While the botica de la abuela would have offered boiling sweet potatoes and then wrapping them on a damp cloth to be applied to your neck as a natural remedy for a sore throat, a hundred years ago a physician would have instead recommended gargling with bicarbonate or having your tonsils brushed with a iodine/menthol solution.
Odd as some of these natural remedies seem, however, there was a lot of wisdom in the collection of potions found in both la botica de la abuela and the doctor’s compounding pharmacy, but probably grandma’s natural remedies were safer.
Back in the days, there was intuitive wisdom about the body, about health and illness, which was traditionally transmitted from generation to generation before a total schism between “the profane” (abuelas) and “the sacred” (MDs), the intuitive and the science took place.
Our Latin American women in most cases are still advising natural remedies for fever, cough, diarrhea, chickenpox itch or “mal de amores.” And most of their recommendations you’d even call holistic these days.
Natural remedies: Rest, nutrition, herbs
Grandmas’ first advice would always be “to rest,” for example, because it was understood that the body had to save energy when fighting illness or recovering from a surgery or childbirth.
On the contrary, in these urban hectic times it seems as if what people want to do is to mask any symptoms so that they may continue working or having fun. Like if there is no moment to spare. The result being that very often the body doesn’t get the chance to heal short-term conditions and these get worse and in time turn chronic.
A person who is not “in tune” with their body can’t listen to its cautionary alerts.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of the elderly has been replaced by pretty-wrapped information that comes to us through the media and roughly by commercials that tell you to tell your doctor what drugs he should be prescribing you or your children.
Well, the botica de la abuela with its purgantes, jarabes and tisanas is now sadly agonizing and alongside, the wisdom of the body is also been silenced. The hope is that holistic medicine will rescue at least part of it.
Food as medicine
After recommending rest and the proper nutrition, other natural remedies from grandmas came also from the kitchen. Maybe our abuelas didn’t have scientific knowledge about the long-term positive effects or the pharmacology of herbs and spices but the kitchen was often their pharmacy.
This in fact, was not a new concept at all.
Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century is quoted as saying, “a herb is a friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.”
Actually, promising current research shows that many herbs and spices may provide protection against chronic diseases, including cancer.
Henry Puget and Regine Teyssot in their book Mes remèdes de grand-mère, collect a great deal of traditional remedies, worth looking at. They list Eucaliptus for colds, the white of an egg for burns, mint tea for nausea and basil for anxiety, among a long list of recipes for health.
Some natural remedies from la botica de la abuela
Here is a list of a few home natural remedies that are of common use in Latin America and a comment on the science behind its use.
Lemons: Have been prescribed for colds, arthritis, sore throat, hemorrhoids and even a bad hangover. High in Ascorbic (Vitamin C) and citric acid, lemons can certainly help prevent colds, boost the immune system and help repair cartilage. As an antioxidant, Vitamin C can help minimize tissue damage caused by the free radicals left by the metabolism of alcohol, so there is logic in taking Vitamin C to minimize the damaging effects of the drinking.
Oregano oil: Used for earache and colds, it actually has been found to have antibacterial properties.
Olive Oil: used for gallstones and constipation, is nowadays recommended to increase your daily dose of omega-3, fatty acids, which are precursors of the anti-inflammatory type prostaglandins in the body. Because fats and oils prompt the contraction of the gallbladder, olive oil can indeed force small stones to leave the bile pouch through the intestines. The danger is that a large stone could get stuck and obstruct the bile ducts causing an emergency.
Garlic: Has been used for its antibacterial properties but also has been recommended for parasites and to treat rheumatism. Recent research shows its possible benefits to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.
Marjoram: A couple of cups of marjoram tea per day is said to relieve hay fever, indigestion, headaches and nervous disorders. The unsweetened tea can be used in gargles to relieve a sore throat. It actually has mild antioxidant and anti-fungal properties.
Castor oil: traditionally and successfully recommended for constipation, as a temporary solution. Most oils work as mild laxatives; they help lubricate your bowels and ease the passage of food residues. Contraindicated in pregnant women and should not be used if there is a fever, which might indicate intestinal obstruction or appendicitis.
Abuelas were off, innocently and naively, when they prescribed jarabes rich in opium alkaloids.
Elixir paregórico and laudanum were kept at reach in the bathroom to be used for stomach and menstrual cramps, for example.
Laudanum was also used during childbirth to alleviate pain caused by contractions.
However, laudanum contains both morphine and codeine and thus it is a potent narcotic. Paregoric, a camphorated tincture of opium, was used as antitusive, antidiarrheal and analgesic.
Today both are controlled substances in most of the world.
Even home-made and natural remedies need to be taken with precaution since they are not exempt from side effects. Being well informed is a plus.