In modern day America, if we have a problem we usually go see a doctor or visit the drugstore. But in olden days, people had to take care of themselves. Every settlement or town had an intuitive, wise healer who became the local gatherer of liniments and lore. Back in the 1880s, my own grandmother was known as the Granny Doctor on Dickey Hill, a small, scattered settlement in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I was lucky enough to inherit her notebook of infamous cures, many of them straight from the pantry, and I have to say — when used as “prescribed,” these ordinary food items equaled or out-performed anything I’ve gotten from the pharmacy.
CAYENNE PEPPER Granny used this to treat everything from ulcers to arthritis. She taught local hunters to sprinkle cayenne pepper in their socks to keep their feet warm in the deep snow. She could effectively cauterize a bleeding wound with the stuff and also prescribed it for depression. When I scratched the cornea of my eye while camping, I screwed up the courage to try her famous “anesthesia eyewash” but, honestly, this remedy can be terrifying, and it is not for the faint of heart. Prepare a solution by adding 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper to half a cup boiled water; when cooled, strain through a coffee filter. Dilute the solution until it’s a pale pink, and, using an eye cup, throw into your scratched eye. It will feel like someone just stabbed you in the head with a red hot railroad spike. The initial shock will subside quickly, taking the pain and redness from the scratched cornea along with it.
HONEY Granny always used local honey. Most commercial honey sold in stores now is filtered and pasteurized, which removes pollen and destroys most of the beneficial enzymes and nutrients. For best results, always use indigenous, raw honey. For cuts, burns and infected wounds that will not heal, apply a thick layer of honey and cover with gauze. Change dressing, clean and reapply honey once each day until healed. As a remedy for allergies, take one or two spoonfuls a day during allergy season. For sore throats, put a spoonful in your mouth and let it drip down the back of your throat.
TEA BAGS For irritated eyes or infected styes, these little poultices can be a godsend. To prepare, place two flat tea bags in a cup and cover with boiling water. Steep until just cool enough to handle. Squeeze out excess tea and place one bag on each eye, as hot as you can stand. Leave on eyes until poultices become cold. Repeat every night at bedtime. Peppermint tea bags have an especially cooling effect. (Note: This remedy also made me fall sleep with the bags still on my eyes. While grievously staining my pillows, it proved a surprisingly good remedy for insomnia.)
POTATOES were Granny’s favorite go-to staple for multiple remedies. She swore by a diet of potatoes to treat constipation, intestinal toxemia, gout, kidney stones and dropsy. Raw potato juice was her cure for rheumatism and gastritis. She used grated potatoes and their juice for rashes, sunburn and dark circles under the eyes. She found that rubbing a freshly cut raw potato on a wart would dissolve it in days. Some of the most peculiar remedies I saw were for hemorrhoids. For particularly painful and swollen external hemorrhoids, Granny recommended the following: Peel and grate an ice cold potato, wrap it in gauze, then lie on your stomach and place the pack directly on top of your anus. Leave it there until it gets to room temperature. I don’t recommend this if you are expecting company. But the true queen of bizarre remedies was Granny’s cure for internal hemorrhoids. I have to admit that I drew the line at test marketing this one, but you are welcome to try it if you are feeling adventuresome or a little bit kinky. Carve a suppository-shaped pellet about 1 inch long and 1/2” wide from a fresh potato and rub it with garlic. Insert it into the rectum twice a day, morning and night, or after a bowel movement. Granny says nothing about removing this suppository. I can only hope that nature takes care of it in a timely manner.
Also in the Granny Doctor arsenal: garlic, cloves, oatmeal and cranberries. I used to joke that her medicine bag could double as the Mystery Basket on the TV show, “Chopped.” However, considering the cost and side effects of prescription and over-the-counter meds, you might want to give food remedies a try. Granny was still running up hills, playing a dulcimer and yodeling at 93. I’ll bet you can’t even do that now.
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