The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Homestead healthcare

Praying mantis on echinaceaI had to go to the doctor Thursday to flush a huge mass of wax out of my ears, and it got me thinking about my version of healthcare.  Except for preventative checkups, I've only been to the doctor four times in the last twelve years --- three times for ear wax removal, and once for a urinary tract infection.  Mark's got me beat, having only been in once for Lyme disease (assuming you don't count his elective surgery).

Which isn't to say we never get sick, just that we work hard to dose ourselves at home if possible.  If we feel a bit low, I'll treat us to some kind of garlicky meal with freshly sauteed leafy greens on the side (often with the addition of pastured red meat).  Relatively major scrapes heal right up after a few applications of homegrown comfrey poultices, and most viruses flee in the face of my Emergen-C plus homemade chicken soup combo (imbibed separately).  Simply taking a day off to relax will often fix minor complaints.

Goldenseal rootInfections that need antibiotics get dosed with echinacea or goldenseal (both of which we grow).  My doctor sister advised me that the former is better above the belt (ie, for head colds, etc.) and the latter below the belt (for female complaints), and I've been following her advice.  I also freeze enough cranberries each holiday season that I can fix them throughout the year to stave of further urinary tract problems.  It's true that these homegrown medications don't nip illnesses in the bud as quickly as prescription drugs, but they seem to help my body build up a resistance so I don't have to run back to the antibiotics nearly as often.

The trick to eating your way to good health is to make sure that all of these medicinal foods are easily available at all times.  I keep pints of chicken soup (made from stewing hens for extra nutrition) in the freezer for easy access and most of our herbs are right in the front yard.  Being the kind of family who only goes through a bottle of painkiller once every six years helps, as does the internet's amazing ability to diagnose most ills.

What's your favorite home remedy?  Do you run to the doctor, or self-medicate?  What kind of medicinal herbs do you grow?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I use rubarb sauce as a body flush in the spring. This sauce clears out your winter body and lightens the load for spring.

I also use Manzanita tea for the stomach flu. I stops an upset stomach/vometing as you are drinking it and after 3 cups of tea you will not have diarea after 24 hours. It doesn't do anything about the achy body though.

Comment by Mona Sat Apr 21 09:38:52 2012

My wife and I just recently dropped our health insurance after getting sick of paying for not being sick and with regular check ups having to pay bills for things that are covered. We're saving over $6,000 a year not including all those extra bills. We still carry dental but that actually pays for itself and costs nothing compared to health.

Ever since I got very sick 12 years ago from a slight underlying old issue from an old tick bite I got few years prior, that whole episode showed me how over medicated and weak we all are. I was healthy before and I'm healthier now. I never take any medication usually and feel healthier for it. I understand people have to for various reasons.

And in reading your definition on "Homesteading" Anna, I am proud to be a homesteader between burning wood, foraging for all of my wood to burn, gardening, etc.

Comment by Marco Sat Apr 21 10:11:09 2012

Personally I haven't been to a docter in years. There is little use visiting a docter for a cold or influenza, since these are viral diseases and there is no real cure for those (although there are things that alleviate symptoms). I tend to rest and let my immune system take care of it.

As for infections, I think prevention is key. Like washing your hands before preparing food and after handling solid human waste, and making sure that any wounds are first cleaned and then closed.

Having said that, in case of a serious injury or illness I would go to a docter or hospital as soon as possible.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat Apr 21 11:42:11 2012
My kids had a lot when they were little. The doctor told me to put a couple drops of mineral (baby) oil in each night and lay on your side till it goes all the way in then roll over do other side. This softens the wax so it will kinda drain out on its own.
Comment by Irma E. Sat Apr 21 14:41:46 2012

Mona --- Funny how we all have our standbys. I wonder if your rhubarb is boosting vitamin C?

Marco --- What I would have added (if the post wasn't already too long) is that I go back and forth on health insurance. Mark is part of the Veterans Affairs system, so doesn't have to worry about it, and I've gone years without, but finally decided to pay for a high deductible policy since we can afford it currently. (We just pay for dental out of pocket.) It seems a bit crazy to pay $1,164 per year just to cover the off chance I might break a leg, but it's definitely better than paying more for a full coverage plan! I think we've been sold a bill of goods to think we all need fancy health insurance plans, when we could just pay for a catastrophic plan and put the deductible in a savings account somewhere just in case.

Roland --- Someone once said not to go to a doctor unless you've broken a bone or have a heart attack, and I tend to agree. I don't know about in Europe, but here in the U.S., people seem to want to go to the doctor for hangnails. I also agree with your analysis that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, not just in terms of infections, but also in terms of general well-being.

Irma --- I've tried all of the home remedies, and I think I'm just going to have to get one of those big syringes they use to flush the wax out and teach Mark to use it. When I put things like mineral oil or stool softener (also recommended for the same purpose) in my ears, they just stop me up so that I can't hear at all! On the bright side, if I teach Mark to flush wax out of my ears, maybe that means I'll only have to go to the doctor once a decade. :-)

Comment by anna Sat Apr 21 15:43:16 2012

Here's a topic that I was just about to write on, since I just got through an unusually long flu-like illness last week, that left me with a bizarre, asthmatic bronichitis that I've never had before.

I wouldn't say I self-medicate, but I do treat most health issues therapeutically at home. One of my favorite things is a warm/almost hot bath. My grandfather always taught me to use castor oil on various skin ailments and swollen lymph nodes. My reasoning for continuing this practice is that castor oil has stimulant/laxative properties and I assume it can stimulate the lymph system in the same way that it does the bowels. I never take it internally, though, even though it is occasionally recommended.

I also love garlic and greens and like you, end up adding more garlic when I feel ill.

Lately though, I've found some comfort in annual preventative care visits. Running to the doctor when I am sick isn't first on my mind unless I have very unusual symptoms, but I was reassured when I went in and had a comprehensive blood panel as part of my new health insurance wellness checkup and all the results came back fine. I am something of a hypochondriac and knowing that everything is "normal" helped to soothe some of my worries. In the three months since that visit, I haven't worried as much about my health. My mom is a nurse (though she lives 1000 miles away), but I don't have any friends or relatives who are doctors, so for me it definitely pays to have a good, local family doctor that I know and can ask simple questions of.

I definitely agree though, most mild/moderate illnessses are better treated at home without meds. It's easy enough for me to stick to this plan myself, but when my son is sick, the stress of not knowing exactly how he feels (his language skills aren't all there yet)often makes me go to the doc for a second opinion.

Comment by Sara McDonald Sat Apr 21 15:47:51 2012
for various bacterial infections i use plain old tea bags as a compress either warm or cool. i've used it on myself for an abscessed tooth, on my stepson's big toe when he showed up with a wicked infected ingrown toenail, and on some stray kittens' eyes that had conjunctivitis. it's not something i grow, but it's a pretty common household item.
Comment by mizztanya Sat Apr 21 16:07:08 2012

Sara --- Isn't it funny how we have double standards about healthcare for us vs. for those we love? A few years ago, Mark was working hard and got a cramp. In myself, I would have just assumed it was a cramp, but for him, I thought it might be a heart attack (!!) and frantically called his mother for advice. (Not sure why I called his mother instead of mine. Maybe looking to see whether he was still under warranty?) I was all set to rush Mark to the hospital, but she talked me out of it...which is good since it was just a cramp.

I'm not usually a hypochondriac, though, so I don't think I would get much out of annual physicals. I pay attention to my body and research anything that causes concern on the internet. Usually, I can diagnose it right away as something simple. It's very handy not to think that understanding your own body is something that only a medical professional can do!

Mizztanya --- I'd heard that too for teeth, but assumed it was just the cold that helped. Interesting to hear you use tea bags as topical antibiotics.

Comment by anna Sat Apr 21 20:06:53 2012

Being extremely pale, I tend to stay out of the sun at midday, wear huge hats, etc. (I've even been known to use my umbrella as a parasol, which gets me some interesting stares and occasionally a thumbs up, heh.) But I've still, sadly, gotten a few sunburns and have found that using a tea bag as a compress (if it's a small area, like my nose), or using several tea bags in my bath help alleviate the pain quite a bit. Apparently the tannic acid in tea can be very soothing for mild skin ailments.

I also am a big fan of using plain yogurt for scalp ailments (especially dry, itchy scalp or dandruff) - leave it on for 10 minutes before regular washing and all of the itchiness (and flakiness, if it's dandruff) goes away (dandruff may take more than one treatment to completely clear up, and may need re-treating periodically), plus it leaves your hair really soft, heh! And yes, I give a big thumbs up to cranberries for help with urinary tract issues; I always buy them cheap and freeze them to use through the year too.

But I think the most important thing is just taking care of oneself in the first place. As children, my brother and I had one ear infection apiece, chicken pox, and a cold every other year or so. We rarely missed school due to being sick, and we only went to the doctor when the school said we had to go. But my mum fed us a very balanced diet, got us off to bed early, and insisted on washing hands at reasonable times (like after going to the bathroom or before eating), but otherwise didn't get too stressed about us getting dirty or otherwise germy (my brother was a habitual eater of the dry cat food). I think that one of the many health problems people have today is that so many of us go overboard with the germkilling. Obviously, one shouldn't do something ridiculous (like sharing a straw with someone who has the plague), but too much use of antibacterial gels and so forth isn't a good idea. Our immune systems, like the rest of our bodies, need to get used if we want them to be strong enough to do their job! :)

Comment by Ikwig Sat Apr 21 22:24:51 2012
In my house, the only person taking a regular medication is my Dh. Other than the OCCASIONAL antibiotic for my kiddo (for the times home remedies do not work), the rest of the family goes sans OTC and prescription medications. I have a long list of medical problems, but since we've had to drop the overly expensive insurance and 99% of the medication I was on werent helping, I don't take anything. I've actually found I manage better on homemade remedies! ( Also these days I find I've developed allergies to antibiotics and other chemicals) Here at home we use herbal teas and chicken stock for colds, and hot baths and raw shea butter massages for aches and pains. The shea butter works well for a variety of external ailmants for our cats as well! Itchy skin, scrapes, etc.Overall I find our family is better off and happier without the drugs!
Comment by MamaHomesteader Sun Apr 22 00:15:38 2012

I worship the fact that you grow goldenseal. My luck has been abysmal. It is the "magic cure" for me. I've had sinus infections that don't go away without that stuff. Also seems to work on blood poisoning/tissue infection.

Please do a propagating and growing goldenseal post, I beg of you.

As for health insurance. I get it from time to time over the years. Mostly am just stubborn and freak out the husband when I get injured/sick by refusing medical care. He's the one go goes in for stiches tho and is covered by a high deductible which we seem to meet most years for him due to the need for ongoing drugs for a condition of his.

And I am SO calling his mother to see if he's still "under warranty" He's a smart arsed trouble-maker and his mother will love hearing that.

Comment by c. Sun Apr 22 01:11:10 2012

Ikwig --- I'm a big fan of hats even though I've got dark skin. The way I look at it, better safe than sorry (and I hate sunblock!) Excellent point about prevention and staying healthy by moderate eating of germs. :-)

MamaHomesteader --- When Mark does in for his annual required checkups with the VA, they always look at him like he's crazy when they find out he doesn't take any drugs.... I'd be interested to hear what kinds of herbal teas you depend on, or is it just the warmth that makes you feel better?

c --- Don't worship prematurely! The main way I grow goldenseal is that there was a patch up on the hill when we moved here, and I've left it alone, only harvesting a root very occasionally when I need it. My mom gave me some roots this winter, which we're trying out under our peach tree, but I don't know enough yet to tell you if that will work. I'll have to wait a few years to post about it!

Comment by anna Sun Apr 22 09:38:51 2012

To keep colds at bay I use large doses of vitamin D. (which is NOT a vitamin at all) I started back in 2007 and I've only have about major 4 colds since. A GREAT article on Vitamin D here:


Comment by Michael Tue Apr 24 14:19:42 2012

My family has been using apple cider vinegar for years to soothe a cough (to a glass of very hot tap water add a spoonful or two of honey with another spoonful of apple cider vinegar) which helps when many over the counter remedies don't work. I have also started add a little bit of vinegar to cold water to help with stomach pains related to stress, digestion, etc.

During the height of hayfever season, I have found relief with cayenne pepper. I will use astragalus (like echinacea) for cold-like symptoms but when bad sneezing and itchy eyes start, I swallow a capsule of cayenne. (I fill my own capsules purchased from a health food store and wouldn't dare take cayenne with a spoon... it would burn on the way down!)

Like several of you, I also use goldenseal (also in capsules) for infections. I purchase this powder from a health food store, but it is getting quite expensive because the plants are endangered.

I would love to grow my own medicinal herbs. My first attempt was some comfrey roots that I ordered from a place on eBay last year, which are starting to come up well this spring. I hope to incorporate those into our health treatment as well. I plan on adding cayenne and goldenseal when I find a good source.

Comment by David Tue Apr 24 17:20:47 2012

Mike --- Maybe that's why cod liver oil used to be considered the cure all?

David --- Vinegar is definitely a traditional preventative around here (in Appalachia). I suspect its efficacy comes down to vitamin C, but could be wrong. Interesting info on cayenne!

Comment by anna Tue Apr 24 18:57:38 2012

Observations after 40 yrs of practicing medicine:

1) The PDR is 5000 pages of all all the drugs available in the US. The drugs actually worth taking only use up about 10 of those pages. Most of those are endocrine replacement drugs- insulin, thyroid & such.

2) Herbal remedies are great: if you use them, you'll get better in 7 days. Without them, it could take a whole week.

3) As noted by others above, your immune system (and your brain) is like any other muscle: you've got to exercise them to make them strong. Washing your hands is over rated. It's more to prevent ingesting ova & parasites than bacterial infections. Expose yourself to toughen up.

4) Insurance is a bet with the insurance company. You say you're gunna get sick. They say you're not. Either way, you lose. If you saved that $600/month and invested it, you'd have a fortune in no time and could afford to pay all your bills out of pocket.($50/m for 20 yrs invested in the Dow, then "let it ride" for another 20 yrs, and you'd have $2.5 MILLION !!!! Why didn't congress think of that instead of giving us the budget-busting Obamacare & Medicare?

5)The biggest problem with American medicine is that the public expects too much. Remember, none of us is going to get out of this alive anyways.

6) At the first sign of an impending viral URI, bundle up and sweat it out- hoodie, socks, blankets. Hot drinks/soup warm you up from the inside. A high body temp helps kill viruses. Often, you can abort a cold before it takes hold...and if you get that tingling lip before a cold sore erupts- an ice cube held on it until it melts will often abort the sore.

Comment by doc Tue Apr 24 23:17:23 2012

Doc --- You're a rare doctor who doesn't want to prescribe the other 4990 pages worth of drugs. And I like anyone who doesn't mind me eating dirt. I agree with you about the traditional types of insurance too (and about point 5), although I'm on the fence about whether a $97/month catastrophic insurance (like mine) is worth it.

On the other hand, I can't entirely agree that all herbal remedies are useless. I know you don't believe anything's effective if there hasn't been a double blind study proving its efficacy, but I'm pretty sold on garlic having antibiotic properties, comfrey promoting cell division, and vitamin C boosting your immune system. All that aside, there's always the stunning power of the placebo effect. :-)

Good data about raising your body temperature to fight off ills!

Comment by anna Wed Apr 25 09:29:04 2012
One thing that I have started using is an elderberry tincture that I made. I take it every now and then when I feel like I'm might be coming down with something or if I watch the news too much and the "threat" of the flu sticks in my mind. I have an elderberry/honey syrup that I make for my son. I bought elderberry tincture at a health food store a couple years ago, but at $13.95 for 2 ounces, I made my own.... now I've got plenty and only cost about $20 for a full quart!
Comment by Kim Wed Jan 23 13:23:33 2013

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