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No matter how healthy you are, you likely end up feeling sick at least a few times a year. And we have many pharmaceutical options these days to help us feel better. But some non-pharmaceutical remedies are supported by science, including some that have been around for thousands of years.

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Chicken Soup

P6 Acupressure

Ice Massage



[♪ INTRO].

No matter how healthy you are, you likely end up feeling sick at least a few times a year. Most of us do, and as common as it is, it’s always a pain to go through.

So, for centuries, we humans have looked for ways to ease common symptoms like nausea, pain, and stuffy noses. Today, pharmaceutical remedies are a lot of people’s go-to and they can do the trick. But that’s not our only option.

Here we’ll look at five non-pharmaceutical remedies that are supported by science, including some that have been around for thousands of years. The tradition of cooking up a hearty bowl of chicken noodle soup when you’re feeling sick goes way back. Like, back to at least the eleventh century C.

E. In those days, the Persian physician Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, claimed that the broth from hens and roosters could be good for treating leprosy. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t cure leprosy, but more recent studies have suggested that something about chicken soup actually might help with colds, specifically with congestion.

You get congested when your nostrils, throat, or sinuses get inflamed and pump out more mucus, making it harder to breathe. And aside from being annoying, it can also be a breeding ground for bacteria, which leads to sinus infections. So it’s generally something you want to clear up quickly.

And it’s not totally surprising that chicken soup would be helpful here. Studies have shown that a cup of hot tea can help with congestion, because the steam loosens things up and helps clear out your airways. So in the 1970s, some researchers wondered if the steam was really all there was to the chicken soup remedy—or if there was something special about it.

And they decided to investigate. Over the course of six different days, researchers took 15 young, healthy people, and had them drink 200 milliliters of either hot water or hot chicken soup. The liquids were either in closed containers with a straw, or in open containers that the participants sipped from directly.

Meanwhile, the researchers measured how fast mucus and air were flowing through their noses. And they found that there actually was a difference between hot water and chicken soup. Sipping chicken soup from the cup increased the flow of nasal mucus the most, but even sipping soup from a straw was more effective than drinking hot water.

And the researchers weren’t able to say exactly why that was the case. The steam is likely one factor. But it doesn’t explain why chicken soup would be more effective than hot water.

To account for that, the scientists suggested that maybe some compound that gives chicken soup its smell acts as a chemical signal that clears up our noses… but they didn’t identify anything specific. Alternatively, a study from the year 2000 suggests chicken soup may slow inflammation, which is one of your body’s responses to invaders. It’s important, but it can also make you feel lousy.

So, if this turns out to be true, it could also help explain why chicken soup makes us feel better. Either way, the effects of both the water and the soup went away after 30 minutes. But that temporary relief may not just feel good; it could also help clear pathogens from your system and prevent unpleasant things like sinus infections.

So, while there’s still plenty of research to do here, for now, this tradition remains a sick-day staple. Now, if you’re prone to carsickness, you might recognize this next trick:. You can press the inside of your wrist to ease nausea.

Specifically, you’re aiming for a spot about two inches up your forearm on the same side as your palm. This is another treatment that goes way back. It first became popular as an acupressure treatment in traditional.

Chinese medicine, and scientists are still looking for a satisfying explanation as to why it works. No one’s quite sure what’s so special about this particular spot, but some scientists think this trick works by interrupting the pain signals your nausea is sending to the brain. The idea is that by pressing on the wrist, you’re creating a second source of pain that partially distracts your brain from the first.

The jury’s still out, though, because scientists don’t agree on a single explanation for why acupressure works in the first place. Some think the pressure releases chemicals that reduce pain, while others think it blocks the nerve signals that make you feel pain and nausea. Researchers are still trying to figure it out.

Whatever the explanation is, though, dozens of studies have found that this pressure point does help with nausea of all kinds. It’s been found to reduce nausea after surgery, chemotherapy, and after even labor and delivery. That said, the results vary a lot from person to person.

So, just because the trick helps someone recovering from surgery doesn’t mean that it’ll necessarily help you with, say, a hangover. But, if you’ve got run-of-the-mill nausea from, say, the flu, it might be worth a try. If that doesn’t work, there is another trick that doctors and nurses have been using to treat nausea for years: Just grab an alcohol wipe or put some rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball… and sniff it for a bit.

Again… we don’t know exactly why this works. Some researchers have hypothesized that maybe the smell of alcohol inhibits certain neurons that make you vomit. But that hasn’t been confirmed, and the truth is, we don’t really know how it works; we just know that it does.

In fact, it both works better and costs less than many major anti-nausea meds, which often don’t perform much better than placebos anyway. For instance, a study from 2003 compared a few different anti-nausea treatments in a group of people recovering from a type of minimally invasive surgery. They found that inhaled alcohol cut self-reported nausea intensity in half about four times faster than ondansetron, a common drug for treating nausea.

Similarly, a 2021 study looked at patients who reported nausea when they came to the ER. It found that those who got alcohol wipes to sniff reported lower nausea scores than those who didn’t, and they even required less anti-nausea medication! Despite the evidence, some scientists still hesitate to recommend it since these studies weren’t totally rigorous.

Like, it’s hard to properly blind a subject in an experiment like this when most people can clearly tell they’re smelling alcohol. But it’s harmless, not to mention cheap and easy, so it’s probably not leaving the first responder’s toolkit any time soon. When it comes to other types of pain, like headaches and body aches, one trick you can try is an ice massage.

It’s simple: You just rub the webbing between your thumb and forefinger with ice, and that can help you relieve the pain. Again, it’s not clear what’s special about this point, but this trick seems to take advantage of something called the gate control theory of pain. This model of pain perception was proposed in the 1960s, and it’s still the one we use today.

Basically, signals going to your brain have to pass through a series of so-called gates in order for your brain to process them. So the idea behind this theory is that other signals that go through those same gates can actually interfere with your perception of pain. The reason this works is because our bodies have multiple kinds of nerve endings that detect different kinds of stimuli.

Some detect temperature, some detect touch, while others called nociceptors exclusively detect pain. And the nerves that send each type of signal come in different sizes. Usually that size difference comes from a fatty substance called myelin that speeds up the conduction of electric signals.

So, in general, the larger the nerve, the faster it can transmit impulses. The most common type of nociceptors tend to be smaller than the nerves for touch or temperature, so they send signals more slowly. That makes them the last to arrive at the part of the spinal cord called the substantia gelatinosa, which acts as a “gate.” As a result, the cold and touch signals effectively “close the gate” on the pain signal, causing your brain to focus more on the sensation of cold ice than the pain.

Research has found that this simple concept is pretty widely successful at reducing pain. It’s been shown to be effective at reducing dental pain and even the pain of giving birth. Now, that doesn’t make an ice cube a replacement for narcotics or epidurals during delivery.

And it may not always be the best solution for pain, because it only treats the pain itself, not the thing causing the pain. But if you’re just looking for a little relief, an ice massage may be the easy solution you need. Finally, this last trick won’t necessarily help with symptoms once they develop, but it can help you get less sick in the first place.

The trick is… to get a massage. Because as much as it might sound like just a luxury, it can help reduce your stress, and that can make a big difference in your body. Our bodies produce higher amounts of the hormone cortisol in response to stress.

And cortisol tells the body to make more immune cells and more inflammatory chemical messengers in case it needs to ward off an infection. Today that may seem a little nonsensical, but it was a good adaptation for our evolutionary ancestors. Their stressful situations usually came with an increased risk of infection, like getting bitten by a predator or stepping on a sharp rock.

So they needed their immune cells at the ready to destroy pathogens that broke through the skin during any kind of injury. These days we get stressed about less violent things, like drivers who don’t use their turn signals, or cable news—which aren’t usually accompanied by pathogens. But still, your body’s physical reaction is the same.

Eventually, though, if that stress is long-lasting, your body will begin to get used to those high cortisol levels and basically let its guard down a bit. It won’t constantly be at the ready to fight off germs. And once that happens, it’s easier for pathogens to get into your system.

So if you catch a cold, it could be worse if you’re constantly stressed because your body’s defenses are weaker. Case in point: Many people get sick the week after exams. But even if you can’t do much about the source of your stress, a massage can help with your body’s reaction to it.

It stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, the half of your nervous system responsible for activities like resting and digesting. As a result, it brings down your heart rate and stress levels, which lowers the amount of cortisol in your system. Now, scientists don’t suggest going out to a massage therapist when you’re already sick, since you might be contagious.

But regularly getting massages could help with your stress in general, which will put your body in a better position to fight illness when it does encounter a threat. And while scientists don’t have satisfying explanations for all of them, one thing that is clear is that even these tried-and-true remedies still have a lot to teach us. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, and thanks to all of our amazing patrons for helping make it happen.

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