM-e a day, then cut back to the lowest effective dose, advises Hoffman. Be aware that of all natural remedies, St. John's wort has the most documented interactions with drugs.

    5.) To be sure an herbal preparation delivers the desired effect, you should buy:

    A) Loose herbs
    B) Bulk, powdered herbs
    C) Tinctures and freeze-dried extracts

    ANSWER: C — and, luckily, most herbs are available in these forms. Tinctures, which usually contain a high percentage of grain alcohol to prevent spoilage, are very stable and preserve the active ingredients of plants in a concentrated, convenient form, says Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a Prevention advisor. Likewise, freeze-drying helps maintain the potency of medicinal plants. Because of the effects of oxidation, loose, dried, or powdered herbs may not retain all their beneficial constituents, says Weil.

    6.) Which is not an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis?

    A) Glucosamine
    B) Acupuncture
    C) Curcumin
    D) Meditation

    ANSWER: A. Many experts recommend glucosamine for the wear and tear of osteoarthritis, but there's no evidence it eases RA, an autoimmune disease. The World Health Organization endorses acupuncture as an effective therapy for RA, based on studies in which it moderately reduced pain in 90% of patients. Research shows curcumin, the yellow pigment of the herb turmeric, is as effective as potent anti-inflammatory drugs in improving morning stiffness and joint swelling without the side effects; the recommended dosage is 400 to 600 mg 3 times a day. In one study, RA patients coped with their disease better after practicing meditation for 6 months.

    7.) True or false: Eating chocolate calms a cough.

    ANSWER: TRUE. Theobromine, a chemical in cocoa beans, was more effective at calming persistent coughs than codeine was — without causing drowsiness. Opt for dark chocolate, which contains more theobromine than milk chocolate. Prefer a no-cal herbal remedy? Weil recommends adding a teaspoon of a tincture of contmullein, a wildflower that loosens mucus and soothes your throat, to a little warm water and drinking it every 4 hours.

    8.) You have hay fever. Which of the following should you avoid?

    A) Stinging nettle
    B) Quercetin
    C) Echinacea

    ANSWER: C. Echinacea may help prevent colds, but it can actually worsen symptoms of ragweed or other weed pollen allergies. European physicians have long prescribed stinging nettle for allergies, and in one trial, almost half of participants said the herb was just as effective as their standard allergy medicine; take 300 mg of freeze-dried nettle a day, advises Low Dog. If this therapy works but not quite enough, add 500 mg of the anti-inflammatory quercetin 2 or 3 times a day between meals to stabilize the mast cells in your eyes, nose, and lungs, which are highly sensitive to allergens.

    9.) True or false: Red rice yeast is an effective natural alternative to drugs for lowering cholesterol.

    ANSWER: TRUE — but experts discourage its use. "Red rice yeast contains a substance identical to the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin [Mevacor]," says Hoffman. "But how much is in each batch is anybody's guess — it isn't carefully regulated." found major differences in concentrations of lovastatin when it tested 10 brands of red rice yeast. Though red rice yeast is milder than Rx drugs, potential side effects such as muscle aches and liver damage aren't unusual when it's taken at high dosages. A safer alternative for lowering cholesterol, according to Hoffman, is to incorporate 2 to 4 g of plant-derived sterols and stanols into your daily diet. These substances — found in salad dressings, mayonnaise, margarine-type spreads, and orange juice — help decrease both total cholesterol and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. In one review of studies, consuming 3.4 g a day lowered LDL cholesterol by 11%.

    10.) Which helps prevent cavities?

    A) Fresh cranberries
    B) Apples
    C) Aged cheeses
    D) Grapefruit seed extract

    ANSWER: THEY ALL CAN. Fresh cranberries contain anti-adhesive compounds that keep cavity-causing bacteria from sticking to teeth and gums. Apples increase saliva flow, which washes away the sugars from food and reduces the buildup of bacteria. Besides stimulating contsaliva, the high levels of calcium and phosphorus in aged cheeses such as Cheddar, Gouda, provolone, Edam, and Gruyere form a protective barrier on teeth. Grapefruit seed extract (available in natural food stores) has proven antibiotic ability — try adding a drop to your regular toothpaste every time you brush.

    11.) You've been diagnosed with diabetes. Which "kitchen cure" is not helpful in lowering blood sugar?

    A) Cinnamon
    B) Stevia
    C) Coffee
    D) Dark chocolate

    ANSWER: C — if the coffee has caffeine. In a recent Duke University Medical Center study, people with type 2 diabetes found that caffeine made blood sugar harder to control. Researchers recommend switching to decaf coffee (tea and soda too) because other large studies show that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of developing diabetes. More easy moves that preliminary research shows may help control blood sugar: Add up to ½ teaspoon of cinnamon to food or beverages, substitute the natural sweetener Stevia for sugar, and eat a bit of dark chocolate once in a while — just be sure to choose a brand that doesn't contain a lot of sugar.

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