Somehow the most nonthreatening body problems almost always turn out to be the most frustrating. Sure, your cramps, stress headaches or yeast infections aren't going to kill you, but man, what a hassle! Wouldn't it be nice to solve them yourself, once and for all? Well, you can, with the right know-how: "Conventional medicine has a solid track record for serious issues, but natural cures can be a great way to ease those day-to-day annoyances," says Mao Shing Ni (known as Dr. Mao), PhD, a doctor of Chinese medicine and author of Secrets of Longevity Cookbook. "Plus, in many cases, the risk of adverse reactions is much lower, and the ingredients may already be in your home." Next time one of the following minor maladies messes with your life, look to some alternative remedies, along with dietary tweaks that can make all the difference.
You've got: A stress headache
What causes it: When you get really frazzled, the muscles in your head and neck tend to tense up, which constricts blood flow and can bring on the distinct throb of a stress headache. It's generally felt all over, like a dull but distracting ache, versus a migraine's one-sided pounding.
Eat this: Foods containing magnesium, such as spinach, nuts, Swiss chard and beans. "I call magnesium the relaxation mineral," says Mark Hyman, MD, a functional-medicine specialist and author of The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. "It pulls calcium out of muscle cells, which helps the muscle relax." Running low on magnesium (which most of us are, Dr. Hyman says) can lead to constantly tense muscles because the calcium is locked in. It's best to eat your magnesium, but supplements are an option. Women 30 and under need 310 milligrams daily. Over 30? Go for 320mg. In the meantime, avoid refined sugar, which can cause big spikes and crashes in blood sugarÂ—a recipe for a skull throbber. Instead, satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit.
Do this: Put your thumb on the back of your neck at the base of your skull, and look up so you're creating firm, steady pressure. "There's an acupressure point here that's connected to the muscles that tend to tense up," Dr. Mao explains. "While you're pressing into it, breathe in as you count to five, then breathe out, counting to 10." Perform this breathing exercise while holding the point for five minutes and the pain should dissipate. And "if possible, take a 15-minute break from the stressful environment that led to the headache and go somewhere dark and quiet to relax," adds Draion M. Burch, DO, an ob-gyn at the University of Pittsburgh Magee-Womens Hospital. "Take deep breaths or turn on soothing music. When you relax, your muscles will too."
You've got: A recurring yeast infection
What causes it: While pretty much every woman can count on experiencing the redness, intense itching and thick, white discharge of a vaginal yeast infection at some point, the worst is one that just keeps coming back, striking at least four times a year. If you've tried over-the-counter creams or prescription antifungals and you're still itching, that's a sign you may have a resistant strain of candida, the fungus that causes yeast infections.
Eat this: A daily 6- to 8-ounce container of plain yogurt (if you're lactose intolerant, soy or coconut yogurt works). Make sure it contains Lactobacillus acidophilus, a probiotic (good bacteria) that helps create an unfriendly environment in the vagina so yeast doesn't grow out of control, Burch says. It's very important to check that the yogurt has no added sugar, since yeast thrives on the sweet stuff, Burch adds. Other healthy whole foods, like lean proteins, leafy and cruciferous greens and healthy fats, along with garlic and coconut oil, also have anti-yeast properties, Dr. Hyman says.
Do this: Try a vaginal suppository with boric acid powder. Yep, you know boric acid as a bug killer, but hear us out. "Ob-gyns used to prescribe boric acid to women all the time before over-the-counter creams and the one-day prescription pill appeared," explains Tieraona Low Dog, MD, a specialist in natural remedies and author of Healthy at Home. "It's effective against the less common species of the fungus, which don't always respond to conventional treatment." If you want to try it, "you can buy boric acid powder, not crystals, in any pharmacy, then place it in size 0 or 00 capsules, sold at drugstores, and insert one into the vagina each night for a week," Dr. Low Dog says. Don't take the capsules by mouth (they're toxic if ingested), and don't use them at all if you're pregnant.
And FYI: Chronic yeast infections can be an early sign of diabetes. See your doc if you have symptoms such as frequent urination.
You've got: A runny nose
What causes it: When a cold virus or allergen invades your nasal passages, your body releases chemicals called histamines that increase mucus production and cause other symptoms, like itchy eyes or sneezing.
Eat this: Fermented foods, such as yogurt, miso or sauerkraut. They contain probiotics that can help boost immunity so you're armed against colds and flu. If you're already congested, you might want to avoid dairy products (they can make symptoms more noticeable) and sweets, which can crank up mucus production. Sometimes a runny nose is a reaction to a food allergen, like dairy or gluten (a protein in wheat rye and barley). "If your symptoms persist, consider being tested," Dr. Mao says.
Do this: Disinfect a small squirt bottle by dipping it in boiling water. Then, after the water has bubbled for at least a minute, let it cool and add it to the bottle with 1 or 2 teaspoons of table salt. Shoot a tiny amount into your nasal passage before blowing it out gently, Dr. Mao suggests. (Sounds unpleasant, but we promise it's not bad.) Besides rinsing out allergens and other germs, salt water is a natural antimicrobial that helps fight the bacteria and viruses that caused the cold in the first place. It can also dry up excess mucus. Don't have a squirt bottle? A neti pot will work the same way, or you can try a premade salt spray like Simply Saline. Both are available in drugstores.
You've got: Constipation
What causes it: Often it's a change in your routineÂ—you go on a big trip or have a superbusy few weeks that keep you out of the gymÂ—that disrupts your regular bowel habits, making you feel backed up and bloated. And the longer things remain standing still, the worse constipation can get.
Eat this: Down an 8-ounce glass of unfiltered aloe vera juice with 2 ounces of unfiltered apple juice. "Apple juice has pectin, which is fibrous, and the aloe vera speeds digestion," Dr. Mao says. Another option: a tablespoon of hemp seed oil or flaxseed oil before bed, which lubricates the digestive tract, he says. If you're often constipated, it might be a good idea to consider a daily regimen: Take 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds every morning (you can add them to your yogurt or mix them into green juice), pop 150 to 300mg of magnesium citrate in capsule form at breakfast and lunch and drink at least eight glasses of water throughout the day. "Flaxseed is an excellent source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for reducing gut inflammation; water helps move things through," Dr. Hyman says. "Magnesium citrate helps relax the bowels so you can go."
Do this: "Lie flat and massage your lower abdomen with your fingertips in short up-and-down motions for a few minutes every hour to help get things moving," Burch says. Afterward, walk around for a few minutes and have a full glass of water.
Are you chronically stopped up? See your doc for a thyroid check; a sluggish thyroid gland can cause constipation as well as other health issues, like weight gain and fatigue, Dr. Hyman adds.
You've got: Menstrual cramps
What causes them: When it's time for your period, your body ramps up production of prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals that help expel the uterine lining by causing contractionsÂ—and, unfortunately, triggering inflammation and those familiar pains in your belly. Over-the-counter pain meds are the usual go-to, but if you take them too often, they can lead to side effects such as upset stomach and diarrhea.
Eat this: Ginger is an antispasmodic that helps block prostaglandins. Sip ginger tea (you can buy tea bags or steep grated fresh ginger root) at the first twinge of cramps so you stop them before they get really intense, Dr. Low Dog says. Foods with omega-3s, like walnuts, pumpkin seeds and fatty fish (salmon, sardines) can also help reduce cramps over time. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory powers that help slow prostaglandin production. "Up your consumption of cold-water fish to 3 to 4 ounces twice a week, or take a daily fish oil supplement that offers 500 to 800mg of EPA or 200 to 500mg of DHA. You'll see improvement in your cramps in three months," Dr. Low Dog says.
Do this: Massage a pressure point at the end of your spine (about 2 inches above your butt). "The nerves here connect to the uterus, so applying constant pressure to this spot with your palm or fingertip relaxes the uterine muscles," Burch says. You can reach back and do it yourself or ask your partner to help.
You've got: Canker sores
What causes them: These shallow, painful sores tend to strike because of some kind of irritation, like after you've bitten your tongue. They also appear when you're stressed. Most of the time the exact cause is unclear, but they're unrelated to cold sores (which are brought on by a virus).
Eat this: Yogurt. Swishing a spoonful of the plain, sugar-free kind along your gums helps rebalance the microbes in your mouth so it's a less favorable place for the harmful germs that can irritate the sore and make it worse, Dr. Low Dog says. Skip spicy or acidic foods, such as citrus or sodas, which can exacerbate an existing canker sore and may even cause new ones to form, Dr. Mao explains.
Do this: Gargle with a 50/50 solution of hydrogen peroxide and water three times a day and right before bed. Hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic that can kill those bacteria, Dr. Mao says. "If the sore is already irritated, coat it with baking powder before bed, which helps it close up faster." Canker sores can also be a sign of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, Dr. Mao notes, so consider being tested if you get them frequently or if you have symptoms such as abdominal pain.
You've got: Itchy winter skin
What causes it: Your skin just can't win in the colder months. Both the heated indoor air and the dry, chilly air outside mean you're facing dehydrated, flaky skin no matter what. And it's hard to resist scratching itÂ—which only contributes to the irritation.
Eat this: Foods high in B vitamins, such as poultry, meat and whole grains. "B vitamins, especially niacin (or B[subscript 3], found in poultry, meat and fish), help open capillaries near the skin's surface, improving delivery of blood and boosting skin health," Dr. Mao says. Avoid refined sugar: "Sugary, processed foods worsen skin issues because they immediately raise blood sugar levels, triggering an insulin response that leads to puffiness, itching and dryness," Dr. Hyman says.
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Do this: Moisturize skin with natural nut or vegetable oils, available at supermarkets and organic food stores. "Walnut, coconut, hemp seed and avocado oils are high in specific amino acids that help your skin rehydrate," Dr. Mao says. (One quick note of caution: If you or someone in your family has a tree nut allergy, skip oils made with those; there is a potential for a reaction when used on skin, Dr. Mao adds.) You can apply it directly to skin as needed. Or, for a hydrating treat, replace your nightly shower with a relaxing bath. Add 2 tablespoons of your favorite oil to the warm water and climb in. Afterward your flaky skin (and your stress) will be gone for sure.
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Signs you definitely need to see your doc:
Sometimes an appointment is best: If you develop one of these startling symptoms, skip the home remedies and go right to your MD to have it checked out.
Shortness of breath: Any breathing trouble needs medical attention. It may be asthma, which can be controlled with steroids. If it's sudden with chest pain, it could be a pulmonary embolism, i.e., a blood clot in your lungs. If you suspect that, get to the ER.
Dizziness or fainting: Either symptom can have a host of causes, from stress to more serious things, such as a heart condition like atrial fibrillation. To sleuth out the problem and stop your head from spinning, you need a professional opinion.
A wound that swells and oozes: A cut or gash that gets red, puffy and painful and has discharge or pus coming from it indicates you probably have an infection, meaning it won't get better without a dose (or two) of prescription antibiotics.
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A superhigh fever: At the first sign of heat, pop an anti-inflammatory like acetaminophen. Tell your doc if your fever reaches 103Â°. If it lasts longer than 24 hours, get to an ER or urgent care center. You may be fighting a potentially life-threatening infection.
Slash the sugar, save your health?
Experts have long given refined sugar the side eye, blaming it over the years for tooth decay and weight gain. But now holistic physicians as well as many traditional docs are arguing that the sweet stuff is an even bigger health threat. Here's why: Added sugar (the kind not present naturally in certain foods, like fruit) immediately spikes your blood glucose levels, resulting in elevated insulin levels. "High insulin paves the way for diabetes," Dr. Hyman explains, "and it also leads to low-grade inflammationÂ—an immune system response to what your body mistakenly believes are foreign substances that need to be attacked." Over time, inflammation can aggravate headaches, damage blood vessels and otherwise wreak havoc throughout your body. Cut your sugar intake and you'll reduce inflammation, potentially improving everything from your skin to your cholesterol numbers.
Three natural cures to skip:
For every earthy remedy that works, there are at least a few more that have been proved useless. And after all, no one wants to waste time and money. Here's the scoop on nonmedical tactics you should ignore.
Oil pulling for cavities: This Ayurvedic practiceÂ—where you swish a tablespoon of oil (coconut, sesame, sunflower) around in your mouth for up to 20 minutesÂ—is said to whiten teeth and prevent cavities. While a few small studies show it may help reduce mouth bacteria as well as regular mouthwash, you'll still need to brush, floss and schedule your routine dental visits. Why add a step?
Candling for congestion: You hear this treatment sucks out earwax, impurities and even congestion from a cold, but research reveals that the candle doesn't create a suction effect. Even if it did, the mechanics of your ears and sinuses makes it impossible for things to be simply pulled out. What is possible from candling? Burns or a punctured ear drum. No, thanks.
Black cohosh for hot flashes: This herb supplement was once a promising candidate for easing hot flashes. But sadly, the research on its effectiveness is conflicting, and it hasn't passed muster in larger, controlled trials. You're better off trying meditation or other relaxation techniques to control stress, which has been linked to making hot flashes harder to handle.