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A Lookback at Naturopathic Medicine: Social Studies & the Home Remedies We See Today



I remember the summer when I was seven. I went to Croatia to stay with my Baka in her hometown, Malinska. One evening mid-sleeping, I awoke suddenly to what felt like the start of a very painful ear infection. I vividly remember my Baka rushing to the stove, warming olive oil, and pouring it into my aching ear. To my surprise, the pain began to lessen instantly.  

 

As I reflect on this memory, it gets me thinking—what home remedies exist, do they work, and when did they start? Looking back, olive oil as temporary ear-pain relief seems absurd. However, is there some truth behind home remedies like this one, or are they false beliefs? 

 

Home remedies are considered an alternative, naturopathic medicine. They are made mostly from natural sources including different herbs or vegetables. These substances may then be extracted or formed into compounds such as ointments, teas, or foods. Overall, they are considered “home remedies” because they do not need to be prescribed by a doctor and can be created and consumed at your own discretion.  

 

Naturopathic medicine quickly evolved in the early 19th century [1]. Scientists performed extensive research on varied species of plants, discovering properties that could be used in healthcare [1]. Until the later evolution of pharmaceutical drugs, naturopathic medicine was extremely popular. Many natural remedies were used at home because they were easy to access and produce, especially if seeing a doctor was too difficult or expensive. Passed on for generations, plenty of these remedies still exist and are used today. 

 

Women played a significant role in domestic, naturopathic healthcare [2]. Unfortunately, they received little credit for their healing knowledge [3]. This “domestic healer” role is seen in many cultures both currently and throughout history. It is important we learn about the challenges and successes these women underwent to better understand our current healthcare traditions and why they exist.  

 

Indigenous cultures are one of many who embrace their women as not only healers, but life-givers and caretakers [4]. Individuals believe that healthcare not only includes the body, but also encompasses the mind and spirit [4]. Those who practiced medicine had specific principles they applied to their healing processes and approach. These included: understanding the healing power of plants, addressing the causes of disease, and teaching the principles of healthy living and preventive medicine [5]. Today, indigenous practices are embedded in both larger healthcare settings and at-home.  

 

In North America, indigenous naturopathic healing was at once the most popular form of medicine. However, after the introduction of colonialism and related patriarchal systems, this began to change. Joanne Okimanwininew Dallaire, resident Elder for Toronto Metropolitan University and a Cree Omushkego woman, talks about the history of women as healers and how this undertook a dramatic shift after patriarchal invasion into their cultures [4]. She mentions that women were once highly appreciated for their healing knowledge and abilities, until the invasion of non-native folks [4]. Settlers would come to the women in her community and beg for medicinal guidance, but then would quickly change their behaviour after receiving the aid. They would throw things at them and call them harmful names [4]. To make matters worse, all over the continent women were prosecuted, murdered, and brutally tortured for practicing healthcare [3].  

 

While indigenous cultures are only one example of communities that practiced domestic, naturopathic medicine, many other cultures have embraced this form of healthcare as well. Although many of these communities may differ in detail of approach, they do share a similarity regarding their healthcare—western, technological advancements overtook it. However, despite this pharmaceutical invasion, we see a trending reintroduction of naturopathic medicine more recently.  

 

Currently, some individuals are leaning towards alternative therapies (one of which is naturopathic medicine) over pharmaceuticals. One reason for this change is that people simply just want a natural remedy [6]. Folks have found that certain drugs and prescribed medications have caused negative side effects to their bodies [6]. Furthermore, many individuals want to reintroduce naturopathic medicine back into their lives. Integrated approaches to healing are becoming increasingly popular. This may include participating in physical/mental activities such as yoga, naturopathic medicine/diet, etc. [6].  

 

Now, after learning about some of the social studies related to naturopathic medicines, what are some actual home remedies that have managed to stick around? Which traditions have carried on despite the years of change against them? Lastly, are these remedies real, or false beliefs?  

 

Let's look at some common home remedies ... 

 

 

  1. Olive Oil to Heal Ear Pain 

 

Was my Baka, right? Did this tradition work, or is my memory murky? Well, it turns out, there is not enough research to know for sure. However, despite this lack of knowledge, researchers do conclude that olive oil is not necessarily harmful and is most likely a safer option than some alternatives. For example, cotton swabs are a common tool people use to clean their ears, however, if pushed too deeply you can damage your eardrum or push earwax even further. Olive oil on the other hand, may not reduce the pain but will loosen the wax and make it easier to remove [7]. In 2013, a study recruited participants to put olive oil in their ear every night. Expecting to reduce the amount of earwax produced, they found the opposite—more wax was created after the introduction of daily olive oil [7]. Overall, the conclusion is inconclusive. There is more research that needs to be done.  

 

  1. Peppermint Oil for Headaches 

 

My mom always claimed that if you rubbed peppermint oil behind your ear or on your temples you could relieve a headache. It’s true! In two studies, peppermint oil was tested on participants; the first study tested a group with peppermint versus another with ethanol preparation, and the second study tested a group with peppermint versus another with a placebo substance [8]. In both studies the results were the same: peppermint reduced headache intensity compared to the alternative substance used [8]. Something interesting to note was that there were no significant differences found between peppermint oil and acetaminophen in relieving headache pain [8]. So, instead of reaching for a Tylenol painkiller, try some peppermint oil!  

 

 

  1. Ginger to help with Nausea 

 

I remember when I was younger, my grandma used to give me ginger ale when I had a stomachache. This got me thinking about ginger root and how it used to help with nausea. Do both work? Is ginger ale a Westernized technique? It turns out that ginger root does work for the stomach, but ginger ale not so much. In households, the easily accessible ginger ale started being used as a substitute for the more uncommonly owned ginger root. However, this soda—composed of carbonated water, sugar, and ginger flavouring—is more likely to worsen symptoms than alleviate them [9]. Ginger root is composed of a natural component called gingerol which can improve gastrointestinal motility—the flow of one's digestive system [10]. The problem is that ginger ale contains very little ginger root and therefore also lacks gingerol [9]. In fact, the carbonation in ginger ale may worsen symptoms by introducing more gas into the stomach, causing bloating. In conclusion, stick to the real stuff—easy may not always mean effective.  

 

  1. Aloe Vera for Sunburns  

 

My mom bought an aloe vera plant to help treat our sunburns during the summer. She would peel open its leaves and put the gel directly on our burns. Does this work? It turns out, aloe vera is a traditional herbal remedy that does in fact relieve sunburn symptoms and reduce inflammation on the skin [11]. This succulent contains most of the essential amino acids, which when applied to our skin, can improve elasticity, and decrease dryness [11]. Concluding facts: aloe vera works and … mother does know best. 

 

  1. Chicken Noodle Soup for Colds 

 

And finally—chicken noodle soup for colds. This is by far one of the most popular home remedies to help treat the common cold and flu. Does it work though? Not in the way you think. While chicken noodle soup may not have antibacterial properties, it provides comfort, which helps us fight through the cold season. The warmth of soup both hydrates us and temporarily opens nasal passageways, making us feel better [12]. Additionally, the ingredients—chicken, vegetables, noodles, salt, and spices—are electrolytes that give us the energy and nutrients needed to help speed up recovery [12]. While all of this may be true, there is just something special about home-cooked soup that makes us feel better! 

 

 

Overall, it is important to reflect on the history of medicine, both mainstream and alternative approaches. While pharmaceuticals remain the most popular in healthcare for healing, I encourage you to do your own research. There are many ways to help heal one's body, mind, and spirit. Finding which approach(es) works best for you will do you wonders! 

 

 

 References

 

  1. Admin. History of Natural Medicine. Epic: Healthcare & Physical Medicine [Internet]. 2016 Nov 18 [cited 2024 Mar 19]. Available from: https://epichealthflowermound.com/a-brief-history-of-natural-medicine/.  

 

  1. Campbell, O. Part of Being a Domestic Goddess in 17th-Century Europe Was Making Medicines. Smithsonian Magazine [Internet]. 2021 Mar 1 [Cited 2024 Mar 19]. Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/part-being-domestic-goddess-17th-century-europe-was-making-medicines-180977080/.  

 

  1. Kinthaert, L. Women Healers: From Ancient Female Shamans to 21st-Century Doulas. Taylor & Francis: an Informa Business [Internet]. Cited 2024 Mar 19. Available from: https://insights.taylorandfrancis.com/social-justice/recognizing-the-importance-of-women-healers/.  

 

  1. Desai, D. Traditional Healing. Indigenous Land: Urban Stories. Cited 2024 Mar 19. Available from: https://indigenouslandurbanstories.ca/portfolio-item/traditional-healing/.  

 

  1. Dr. Kyba, G. Holistic Health: Traditional Medicine & Naturopathic Medicine [Internet PDF]. First Nations Health Council. 2008 Nov [Cited 2024 Mar 19]. Available from: https://www.fnha.ca/WellnessSite/Documents/Traditional_Medicine_overview.pdf.  

 

  1. Mayer, B A, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Is Becoming Less “Alternative” — Here’s Why. Healthline. 2021 May 19 [Cited 2024 Mar 19]. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/why-more-people-are-turning-to-complementary-and-alternative-medicine#why-it-s-popular.  

 

  1. Galan, N. Olive Oil for Ears: Everything You Need to Know. MedicalNewsToday. 2019 Sept 11 [Cited 2024 Mar 19]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326304#does-it-work.  

 

  1. Kliger B, Chaudhary S. Peppermint Oil. Am Fam Physician. 2007 [Cited 2024 Mar 19];75(7):1027-1030. Available from: https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2007/0401/p1027.html#afp20070401p1027-b15.  

 

  1. Wartenberg, L. Does Ginger Ale Help with Nausea? Healthline. 2022 Feb 10 [Cited 19 March 2024]. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/does-ginger-ale-help-with-nausea.  

 

 

  1. Bell, A. Aloe Vera for Sunburn: Does it Work? MedicalNewsToday. 2020 May 26 [Cited 2024 Mar 19]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/aloe-vera-for-sunburn#how-to-use.  

 

  1. Fact or Fiction: Is Chicken Noodle Soup Actually Beneficial for Fighting a Cold? Valley Children’s Healthcare. 2019 Nov 27 [Cited 2024 Mar 19]. Available from: https://www.valleychildrens.org/news/news-story?news=194.  

 

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Very interesting read!

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