Prevention & Recovery

Ancient secrets for healing pimples, colds, upset stomachs, puffy eyes and more

By: Julie Beun-Chown

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

Ancient secrets for healing pimples, colds, upset stomachs, puffy eyes and more

By: Julie Beun-Chown
This story was originally titled "Ancient Healing Secrets," in August 2007 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Fifteen years ago, when Barbara Beam was 12, her mother let her in on an ancient family secret to creating radiant skin: yogurt -- lots and lots of yogurt. Once a week; lathered all over your face.

And not just yogurt, her mother instructed. Switch it up with honey and olive oil, too.


The moment called for a bit of pubescent eye-rolling. But young Barb took one look at her mom, shrugged philosophically and headed for the fridge. After all, generations of women in her Mexican-born family look young -- a lot younger than is strictly decent -- and they swear it's all down to bioactive yogurt.

“Doesn't matter what flavour,” laughs Barb, the afternoon drive radio host on Vancouver's Beat 94.5 FM. “It's like a natural facial, with no chemicals.”

Mom knows best
Turns out, mom knew her stuff. Yogurt not only has healthy microbes to fight bacteria but also lactic acid to exfoliate. On the skin, honey is an antibacterial agent. And olive oil? It's rich in antioxidants, which reduce the skin-aging impact of free radicals, and is currently being studied for its antibacterial and antifungal properties.

“We're a society where medicine is so accessible,” observes Sherry Torkos, a Niagara-based pharmacist with a special interest in holistic health and author of the forthcoming Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Wiley, November 2007). “Yet some of the best things are found in nature.”

Long before acetylsalicylic acid and store-bought moisturizers, early cultures used nature's remedies to safely treat everything from wrinkles to warts. And most of the ingredients are available in your own neighbourhood.

Key ingredients
Most health food stores either carry the ingredients mentioned here or can order them in. Plants, such as aloe vera, rosemary, witch hazel, lemon balm and fennel, are often available from nurseries.

Alternatively, naturopathic doctors are always happy to offer their advice.

Page 1 of 3 – on page 2: how to heal blemishes and sunburns

Almond oil
Before a big date, ancient Egyptian teens suffering a rampant case of acne blended a mask of almond oil and liquid honey to clear up their faces. According to a University of Sydney study, when honey's enzymes and glucose react to water in a wound or blemish, it produces hydrogen peroxide, an antibacterial agent that kills germs. To make an Egyptian honey mask, mix a tablespoon (15 millilitres) each of almond oil (or wheat germ oil) and raw honey. Apply to your face away from your eyes) and wait a few minutes, then wash it off with warm water.

Rosemary and lavender
More fragrant and less messy is an old folk recipe the women of Barcelona used to keep their skin fresh-looking. It contained rosemary and lavender, both of which act as astringents, antibacterials and antifungals. In a sunny spot, place a jar with 28 grams each of lavender and rosemary flowers in a half cup (125 millilitres) of apple cider vinegar. Discard the flowers after 20 days. To use as a cleanser, dilute the solution with eight parts fresh water and wipe on with cotton balls.

Sunburn and bug bites
Witch hazel
Traditionally used by East Coast Native Americans to reduce swelling, witch hazel is considered the panacea of home remedies. Hemorrhoids, burns, bug bites, diaper rash, puffy eyes, headaches and varicose veins -- there's not much this versatile plant can't treat. It's loaded with tannins -- a super-strength antioxidant -- and a numbing astringent. Witch hazel is widely available in health food stores and pharmacies, but a lotion is simple to make, too. Simmer one teaspoon (five millilitres) of twigs or powder from a health food store in one cup (250 millilitres) of water for about 10 minutes. Strain, discard the leaves and cool. Either apply directly or mix with petroleum jelly to make an ointment.

Aloe vera
Once only available from the Sultan of the Socotra, whose isolated island realm in the Indian Ocean held a monopoly on the plant for centuries, aloe vera is now a common treatment for everything from burns to constipation. One of its best uses is to soothe and heal sunburn, says Torkos. “Have a bath with lavender in it, then rub your skin with split aloe leaves,” she suggests. Keep a fresh supply by growing an attractive aloe in a pot at home.

Planning to bask in the sun? Check out our sun protection guide first!

Vodka and rosemary
Hungary Water is a bit of a misnomer -- the ointment made famous by the 13th century's Queen Elizabeth of Hungary was based on vodka -- not water. Still, she is said to have used it to stimulate her paralyzed legs, and it later became known as a painkiller and for healing wounds. That it worked at all is not surprising: rosemary is not only a powerful astringent that numbs pain, but it also acts as a digestive aid, an antifungal and an antibacterial.

To make Hungary Water, fill a three-cup 750 millilitres) bottle two-thirds full of rosemary leaves and one-third full of apple cider vinegar. Seal and leave in a sunny spot. Shake the bottle several times over three days. Strain and discard the leaves. Gently rub onto affected area.

Page 2 of 3 – on page 3: how to heal wrinkles, colds and stomach problems.

Before anti-aging galvanized baby boomers, European Carmelite nuns sparked a movement with Melisana, a wrinkle-preventing elixir (a variation is now sold as a nerve tonic). To replicate the original, make a tisane to sip by steeping a tablespoon (15 millilitres) of dried leaves from a lemon balm plant in a cup (250 millilitres) of boiled water. The leaves can also be added to bathwater to soften wrinkles.

"Lemon balm has lots of antioxidants and astringent properties, as well as antivirals," says Irene Karatzas, a naturopathic doctor at the West Vancouver Wellness Centre. "As a tea, it has a relaxing effect on the nervous system."

Summer colds
Egyptians in 3000 BC made fennel tea laced with honey to weaken their colds -- and modern herbalists still do. Fennel is an antispasmodic, expectorant and digestive aid, and it is good for treating flatulence. Crush a pinch of fennel and a pinch of either caraway, anise or cloves (which are all antiseptic herbs) and add to a cup (250 millilitres) of hot water. Steep for three minutes, strain and add honey. Do not use if you are pregnant. In large doses, fennel is a uterine stimulant.

Garden-variety dandelions may be the bane of lawn lovers, but they haven't always been. Native to Greece but imported by colonists, dandelions contain potassium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, bioflavonoids and vitamins A, B and C, and have long been revered as a laxative, says Sciortino. "Think of the dandelion as a blood purifier and detoxifier," she says. To treat constipation, simmer two ounces (60 grams) of dandelion leaves for 30 minutes. Add shredded orange peel and a drizzle of honey. Drink a glass every morning and night until you return to normal.

Carrots made their first appearance in Britain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603) and quickly became so beloved, women decorated their hats with the feathery tops. But it was pure carrot juice that was used to treat internal “putrification." Why? According to a 2002 study at Austria's University of Vienna, carrots (like breast milk) contain oligosaccharides, which protect against diarrhea by stopping harmful microorganisms from adhering to the intestine.

Bad medicine
As wonderful as old cures can be, some are not only ineffective, they're downright harmful. "Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe," says Nigma Sciortino, a naturopathic doctor in Vancouver. "Many are, but some are contraindicated for some conditions and drugs." Take the case of cranberries, for example. Although an excellent remedy for urinary tract infections, people on warfarin (an anticoagulant) or with a history of kidney stones should avoid them.

Then there's castor oil. "As a topical compress it's excellent for cramps or sore breasts, because it creates a movement of the lymphatic system to move toxins," says Sciortino. But as an oral laxative it can do more harm than good because it eventually weakens bowel control. "It could be that you take the wrong remedy, dosage or the wrong product altogether," she adds. "If you have any doubts, ask a naturopathic doctor."

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Prevention & Recovery

Ancient secrets for healing pimples, colds, upset stomachs, puffy eyes and more