Appalachian Home Remedies: Do They Work?

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  • By Covenant Health
  • Medically Reviewed by Elizabeth Dockery, D.O.
  • 8 minute read.

In a world where there seems to be a pill or prescription for every pain, it’s hard to imagine a time when modern medicine didn’t exist or wasn’t easily accessible. Appalachian home remedies were born out of necessity because mountain folk lived in secluded areas long before a quick trip to a neighborhood store for medicine became a way of life. 

While most people in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area rely on clinically researched prescriptions and remedies, you don’t have to look far to find people who remember and still sometimes use those old Appalachian home remedies today. 

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Covenant Health physician Elizabeth Dockery, DO, says she doesn’t usually object to remedies that are clearly harmless and have been around for centuries. But she stresses that not everything “natural” is OK to use as medicine and cautions that the FDA does not regulate home remedies or most supplements.   

“Certain things may work for certain people, but not everyone can take the same things safely,” Dr. Dockery says. “For example, a patient may want to take ginkgo biloba for mental health but has a bleeding disorder. I would strongly recommend against this because gingko can potentially increase bleeding risks.” 

Dr. Dockery says if you are experiencing symptoms that have not improved with treatment, symptoms that are getting worse, or new symptoms, talk to your doctor. With that in mind, here are some home remedies that Knoxville-area folks remember – or may still use today. 

Home Remedies for Bee Stings, Rashes and Poison Ivy 

Indigenous people of Appalachia used tobacco topically for medicinal purposes, and the tradition has been handed down across cultures and through many generations. Tobacco leaves and even chewing tobacco have been used in Appalachia to treat bee stings, hives and rashes. 

Certain compounds in tobacco have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties when used topically.

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Topical tobacco-derived compounds have also been investigated for their ability to promote wound healing and tissue regeneration. However, nicotine can be absorbed through the skin and could potentially cause skin cancer if used too often or for too long. Tobacco as a topical healer can also cause irritation, inflammation and allergic reactions.   

Jewelweed is another long-standing herbal remedy for poison ivy and other skin rashes. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “jewelweed has a long history of use in Native American medicine. When applied topically, sap from the stem and leaves is said to relieve itching and pain from a variety of ailments, including hives, poison ivy, stinging nettle and other skin sores and irritations.” Found throughout Appalachia, jewelweed is said to often grow in and around poison ivy, making it a handy and fast-acting natural remedy – if you’re lucky enough to spot it. 

Home Remedies for Sore Throat  

There’s a clear winner among home remedies for a sore throat: gargling and swishing warm salt water.  

Why does it work? Gargling with salt water draws moisture out of swollen tissues, reducing inflammation and swelling in the throat. Salt has mild antimicrobial properties that may help kill bacteria and viruses in the throat. Gargling with salt water may also help loosen and thin out mucus secretions in the throat, so it’s easier to get rid of phlegm.  

It all sounds good, but too much of a good thing can be dangerous. Overuse and over-consumption of salt can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, irritation of the mucus membranes, coughing, choking or even aspiration pneumonia (a serious lung infection). Use saltwater moderately and talk to a doctor if symptoms don’t improve in a few days. 

Salt water wasn’t the only Appalachian home remedy gargled for sore throats. Boiled red oak bark tea is another tried-and-true remedy used by our Appalachian ancestors. According to the National Library of Medicine, naturally occurring compounds in oak bark called tannins are considered responsible for its medicinal properties. Tannins act as astringents, which help decrease inflammation. Traditional teas also contain tannins and are more widely available today, which could be the reason this remedy has slowly fallen out of practice. 

Home Remedies for Cough  

On the list of Appalachian home remedies for cough, concoctions with alcoholic content have been popular. It’s no surprise, since many of today’s clinically approved cough medications have some alcohol content. 

“A good shot of whiskey, pile on the blankets and sweat it out,” one person says. In another home, the preferred remedy was bourbon.  Others recall “moonshine mixed with rock candy for coughs and a cold.”  

While alcohol can temporarily soothe the urge to cough, it’s not a recommended home remedy. It’s a diuretic, meaning it increases urine production and can contribute to dehydration. There is also a risk of negative interaction with other medications.  

If you’re experiencing persistent coughing or respiratory symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment instead. 

Home Remedies for Constipation  

If constipation troubles you, most old-timers quickly offer a time-honored (but not good-tasting) way to get things moving. As one person remembers, 

“Did you ever have to drink castor oil? Eeeww!!”  Another recalls, “A dose of castor oil every Saturday morning. It works!” 

The thick, pale-yellow liquid is derived from the seeds of the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). Castor oil has a high concentration of ricinoleic acid, which stimulates muscle contractions and promotes bowel movements. It’s also a lubricant for the intestines, softening the stool and reducing strain during bowel movements. 

Caster oil should only be used as a short-term solution for constipation. In severe cases, overuse can cause the bowels to stop functioning, which can lead to constipation that lasts much longer. Chronic constipation or other changes in bowel habits can indicate a more serious health issue, so check with your healthcare provider if symptoms continue.

The Buzz About Honey

While there’s no clinical research to back the claims, many home remedy enthusiasts say there’s a sweet way to sidestep allergy symptoms.

“Put local honey in chamomile tea at night for allergies,” one person says. “I have done this for several years now and have only had one or two days per season of sniffles.” 

Another takes a concoction made with honey and onions to ward off sickness. “Any time I feel a little something coming on or I’ve been around folks that are sick, I take a spoonful a day.”

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Most physicians agree honey is harmless for most adults when used in moderation. It’s nutrient-rich and has antioxidant properties and antimicrobial effects. Some research indicates it can benefit digestive health or relieve a cough. 

But the theory that local honey helps with allergy symptoms isn’t backed by clinical research to date. Excessive intake of honey can contribute to weight gain and blood sugar imbalances, especially for those with diabetes or insulin resistance. 

If you choose honey for medicinal purposes, opt for raw, unprocessed varieties whenever possible, because they retain more of honey’s natural nutrients and beneficial compounds. As with any food, consider your individual dietary needs and medical conditions.

Home Remedies for Nausea and Upset Stomach, Acid Reflux, and Heartburn 

It may seem digestive problems have become as common as the common cold in East Tennessee. Knoxville area residents with roots in Appalachia have been collecting cures for centuries.

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Ginger root tea is said to calm nausea. It has antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties, and ginger has been shown to stimulate the production of digestive enzymes and speed up the emptying of the stomach.  

Ginger root tea may not be suitable for everyone, especially those with certain medical conditions or allergies. If you have chronic or severe nausea, consult with a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and the right treatment options. 

If you have acid reflux, some say apple cider vinegar can increase stomach acid production, potentially improving digestion. At the same time, the pectin in apple cider vinegar may help coat the stomach and esophagus, providing a protective barrier against the increased acid and reducing irritation. However, apple cider vinegar itself is highly acidic, and consuming it in large quantities or undiluted can irritate the esophagus and worsen symptoms in some people. In high concentrations, it can also erode tooth enamel. 

The scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of apple cider vinegar is limited. It should be diluted before use and used with caution.

For heartburn, baking soda is the best bet, according to some. It’s alkaline, so it can neutralize stomach acid, providing quick, temporary relief. The recommended dosage is about one-half or one teaspoon dissolved in a glass of water.  

Use baking soda in moderation. It contains high levels of sodium, which can be a problem for those with high blood pressure or heart disease. It can also interact negatively with certain medications and medical conditions.

Other Appalachian and Folk Remedies 

There’s certainly no shortage of home remedies for “what ails you.” A few other East Tennessee remedies include:  

  • Strips of a brown paper bag soaked in apple cider vinegar to reduce swelling and heal bruising 
  • Sassafras tea for healthy blood 
  • Oil of oregano as an antifungal 
  • Elderberry for prevention of (or quick recovery from) colds and flu 
  • Garlic as an anti-inflammatory and to prevent mosquito bites 

Whether Appalachian home remedies work or not depends on who you ask. Most are made from ingredients that don’t present a threat if used in moderation.  

 But be mindful of potential risks. Before beginning any treatment, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor, especially if you’re already using prescribed medication or have a diagnosed illness or condition. If your symptoms last longer than you think they should, take the next step and see a licensed medical provider.  

 

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