9 Folk Medicine Remedies That May Actually Work
For centuries, humans have tried a wide range of some pretty bizarre folk remedies. Many of the weirder ones have fortunately been left well in the past. For example, few people would ever consider blowing tobacco smoke into an aching ear, relieving rheumatism by carrying a buckeye in their pocket, or curing chickenpox by allowing chickens to run over them. Yet you may be surprised that there are some folk medicine remedies that haven’t just lived on, but have been scientifically shown to offer benefits.
Out of 10 adults in the U.S., at least 4 have tried a home or folk remedy to help overcome colds, toothaches, headaches, and more. Maybe it was something they learned from their parents, grandparents, community, or even online. Some have been found to be effective, others, not so much. Others, unfortunately, have been shown to make the problem worse or may even be dangerous.
Of course, before we get started, full disclaimer that this is for informational purposes only. Anything you read online (even on this blog) should never replace the advice of your own personal healthcare team. And even remedies that have been shown to work in independent studies may not work for you or be right for your personal situation. If you’re dealing with a mild, transient issue, then the remedies below can be worth trying. But if you have more serious issues, please discuss with your doc first.
9 Folk Medicine Remedies That May Work
1. Chicken Soup
If you, your mom, grandma, uncle, or cousin always puts on a pot of chicken noodle soup for anyone suffering from a cold, stuffy nose, or just feeling under the weather, it’s for good reason. Soup makes you feel better.
What’s more, when compared in a study, chicken noodle soup was shown to help clear mucus from the nose better than hot or cold water. It contains several compounds that help ease breathing, reduce coughing, and help the body battle inflammation. 1
If making your own chicken soup, add not only chicken but loads of vegetables like onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, and parsley for an added nutritional punch. The hot soup warms the body, the soul, and may even help you get better faster.
Another beneficial folk remedy for most people over one year old is honey. (Honey has a rare risk of infant botulism, a serious food poisoning, so it should never be given to children under one.)
Numerous studies have supported a teaspoon or two of honey to help relieve coughing and help support sleep. Several have even found honey to be more effective than over-the-counter cough suppressants. 2 – 4
Coughing isn’t all bad. It helps the body clear out mucus from the airwaves. However, it can also make it difficult to sleep, which the body badly needs to help fight off infection. Honey is inexpensive, readily available, and has virtually no side effects. And, a couple of teaspoons before bed can really help decrease discomfort so you can sleep if you have an upper respiratory tract infection with a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, and congestion.
3. Chili Peppers
Are your muscles or joints feeling sore from your recent workout? Consider smoothing in some chili pepper cream into your skin to help. This is because capsaicin, the compound in chilis that brings on the heat, warms the skin and then helps numb the ache. 9,10
You can find strong prescription capsaicin patches, but you can also make your own. Put on some protective gloves and mix three tablespoonfuls of cayenne powder (or jalapeno peppers) with one cup of coconut oil. Place it in a saucepan over low heat until it melts. Then combine completely by stirring well for five minutes. Remove from the heat and pour it into a container. Allow it to cool and solidify. (Or, you can whip the coconut oil with a hand mixer to create a light, fluffy, whipped capsaicin cream).
Before use, make sure to test a small spot on your skin before using it all over, and avoid using it anywhere near the face or eyes. Once you’ve determined it’s not too hot for your skin, massage into your sore body parts as needed.
Many people order ginger ale for airline flights to battle nausea. However, these beverages have little or no actual ginger in them. That’s unfortunate as ginger has been found to help with nausea and vomiting with motion sickness, morning sickness, and chemotherapy. 11 It may also help with a cold or sore throat when made into a tea.
If you’re feeling nauseated and have a headache, ginger may be surprisingly effective as it appears to help the body fight excess inflammation and act as an antioxidant. 12
To follow the folk remedy tradition, make your own tea by grating half an inch of raw ginger. Pour two cups of boiling water over the root and allow to sit for between five and ten minutes. For added benefits and flavor, add a squeeze of lemon juice and a teaspoon or two of honey. Then sip.
There are different types of mint, and they appear to have different benefits. For example, if you are looking for something to help ease muscle pain, wintergreen may help as it contains a compound called methyl salicylate, which is similar to capsaicin. Like the spicy stuff, it appears to help numb the area to reduce the perception of muscle and joint pain. 13 It doesn’t, however, come without risks. Despite the wide availability of wintergreen-containing products, overuse or consuming wintergreen oil can be dangerous. So, make sure you use it only as directed and for limited times to help cool joint and muscle pain.
Another commonly used mint is peppermint. It has a wide range of folk uses, including to help decrease abdominal pain, spasms, and diarrhea, especially when combined with fiber. Research has found this combination may even help when these symptoms are caused by irritable bowel syndrome. 14, 15
Peppermint, though, goes beyond its digestive effects. Many people suffering from colds, flus, headaches, and feeling under the weather in general have found peppermint tea to provide some relief. Not only does history provide evidence—as it was used for medicinal purposes in ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt—studies also appear to support these benefits. 16, 17
7. Water Gargle
Many people wonder how gargling could ever help—especially with plain water. Yet research has confirmed what mom’s have been encouraging kids to do for generations when battling a cold or upper respiratory tract infection. At the first sign of a cold or the flu, gargling with straight water was found to help prevent infection for people who were healthy. 18 Because this option is free and so easy, it’s surprising it isn’t one of the first tools pulled out of the toolbox when cold or flu season comes around.
8. Cold Compress/Ice
A potential way to ease a headache is to use a cold compress or ice pack on the head or back of the neck to numb away the pain. In one study, folks who used frozen wraps around their necks for 30 minutes reported that their pain levels were decreased significantly, if only temporarily. (The pain returned 30 minutes after the cold compress was removed.) 19
Just remember to avoid placing ice directly on the skin, and remove the ice pack after 30 minutes to help protect the skin.
While limiting sugar is typically the goal, when you have the hiccups and they just won’t go away, a teaspoon of sugar may help provide the relief you need. Sugar appears to stimulate the vagus nerve, resetting it to stop the spasms that are the hiccups. 20
Other Potential Successful Folk Remedies
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of all of the potential folk remedies around. There are some that show potential, but the data is a bit more mixed. For example:
• Elderberry syrup has been shown to work in some studies but not in others. However, it doesn’t appear to be harmful and makes for a tasty hot tea, so there’s no harm in making a soothing elderberry tea if you’re feeling under the weather. 21
• During cold and flu season, many of us remember parents or grandparents keeping a pot of water on the woodstove or furnace or using a steam vaporizer. Other folks pull out the cold-water humidifier, which is safer (as hot water can spill and burn, especially if children or pets are around) and may be more effective. Especially in dry environments, the moisture in the air can feel good, even if the data isn’t yet conclusive. 22
Before choosing to add moisture to the air, there are a few caveats. First, if you live in a wetter climate, there’s no need. Excess moisture in the air can be just as problematic as air that’s too dry. Second, dirty humidifies can be a hotbed for breeding bacteria and mold, which can trigger sickness and infections in people who breathe the air. Clean your humidifier often with a hydrogen peroxide solution and then rinse it well, use distilled or demineralized water, and change the water regularly to help keep your humidifier safe.
• If you’ve suffered from regular urinary tract infections (UTIs), you’ve likely been told to add cranberry juice to your daily diet to help prevent them. While some research indicates the juice is helpful, other research has shown mixed results. 23 It may, however, be due to the strength of the cranberry juice. If you do want to give this a try, make sure you pick a no-sugar-added juice as added sugar can make a UTI worse.
Folk Remedies: A Recap
Dozens of folk remedies have stood the test of time and been confirmed by researchers to actually work. Some may work for you or your family just because you believe they do. The placebo effect can be powerful. Still, others have not only been shown to be worthless (or gross) but may even cause damage or make you ill.
For short-term, mild problems, some relief can likely be found in your home or garden. But if symptoms persist, if you’re struggling to breathe, or if you are feeling really unwell, the best place to go is to your healthcare team. A cup of hot soup may not hurt and will likely even help, but it may also not be enough to get you back on the road to full health quickly.