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There's Some Method to the Madness of Folk Cures


Wrap up warm! Sip your chicken soup! Drink this garlic tea, this ginger tea or lie back and relax while Grandma rubs you down with her camphor oil cure-all.

When colds and flu lay loved ones low, venerated family matriarchs the world over step in with their trusty home remedies. It's hard to know whether these things really work: The scientific journals aren't exactly stuffed with studies testing the efficacy of chewing garlic or gargling with water laced with mashed-up horseradish.

"But people use them because they have a sense that they work, and we can't ignore the merit of that type of experience," says Dr. Irwin Ziment, professor of medicine at UCLA. "After all, much of modern medical practice stems from traditional practice."

And, in fact, medical professionals have ready explanations for why some of these therapies might help us feel less ghastly.

Take one of Ziment's personal favorites: chicken soup. The broth has a medical history dating to the 12th century, when the Jewish philosopher-physician Maimonides prescribed it for asthmatics to help clear their bronchial tubes. This makes some sense, and not just for asthmatics. Since fluids are lost via runny noses, fever sweats and diarrhea that can accompany flu and colds, drinking soup (and fluids in general) helps keep the body healthily hydrated. Phlegm becomes less sticky, and more easily coughed out.

But that's not all. Steam from the soup helps moisten dry, irritated airways (though humidifiers and vaporizers will do a better job). Heat from the soup is a blessed relief for a dry, stuffy schnoz: In one lovely study, scientists measured how fast patients' noses ran when they were given chicken soup or hot or cold water to drink--and found that chicken soup increased "nasal mucosal velocity," as they termed it, best of all.

Finally, chicken soup is nutritious and easy on the stomach--and well-nourished patients fight infections better. True, some scientists go further: They claim that chemicals in chicken soup can kill viruses or quash inflammation of the airways. "But I think the nutrition and the moisture are the two active ingredients," says Varro Tyler, professor emeritus of pharmacy at Purdue University and a specialist on alternative remedies.

If you're going the chicken soup route, you might want to lace the broth with hot peppers, as Ziment does. Or perhaps you'd like to drink some ginger tea or gargle with a mixture of grated horseradish, water and honey--an old Russian remedy.

Ginger, radish, pepper: All contain pungent chemicals that will get the lining of your nose cranking out liquid, unstuffing it and flushing the virus from your body. What's more, the intense spicy heat gently toasts the throat, bringing comfort by masking that miserable ache.

It's the same principle that lies behind those old-time poultices of hot mustard or onion, and more modern treatments such as mentholated lozenges or rubdowns with camphor, alcohol or eucalyptus. Your body feels a "hot" or "cold" spot: This distracts your mind from your sore throat or lungs. As a bonus, the odor of these penetrating oils easily reaches your lungs, giving the illusion, if not the reality, that your airways are now clearer.

Folk remedies sometimes soothe the throat by coating it with some kind of slime. There's honey slime, as in the Russian radish remedy, and that old classic, a hot drink of honey and lemon (adulteration with some soothing alcohol optional). Then there's slippery elm slime, from bark of the slippery elm tree, which, when chewed, releases a mucous-like substance.

Finally, there's our pungent friend the garlic clove, a treasure trove of potent antibacterial chemicals once it enters our bodies. Colds and flu, of course, are caused by viruses. But oftentimes a cold can usher in a secondary bacterial infection, dragging out the misery extra days or weeks.

Today's garlic tea and odorless garlic tablets and capsules are the modern-day equivalent of a centuries-old folk remedy. During the deadly world flu epidemic earlier this century, mothers had their children wear garlic clove necklaces to ward off the illness.

Which, if nothing else, was apt to keep people--and their germs--a nice, healthy distance away.

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