Healing herbs?

From coca leaves to tiger balm, natural remedies abound around the world – but do they work? Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth investigates

3 mins

One of the joys of travel is browsing the local bazaars. And often, when you do, you’ll find interesting health remedies on offer. In India, for instance, tooth-pullers and ‘ear doctors’ squat by the roadside, while stalls sell an array of powders and potions.

Beware of what you buy though: if shopping for remedies abroad, research them beforehand. If you can’t read the contents label, ask a local to translate. Even herbal preparations can have side effects; some can be dangerous or interact with other medicines you’re taking.

That said, there are local and natural remedies that are wholesome and effective. Here are a few useful cures for a few common travel ailments.

Digestion issues

Fennel and aniseed are offered as digestifs in many Asian restaurants. These herbs, as well as caraway seeds, calm the stomach and can help indigestion. Following a spicy meal with yoghurt can also soothe a reeling gut.

Peppermint is an excellent aid to good intestinal function; it can help ease bloating and sometimes reduces gaseous emissions. Liquorice is also good for a rumbling tum, while garlic aids digestion and stimulates the production of useful and protective mucous.

Top tip: Avoid tummy troubles altogether by shunning raw foods and going easy on spices.

Prescription alternatives: Omeprazole or ranitidine on prescription are great for treating persisting quease.

Tummy trouble

For nausea the best remedy is ginger – whether crystallised, as biscuits or fresh. In head-to-head trials with the prescription medicine metoclopramide, ginger was found to be just as effective, considerably more palatable and to have less risk of side effects.

Years ago – before I was medically trained – I was in India, and suffering from constipation. A local friend recommended Sat Isabgol. I found a packet of Telephone Brand, which claimed to cure both constipation and diarrhoea. Incredulous but desperate I tried it, and found it miraculously effective. Later it came into British pharmacies as Fybogel, and is great for soothing a post-travel irritable bowel. Telephone Brand is cheaper.

Top tip: Normal bowel transit time is 36 hours; when things slow down eat washed and peeled fruit to keep yourself ‘going’.

Prescription alternatives: Colofac or mebeverine taken three times a day with meals help calm post-travel chaos.

Sore throats and congestion

Echinacea was hailed, for a while, as an enhancer of the immune system – and even as a cure for the common cold. Sadly there is no substantial evidence for this, although a nice echinacea tea is pleasant and harmless.

Garlic probably speeds recovery from respiratory infections, something recognised by the Amish who suck on garlic for sore throats. Certainly it might reduce transmission of close-contact infections by encouraging people to keep their distance.

Top tip: Be prepared for coughs and colds, even on tropical trips.

Prescription alternatives: Soluble paracetamol gargled and swallowed soothes sore throats and brings fever down.

Bladder problems

At the first suggestion of urinary frequency many women will gulp down cranberry juice in the hope it will cure their cystitis. This, like anything that alters the acidity of the urine, wrong-foots the bacteria that party in the bladder, and will often stop an attack.

Other substances that help include vitamin C tablets, baking soda (take a heaped teaspoonful in a big glass of water several times) and even lemon barley water. Remember, it is important to drink lots too.

Top tip: Maintain a good level of hydration by drinking enough to pee a minimum of three times a day.

Prescription alternatives: Sometimes antibiotics are necessary to treat cystitis; a three-day course of trimethoprim or amoxicillin should work.

Itches and rashes

Several very different ointments can be rubbed into the skin to give a warm healing glow. Tiger balm (one of the mildest) and capsaicin (based on chillies) cause mild inflammation and thus bring blood to the painful area. I’ve found tiger balm also helps take the itch out of mosquito bites.

Aloe vera is traditionally used to aid healing after burns. Although there are no perfect clinical trials to prove its efficacy, it probably speeds healing; it may also soothe genital herpes and psoriasis. Claims have also been made that, when taken internally, aloe vera can lower blood sugar in people with diabetes, and can help reduce blood fats and cholesterol. No large clinical trials have investigated this.

Top tip: Take care in what you apply to your skin, especially in hot climates – some substances cause a sun-sensitive reaction.

Prescription alternatives: Although creams, gels and ointments can help pain, ibuprofen or paracetamol tablets are far more effective.

Mountain sickness

In South America coca leaves and coca tea are said to help alleviate altitude sickness. Although I have heard no evidence that the leaves themselves are protective, they are often chewed with lime to release the mood-enhancing chemicals within – and as mountain sickness is caused by an imbalance in the acidity of the blood, substances that alter pH should (in theory, at least) help protect from altitude sickness.

Sherpas in Nepal believe that garlic is protective, and often offer trekkers garlic soup on ascents.

Top tip: Gen up on safe rates of ascent to avoid mountain sickness.

Prescription alternatives: Acetazolamide (aka Diamox) is protective, especially if taken before starting to climb.

Jetlag and insomnia

Citronella, or lemongrass, is another great soother of both mind and body; it seems to aid digestion after a heavy meal and calms nervousness. Take it as an after-dinner infusion.

The other product that you might want to stock up on when travelling is the insomnia cure melatonin. It was briefly available in health-food stores in the UK until it was discovered to have powerful physiological effects, including inhibiting ovulation; it was subsequently withdrawn. However, it can still be purchased over the counter overseas (including in the USA) and works well to combat jetlag as well as sleep deprivation.

Dr Bach’s Rescue Remedy is a ‘flower essence’ solution, the theory behind it being that a liquid in which plants have soaked will retain some of their active properties. Many people feel it helps keep them calm, though according to trials led by Prof Edzard Ernst of the University of Exeter, such remedies are no more or less effective than a placebo.

Top tip: Pace yourself – don’t try to do everything or exhaustion will result.

Prescription alternatives: Zolpidem or temazepam are effective in helping you catch up on sleep.


There are many myths about the malaria-preventing effects of a range of substances including grapefruit, vitamin B and even Marmite. Plastering some substances on your skin might deter some mosquitoes but generally insect repellents work better and are more cosmetically acceptable. B vitamins only reduce the itch – they don’t repel biters.

Top tip: Do your homework well before departure so you know what precautions are needed for your destination

Don’t mess around with malaria prophylaxis – the quinine in a G&T might sound like an appealing remedy but it is no substitute for slathering on DEET repellent and taking the appropriate pills. Ask your GP for advice.

Prescription alternatives: DEET is the gold standard insect repellent.

Top tip – use booze: A G&T may not prevent you from contracting malaria, but spirit alcohol – be it whisky, rum or the local firewater – makes a handy antiseptic for cleaning wounds.

We say cheers to that!

Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth loves exploring exotic remedies but always tries to find out what’s in them before swallowing. www.wilson-howarth.com

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