If you’re like many Americans, at the first sign of discomfort, you may be reaching for a common over-the-counter (OTC) medication to stop the symptoms in their tracks. Feel a tension headache building or overdo it in the gym? Grab your favorite NSAID (e.g., ibuprofen). Ate a heavy or spicy meal that’s making it difficult to relax? Chew on a chalky antacid for relief.
When looking back on history, many of us feel so grateful for the scientific advances that have made our lives much more comfortable and convenient. There was a time, we believe, when you just had to grin and bear it—no matter how uncomfortable your condition became.
Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, is the fact that many of these products, while typically effective, probably don’t need to be used nearly as often as they are. In fact, Americans are using over-the-counter medications now more than ever before. Spending on OTCs has more than doubled in the last decade—up to over $34 billion in 2016 alone.
Plus, OTCs can come with serious side effects with overuse. For example, too much acetaminophen is the most common cause of liver damage and liver failure in the U.S. And long-term use of antacids can lead to a disruption in the microbiome as well as vitamin B12 deficiencies.
It’s also important to remember that discomfort is how the body communicates that something might be going wrong. Instead of suppressing those recurring headaches, take the time to find out what’s causing them in the first place. That could mean a visit to the doctor or just regular afternoon walks to let go of the tension that’s building up into a horrible headache.
Often, minor ailments don’t require such big guns anyway. Instead of reaching for something off the drugstore shelf at the first sign of discomfort, there are simple, natural options that may help the body fight off the issue before it has a chance to dig in.
In different parts of the world, these options are often even more commonly used than OTC products. The French, for example, are more likely to reach for homeopathic remedies. The Swiss National Health Insurance covers Chinese medicine, herbal remedies, and homeopathy. All over the world, food and herbs have been used as medicine for hundreds to thousands of years.
7 Natural Solutions For Common Ailments
Symptom #1: Headache
Up to 1 in 20 adults experience headaches daily, and tension headaches affect over a third of men and over half of women in developed countries. Most headaches will eventually go away on their own after 30 minutes to several hours. And they typically aren’t a sign of anything serious.
To avoid a headache to begin with, ensure you’re getting enough rest (especially if you’re fighting off a cold or the flu), drink plenty of water, practice stress relief techniques (as stress can make headaches much worse), and exercise consistently. On the flip side, avoid skipping meals, oversleeping, drinking too much alcohol, or staring at a screen for hours on end (and give your eyes regular breaks throughout the day).
Natural Solution: Magnesium
While many of us reach for the bottle of “vitamin I” (i.e., ibuprofen), aspirin, or acetaminophen at the first sign of tension in the head and neck, these options do come with potential side effects, including intestinal distress, kidney damage, elevated liver enzymes, and increased risk of heart attack and stroke (especially in people with hypertension or heart disease), etc.
Instead, you may want to give magnesium glycinate a try. Surprisingly, people who suffer from migraines are much more likely to be deficient in magnesium. So, with none of the side effects and surprising effectiveness, the combination of the mineral magnesium with the amino acid glycine may help calm the nervous system, support serotonin production, and help the body naturally fight off a headache. It’s also gentle on the stomach and easy to absorb. The recommended amount is 200 to 600 mg.
Another potentially helpful solution is to simply drink a cup of coffee (or two) as 200 mg of caffeine may help blood vessels in the brain constrict, which could relieve the pressure leading to the pain. This effect may only work for people who aren’t typically coffee drinkers, though. Regular coffee drinkers are likely to experience powerful headaches when they cease their caffeine habit.
Symptom #2: Nausea
The body’s major defense against food poisoning is nausea and vomiting. But these reactions can also arise from motion sickness or even overeating. To help your body overcome an upset stomach, you may have to just let it run its course (e.g., in the case of food poisoning) to get rid of the unwanted bacteria. But what if you are simply suffering from a long car or plane ride, ate a big meal, or are pregnant? Is there anything you can do?
You could try bismuth subsalicylate (as found in Pepto-Bismol or Kaopectate) for an upset tummy or antihistamines for motion sickness. But they can come with side effects, including more abdominal pain, anxiety, and constipation with bismuth subsalicylate, or drowsiness, dry mouth, headache, dizziness, and others with antihistamines. For some people, the side effects can be worse than the original problem.
Natural Solution: Ginger
Fortunately, there’s a very common food spice that has been used for thousands of years to help relieve nausea: ginger.
Ginger appears to help the body resist nausea by increasing the tone and motility within the G.I. tract, which helps with digestion. And it’s even been shown to work during pregnancy. (Interestingly, ginger may also be helpful for those experiencing painful periods.)
You can sip on ginger tea, add fresh ginger to a smoothie, or chew on ginger tablets, candies, or gum. There is no agreed-upon dosage; however, much of the research provided .5 to 1.5 grams of dried ginger root. Other spices that may help combat nausea include fennel, cinnamon, and cumin.
Other potential solutions for nausea include diffusing (or simply smelling) peppermint oil, lemon oil (or even just a fresh slice); acupuncture or acupressure; deep, slow, controlled breathing; progressive muscle relaxation (PMR); or massage.
If, however, you experience nausea frequently (and not just due to motion sickness), there could be something else going on, so take the time to chat with your physician. It could be due to stress, food allergies, or a more serious condition you don’t want to ignore.
Symptom #3: Acid Reflux or Heartburn
OTC remedies for acid reflux seem to be riddled with unwanted side effects. They’ve been linked, for example, to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, gut dysbiosis, increased risk of heart and kidney disease, and a decrease in cognitive function.
When it comes to acid reflux or heartburn, your best bet may be to just avoid foods that disagree with you. Common culprits tend to include wine and spirits, tomatoes, fried or fatty foods, coffee, citrus, and spicy foods. It’s also helpful to maintain a healthy weight, eat smaller meals, avoid tight-fitting clothing, and get regular exercise. It can be especially helpful to take a walk after eating. And if heartburn strikes at night, it can help to elevate the top end of your bed by six to nine inches using sturdy blocks or bricks.
Yet, even when you’re cautious with your diet, acid reflux can creep up on you.
Natural Solutions: Apple Cider Vinegar and Digestive Bitters
Both digestive bitters and apple cider vinegar (ACV) may help rouse digestive juices, so the system functions more efficiently. To help fight off acid reflux, add a dropperful of digestive bitters and a tablespoon of ACV to a small glass of water, and sip as you’re eating your meal.
Another option, according to folklore, is to eat an apple. Apples, you see, are high in the soluble fiber pectin, which may help absorb stomach acid. They also provide malic and tartaric acid, which may help reduce the acids that can flow up from the stomach. Sweeter apples, like red or golden delicious, are reportedly even more effective than apples that are more tart.
Unfortunately, there is little research on how effective apples are, but since they’re so tasty and affordable, it couldn’t hurt to try.
Again, however, if you start experiencing chronic acid reflux or heartburn, it’s time to visit your doctor to ensure there isn’t a more serious issue.
Symptom #4: Constipation
Before considering anything else, it’s a good idea to do a quick check to see why you may be constipated. Have you recently changed your diet, do you drink enough water, are you eating enough fruits and vegetables, do you consume enough fiber? Do you sit too much, eat too much meat, suffer from insomnia (or just don’t get enough zzz’s), or have a food intolerance? All of these can lead to constipation and need to be addressed, as constipation is one of the ways the body tells you something is off.
As you address these issues, though, you may be really, really uncomfortable. You just need to get things moving again, and fast, right? If so, there’s a simple, natural solution…
Natural Solution: Magnesium Citrate
The combination of magnesium plus citrate has a long history of helping your intestines relax and pull in water to stimulate the bowels and make stools softer and easier to pass. Better yet, it isn’t likely to cause urgent bathroom visits (as long as you don’t overdo it) but will start working in one to four hours. Simply stir 200 to 300 mg in a glass of water. Cut down on the dosage once your stools soften, and it’s no longer an issue.
Another possible option for helping fight constipation is to eat dried plums (aka prunes). These provide insoluble fiber, sorbitol, and dihydrophenylisatin, which all help get things moving. Start with a single prune per day and add another one or two if that doesn’t provide the action you’re looking for.
Symptom #5: Joint Discomfort
As we age, it seems like our joints continually ask for more of our attention. From general aches and pains to soreness from a bit of overuse, activity-related joint discomfort is extremely common. To help tend to those occasional creaky joints, it’s a good idea to maintain a healthy weight, improve your mobility and keep the joints flexible, and exercise consistently, appropriately, and properly to strengthen the muscles around your joints. A healthy diet is also important. For example, the omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish are well-known to support joint health.
Natural Solutions: Capsaicin and Curcumin
Even when you’re doing everything you can to care for your joints, you may need a little extra support from time to time. A topical ointment or cream that contains Capsaicin from chili peppers can warm up the muscles and joints, helping soothe soreness.
Another option is curcumin from the spice turmeric, which may naturally support healthy inflammation in the body. You can, of course, just increase the amount of turmeric in recipes and add it to smoothies, stir-fries, oatmeal, golden milk, etc. But it’s much more efficient to use a quality curcumin supplement to help support joint health.
Symptom #6: Muscle Soreness
Ever exercised so hard you can barely make your way upstairs or sit down to, er, do your business? How about so hard you couldn’t lift your arms to comb your hair?
The answer may be to back off a bit and not push quite that hard—you can always work your way up. Combine that with plenty of hydration, adequate sleep, some stretching and maybe foam rolling, and you can ease a lot of that pain without needing to turn to standard NSAIDs. But are there any other options in case you do accidently push too hard and experience some serious delayed onset muscle soreness?
Natural Solution: Arnica
Yes! Another option can be from a meadow flower that’s been used since the Middle Ages and is still popular today: Arnica. In fact, it’s widely used in Germany and has been found to be as effective in helping the body regulate inflammation as NSAIDs.
Available in sublingual homeopathic pills and tablets as well as full-strength creams and gels, Arnica is easy to use and appears to be much safer than many other options.
Symptom #7: Sleeplessness
With too much stress comes occasional sleepless nights. Yes, good sleep hygiene is an absolute must. (Quick reminder: those late-night T.V. binges or phone scrolls don’t lead to a good night’s sleep!) But is there anything else that could help you drift off just a little easier? Indeed.
Natural Solution: Lavender
The sleep-supporting effects of lavender and lavender essential oil are well-known to help people not only fall asleep but sleep deeper. You can use a diffuser with pure lavender essential oil to your bedroom, or you can simply spritz your pillow with lavender or dab a drop or two of the oil on your temples, wrists, or neck. You can also sprinkle drops onto a tissue or cloth to tuck under your pillow. Alternatively, a warm bath with a few drops of lavender oil, bathing with a lovely lavender soap bar, or applying a lavender-scented body lotion before bed may work well too.
Other natural aids that appear to support sleep include magnesium, L-theanine, melatonin, and valerian root.
Bottom Line On Natural Remedies
The next time you’re experiencing a common ailment, before heading to your local drugstore to use the big guns, why not try an at-home remedy. It could save you time, money, and help you feel a whole lot better (without the risk of side effects).
Of course, if any ailments continue, set that appointment with your doctor to ensure you’re getting to the bottom of the issue rather than just suppressing symptoms.