When you’re not feeling well, are you more likely to reach for over-the-counter medications or natural remedies? According to a 2020 market research survey, 48% of consumers use over-the-counter or non-prescription medications to relieve their symptoms compared to only 14% who chose supplements. (18)

Considering that approximately 72% of American and over 45% of Canadian adults regularly use supplements to support their general health, it comes as a surprise that these same users are less likely to reach for supplements to relieve acute and occasional health concerns such as gastrointestinal distress or cold and flu symptoms.

Continue reading to learn about some evidence-based natural remedies to consider when symptoms of acute conditions arise.

Acute vs. chronic conditions

Acute conditions differ from chronic conditions in that they typically have a quick onset and last for a short period of time. Acute condition examples include skin burns, upper respiratory infections, and headaches.

In comparison, chronic conditions last for longer durations and typically present with periods of latency and gradual changes throughout the course of the condition. Examples of chronic conditions include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and asthma. (12)

Treatment approaches for acute and chronic conditions vary greatly. Care for chronic conditions usually involves managing symptoms or slowing the condition’s progression over several months or years. Acute care, on the other hand, is a type of medical care that provides short-term treatment or interventions for sudden onset conditions or emergency situations. Not all acute care situations require an immediate or aggressive intervention; for example, addressing a migraine headache doesn’t warrant the same level of medical care as a head injury. (8)

 

Woman blowing nose with a tissue
Elderberry, zinc, and umckaloabo may help reduce the duration and severity of common cold symptoms.

 

Supplement ingredients for common acute conditions

For many non-emergent acute conditions, certain medicinal herbs and other natural therapies may be used to reduce the duration or severity of symptoms. Outlined below are some common acute conditions and the supplements that may help.

Common cold and flu

Certain dietary supplements, including elderberry, zinc, and umckaloabo, can help shorten the duration of the common cold or flu.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

Derived from a flowering plant native to North America and Europe, black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a widely used natural remedy for cold and flu symptom relief.

Research indicates that elderberry may help shorten the duration of the flu, particularly when taken within the first 48 hours of symptom onset. In one study, individuals who supplemented with elderberry syrup four times per day for a total of five days recovered from the flu four days sooner than subjects given a placebo. (30)

Similarly, a review of five clinical studies concluded that elderberry extract lozenges may reduce the duration and severity of symptoms associated with acute viral respiratory infections, including fever, headache, and nasal congestion, when taken in the first 48 hours of symptom onset. (5)

Zinc

In one study, subjects who took a zinc acetate lozenge every few hours throughout the day experienced a significant reduction in the duration of cold-related symptoms, such as cough, muscle aches, and nasal congestion, when compared to placebo.

Another study found that taking zinc lozenges within 24 hours of symptom onset reduced both the duration and severity of common cold symptoms in healthy individuals. This study didn’t differentiate between zinc formulations and noted that more research is needed to make a definitive recommendation with regards to formulation type. (25)

Umckaloabo (Pelargonium sidoides)

Pelargonium sidoides, sometimes referred to as African geranium, umckaloabo, or umcka, is a medicinal herb that has been used for centuries to treat respiratory illnesses. (9)

One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial determined that Pelargonium sidoides effectively reduces the duration and severity of common cold symptoms. After daily supplementation of a liquid preparation of Pelargonium sidoides, 78.8% of subjects were completely symptom-free after ten days versus only 31.4% of subjects who received a placebo. (10)

Allergies

The natural remedies below may provide temporary relief for individuals experiencing seasonal allergies.

Quercetin

Preliminary research proposes that quercetin, a plant compound found in apples, berries, and tea, may improve seasonal allergy symptoms by inhibiting the release of histamine, a compound released by mast cells in response to exposure to an allergen. (14) Further human trials are necessary to substantiate these claims.

Sublingual immunotherapy

Sublingual immunotherapy, which involves administering tablets or drops of a liquid containing small amounts of pollen under the tongue, has been shown to be an effective and convenient alternative to subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots). (24)

Did you know? Seasonal allergies affect up to 30% of individuals worldwide. (26)

Constipation and diarrhea

If you suffer from constipation or diarrhea, two types of fiber—pectin and psyllium husk—may offer relief.

Pectin

Pectin, a type of prebiotic fiber found in many fruits and vegetables, may provide relief to individuals suffering from diarrhea or constipation. As a dietary supplement, pectin helps reduce inflammation and balances the microflora present in the colon. (28) A study involving children with persistent diarrhea demonstrated that pectin supplementation reduced diarrhea and improved stool consistency. (20)

During digestion, pectin attracts water and creates a gel-like substance in the digestive tract, which also helps to improve intestinal transit time in individuals experiencing constipation. (29)

Psyllium husk

Similarly to pectin, psyllium husk absorbs water and forms a gel in the large intestine. Several studies demonstrate that psyllium husk relieves symptoms of constipation by softening hard stools, making them easier to pass. (13)

Additionally, psyllium husk improves stool consistency and reduces the frequency and urgency of bowel movements in individuals with diarrhea. (13)

 

Woman holding abdominal area
If you’re looking for relief from constipation, psyllium husk and pectin may help.

 

Gas, bloating, and abdominal pain

Consider supplementing with peppermint oil and digestive enzymes to keep gas, bloating, and abdominal pain at bay.

Digestive enzymes

Digestive enzymes are naturally produced and secreted by the gastrointestinal tract and are necessary for the breakdown of foods during digestion. Some individuals lack adequate amounts of digestive enzymes, such as lipase and protease, which can cause poor digestion. (11)

If you’re noticing an increase in gas and bloating following your meals, supplementing with digestive enzymes before your next meal can help prevent these symptoms. (11) A study comparing a supplement containing an enzyme complex and the pharmaceutical antiemetic medication domperidone determined that after five days of treatment the enzyme complex was significantly more effective in relieving abdominal pain and bloating than the drug. (19)

Peppermint oil

Peppermint oil has been shown to reduce abdominal pain and improve general gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. For the best results, look for enteric-coated peppermint oil. The enteric coating acts as a barrier that prevents the capsule or soft gel from disintegrating in the stomach before it reaches the small intestine. (1)

Nausea and vomiting

Whether it’s morning sickness or occasional nausea, ginger root and vitamin B6 may provide some relief.

Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)

Best known for its anti‐inflammatory and antioxidant properties, ginger has been used for centuries to relieve nausea and vomiting. Several studies have indicated that ginger supplements are a safe and effective therapy for pregnant women experiencing nausea and vomiting during their first trimester, also known as morning sickness. (16)

Ginger has also been shown to reduce nausea and vomiting resulting from motion sickness or chemotherapy when compared to placebo. (3)

Vitamin B6

Several studies have recognized the anti-emetic effects of vitamin B6, particularly in women experiencing morning sickness. In a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study, 48% of women in the treatment group began the trial experiencing vomiting, and that percentage decreased to 25% following three days of supplementing with vitamin B6. These results are significant considering that 35% of the placebo group suffered from vomiting at the beginning of the trial, increasing to 53% at the conclusion. (22)

Minor wounds and skin conditions

Outlined below are topical ingredients to include in your at-home natural first aid kit.

Aloe vera

Aloe vera, a gel-like substance from the leaves of the Aloe vera plant, has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antiseptic, and wound healing properties. Topical use of aloe vera gel can help facilitate the healing process for many skin issues, including burns, dermatitis, and psoriasis. (2)(7)

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is created by steam distilling the leaves of the tea tree, a plant native to southeast Australia. As a result of its antimicrobial activities against bacterial, viral, fungal, and protozoal infections, tea tree oil is useful for treating several skin conditions such as acne, nail fungus, athlete’s foot, lice, and minor cuts. (15)

Tea tree oil may also help treat contact dermatitis (eczema). According to one study, tea tree oil reduced contact dermatitis by 40.5%, a significant improvement compared to other topicals such as zinc oxide and clobetasone butyrate, a type of corticosteroid. (27) To avoid skin irritation, tea tree oil should be diluted with a carrier oil, such as coconut oil, or mixed into a cream or ointment.

 

Essential oil diffuser
If you’re suffering from a headache, try inhaling essential oils such as lavender and peppermint oil.

 

Headaches

The ingredients below have been shown to help soothe headaches.

Magnesium

If you suffer from recurring migraines, you may be low in magnesium. Research has discovered that migraine sufferers often have a magnesium deficiency. (21) According to one study, magnesium supplementation reduced the duration and severity of migraine headaches compared to a placebo. (17)

Essential oils

Essential oils, particularly lavender and peppermint oil, have analgesic effects that may help relieve headaches. (4) In a study comparing the effects of inhaling peppermint oil versus lidocaine, a type of local anesthetic, peppermint oil presented similar effects to lidocaine in the reduction of headache intensity and frequency. (6) Topical application of peppermint oil to the forehead and temples can also increase skin blood flow and promote relaxation. (4)

According to another study, inhaling lavender essential oil for 15 minutes can provide partial or complete headache relief. (23)

The bottom line

If you’re looking for natural remedies for headaches, cold and flu symptoms, or other acute ailments, many dietary supplements may help. If you’re a patient, always consult your integrative healthcare provider before adding supplements to your wellness plan.

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