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Garlic, Mustard and Herbs: Russian Folk Remedies
If, when entering a Russian home or even an office, you are hit by the strong odor of raw garlic, it’s not necessarily because someone is cooking or eating garlic.
More likely, it is because someone is ill, and in order to stop others from getting infected, people have chopped up garlic and left it on a plate. In Russia, many people believe that garlic’s phytoncaedos kill diseases — even viruses as strong as flu.
Garlic therapy is one of Russia’s most popular folk remedies. During flu epidemics, Russian parents may put a piece of garlic in their children’s pockets. They also tend to eat more garlic in the winter in order to strengthen the immune system.
Like most other countries, Russia has a wide range of so-called traditional folk remedies, and Russians rely to a large extent on medicinal herbs and a number of other centuries-old healing procedures.
Another popular Russian folk medicine against colds is drinking hot milk with honey and butter before going to bed. If someone gets sick, has a cold, sore throat or cough, drinking hot milk is considered almost essential.
This is apparently most effective when done while simultaneously warming one’s feet in hot water mixed with dry mustard. For best results, so they say, patients should soak their legs in hot water up to the knees for 10 to 15 minutes, and then go straight to bed, put on woolen socks and get under a warm blanket. Practice has shown that this treatment does help to treat coughs and colds, but is not recommended for people suffering from fever.
Mustard flour features heavily in Russian home remedies. When people have a bad cough, they may use gorchichniki — small pieces of paper covered with a layer of mustard flour, available from the apteka or drugstore. In medicine, they are used to cause a rush of blood to the skin and warm up a patient. The gorchichniki are first soaked in very warm water, and then applied to the chest and back of the person suffering from the cough for 10 to 20 minutes. The patient should be covered with a warm blanket during the treatment. After the procedure, the person should stay in bed for the night so as not to lose the warmth gained from the gorchichniki. Some Russians swear by this remedy.
For sore throats, the home remedy is to mix half a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of household soda in a glass of warm water. This mixture should then be gargled sip by sip, and then spat out. Alternatively, the mixture can be made of chamomile or other antiseptic herbs. Russians rely heavily on gargling when they have a sore throat, and Russian doctors advise patients suffering from a sore throat to gargle often — at least once every two hours, or even every hour — in order to get rid of bacteria in the throat.
The Russian remedy for food poisoning is to ingest several tablets of coal, in order to absorb the toxic substances. Such tablets are available from the apteka for just a few rubles per packet. Coal is also said to be good for alcohol poisoning.
Beauty recipes include making face masks from cucumber or strawberry, or alternatively, from sour cream or kefir (sour milk). The Russian culinary favorite of sour cream is also sometimes used to treat sunburn.
Many Russians, including doctors, are knowledgeable about medicinal herbs. The most popular herbs in Russia include St. John’s wort, chamomile, eucalyptus, Valeriana, coltsfoot, sage, mint, bur marigold, stinging nettle and cranberry leaves.
St. John’s wort decoction is used for treating colds, stomach problems, skin diseases and kidney ailments. Mint, mellissa, motherwort and Valeriana are used to treat nervous system problems. Camomile is known for its antiseptic qualities, and is used to treat sore throats and diarrhea. Stinging nettles are used to stem bleeding, and decoction of the weed is applied to the scalp to strengthen hair.
Bur marigold is known as an effective measure against skin allergies, especially for babies and small children. Russian mothers may add decoction of bur marigold to a baby’s bath if the child has skin problems.
Fresh cabbage leaves are known for their anti-inflammatory effect. When breast-feeding mothers have inflamed nipples, cabbage leaves are believed to ease the problem.
Other Russians rely on the healing effect of mumiyo — a natural blend of organic and non-organic soluble substances that originate in cracks between rocks. Mumiyo is used to treat wounds, gastric ulcers and headaches, and to strengthen the immune system.
Foreigners may be surprised by the Russian faith in iodine. It may be daubed onto deep bruises in the shape of a grid to accelerate healing, or used for more serious health scares — when rumors circulated last year that there had been an accident at the LAES nuclear plant in the nearby town of Sosnovy Bor, stocks of iodine quickly sold out of the city’s drug stores, as Russians hastened to drink the diluted substance, which neutralizes the effects of mild radiation poisoning. Fortunately for those who didn’t make it to the drugstore before stocks were depleted, the rumors turned out to be untrue.
Another Russian medical hit is the banya — a steam bath house. The Russian banya differs from the Finnish dry sauna in that it provides damp heat. In the banya, people use veniki — bunches of birch or oak twigs and leaves — to thrash each other in order to improve circulation.
The banya is not just about getting clean. It is believed to have a medicinal effect on the skin, lungs, nasal passages, joints and metabolism. Some people visit the banya regularly and swear that their health improves after doing so, and many believe that sickly children can become much healthier if they visit the banya on a weekly basis.
Folk healers, known as babki in Russian, still exist. Usually these healers are elderly women who are considered to have supernatural healing skills. People usually consult babki when standard medicine has failed to help them, especially for treatment of allergies, skin diseases, recurring headaches, neurological problems and infertility.