From headaches and heartburn, to toothache and tension, life is full of those everyday health niggles. And despite the fact we have a better understanding of how to look after our health and wellbeing than ever before, many of these common ailments can be put down to our modern lifestyles.
Somehow the most nonthreatening body problems almost always turn out to be the most frustrating. 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 sugar—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 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: 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 it—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.
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.