Home remedies have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Before there were drugs there were herbs, spices and a variety of natural products to help us when we were in distress.
With the advent of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, home remedies fell into disfavor. Doctors did not learn about them in medical school, and drug companies were not about to invest millions of dollars into products that could not be patented. As a result, doctors often sneer at old wives’ tales or other seemingly silly solutions for common ailments.
When we discuss home remedies, as we frequently do, people often ask us, “How does that work?” We rarely have a good answer, which is why physicians are so skeptical. Without a plausible explanation for the mechanism of action, they don’t believe a spoonful of mustard can stop a leg cramp within a minute or two.
We always figure that if something works, is not dangerous and doesn’t cost very much, that’s what matters. After all, doctors did not know how aspirin worked for at least 70 years after it was brought to market by the Bayer company. That didn’t keep aspirin from easing pain or lowering fevers.
Now we have an ingenious explanation for why mustard or pickle juice works to relax leg cramps. For decades, physicians and athletic trainers assumed that muscle cramps originated in muscles and were caused by dehydration or imbalances in electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and magnesium.
Researchers have established that pickle juice promptly eases electrically induced muscle cramps (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May 2010). They also have demonstrated that the mechanism of action of pickle juice or mustard is not through electrolyte replenishment (Journal of Athletic Training, May-June 2014).
Nobel Prize winner Rod MacKinnon, M.D., and his colleague Bruce Bean, Ph.D., are neurobiologists. They also are prone to muscle cramps. While kayaking several miles off Cape Cod, Dr. MacKinnon suffered debilitating cramps, which was dangerous that far out in the ocean. Fortunately, they made it back to land, and they began a quest to better understand the causes of such incapacitating cramps.
By thinking creatively, they discovered that muscle cramps are actually triggered by misfiring nerves rather than dehydration or electrolyte imbalances. These brilliant scientists came up with a revolutionary idea that might transform the treatment of muscle cramps.
They hypothesized that strong flavors would trigger nerves in the mouth, throat and stomach. This neuronal stimulation might in turn overwhelm the misbehaving nerves that were causing muscle cramps. They concocted a spicy beverage containing cinnamon, ginger and a hot-pepper extract that “directly influence and regulate nerve function.” They call the product Hotshot (www.Flex-Pharma.com).
We suspect that yellow mustard or pickle juice also may work by stimulating the same nerves. Visitors to our website report fast relief from such remedies that cannot otherwise be explained by the slow absorption of sodium in the case of pickle juice or turmeric in the case of yellow mustard.
Perhaps it’s time for skeptics to recognize that just because a remedy may seem strange doesn’t mean it should be rejected.
Q: I work in cancer research. About 10 years ago, most of the women in my office decided to stop wearing antiperspirant because of the uncertainty of adverse health effects.
We all had amazingly similar experiences. Most of us immediately had an increase of smelly perspiration that gradually tapered over a year. We used frequent underarm toweling and added baking-soda-based underarm powder for meetings.
Fortunately, once we got past the rebound period, there were virtually no problems. We experienced normal sweat production and no unusual odor.
I suspect that antiperspirant rebound is like so many other problems caused by living in the age of chemistry: It fixes a short-term problem but causes a long-term one.
A: Your story surprised us. We’re familiar with rebound congestion after stopping nasal-spray decongestants, or rebound hyperacidity after discontinuing acid-suppressing drugs. We never imagined such an effect after eliminating antiperspirants.
We found, however, that some researchers have actually studied this question. They discovered that antiperspirant use changes the balance of bacteria in armpits (PeerJ, Feb. 2, 2016). According to one scientist, antiperspirants encourage the growth of Actinobacteria that create unpleasant odors (Archives of Dermatological Research, October 2014).
Stopping the antiperspirant does appear to promote bacterial growth. This might account for the rebound body odor you and your colleagues experienced.
Q: My wife died because of a medical error. A serious kidney problem led to a biopsy and a prescription for steroids.
While she was in the hospital, another doctor noticed a possible blood clot in her arm and started her on a regimen of blood thinners without telling us. As a result, her biopsy bled badly. Even though she was operated on to stop the leak, she deteriorated.
A hospital-acquired infection in her leg could not be healed. Her intestines became impacted, and 13 weeks later she passed away. I do not understand why the second doctor did not notice that she’d had a biopsy, which would make an anticoagulant inappropriate.
A: We are so sorry to learn of this tragic outcome. Patients or their family members must always be informed of hospital treatments and double-check for possible mistakes. Our book “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Prevent Them” offers checklists to help people be extra-vigilant.
Q: I have sleep and prostate problems. I take one Advil PM each night, along with Crestor to control cholesterol and Unisom for insomnia. I am convinced that the Advil helps relax my prostate and limits me to one bathroom visit per night.
I can’t tolerate side effects from prescription drugs such as tamsulosin (Flomax) and finasteride (Proscar). Is Advil dangerous if taken regularly? In the past, one of my urologists recommended Motrin to reduce my nightly bathroom visits.
A: There is some evidence to suggest that nighttime NSAID use may reduce trips to the bathroom (Urology, October 2008). Ibuprofen, the ingredient in Advil and Motrin, is an NSAID. The downside is that regular use of such drugs may affect kidney function or increase the risk of stomach irritation and ulcers, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
We also worry about the double dose of diphenhydramine you are getting by taking both Advil PM and Unisom. It can make people feel sluggish in the morning and may affect brain function.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of this newspaper or email them via their Web site: www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.