A Penchant for Overkill or Why Home Remedies are Not Something I Should Be Allowed To Use

I have inadequate sinuses.

Really, my entire upper respiratory system is inadequate. As a result, I am prone to sinus infections and bronchial infections and all manner of Bad Things(TM).

I am also a student, so I am typically poor, and hesitant to hand over money to people, medical professionals included. Because I am also the child of at least one herbal-remedy touting hippy, who has been shoving various elixirs down my throat my entire life, I am also perhaps more prone than most to try to self-treat illness with various items from my pantry.

My inadequate sinuses, which create the most havoc in my life, have most often been the victims of my overzealous application of home remedies.

It started when I was living in Berlin in 2006. I had a sinus infection, and I had no idea how to get to a doctor. I was mostly too sick to convince myself to go to the grocery store. In desperation, I decided to try to fix myself using things in my kitchen.

I knew there was something that I could use to flush my sinuses with that would make them better. I just couldn’t remember whether it was salt water, or lemon juice. Did I ask the internet to confirm? No: in my feverish haze, I simply asked myself,

“Which substance seems likely to kill the greatest number of bacteria?”

Lemon juice, which I vaguely recalled could be used to sterilize counters in lieu of vinegar, seemed appropriate. It was the more caustic of the two, right?

And so, to cure my sinus infection, I decided to snort lemon juice.

If you are fortunate enough to never have applied lemon juice to one of your most protected mucous membranes, then you have happily been spared the blinding pain. I cannot even describe the burning. Suffice to say, it was really, really horrible.

Apparently, you’re supposed to flush your sinuses with saline solution, not lemon juice.

You would think that experience would have taught me not to experiment with things like that. And you would be wrong.

Fast forward to January 2007. I had been sick for days, since Zack and I went on a walk in the middle of an ice storm. I really wanted to be able to breathe through my nose again. So I got to thinking about how to relieve sinus congestion.

“Spicy food clears your sinuses!” I thought. And what is in spicy food? Capsaicin, which is available in large quantities in cayenne pepper!

I imagine you can see where this is going.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on whether or not you are my sinuses), I was at Zack’s place, and his brother loves spicy food. There was a whole jar of ground cayenne pepper, just waiting to be applied to my poor, unsuspecting mucous membranes.

Yes, dear readers, I was going to snort a line of cayenne pepper.

Keep in mind that I’d never done a line of anything in my life, much less something out of a spice cabinet.

But I was determined to breathe again, and somewhere in my oxygen-deprived mind, this seemed like a good idea.

What I didn’t factor in was that cayenne pepper tends to clump when exposed to small amounts of moisture, so it doesn’t evenly distribute. Instead, it cakes to places where nothing spicy should ever be caked. (I mentioned this to my father later, who said that I ought to have put a couple of drops of hot sauce on a cotton swab and rubbed that around my sinuses. You can see that I am starting from a disadvantage here, considering my heritage.)

After that incident, I really did learn my lesson, at least where sinuses were concerned. Unfortunately, I didn’t extrapolate that lesson out to anything else.

In the summer of 2009, I decided I was going to have a garden. Why I decided this was a good idea when I was working full time, going to school full time, planning a national convention for a technical sorority, and preparing to leave for grad school, I have no idea.

But I was determined. I had my 5-gallon buckets all full of hand-mixed potting soil (Jessie helped me!). I had planted zucchini, and tomatoes in spades! What had started as a five-bucket garden quickly ballooned into a 20 bucket monstrosity.

Overkill, you know. It’s how I roll.

Things were going pretty well. My tomatoes were beautiful and lush and setting fruit. Sure, the neighborhood cats immediately decided that my beet box was perfect to relieve themselves in (obliterating my poor beets, which never stood a chance against the onslaught of ammonia), but some loss is to be expected in a first garden.

And then the bottoms of my heirloom tomatoes began to turn brown. Then the brown spots went squishy, and began to rot.

My plants had been afflicted with blossom end rot.

Now, blossom end rot isn’t that big of a deal. The rest of the tomato is fine; just cut of the squishy brown bit and nosh away.

But this was a matter of pride! My beautiful heirloom tomatoes should be beautiful! Not brown and squishy, or deformed from amputation.

So I began my investigation. Blossom end rot, it turns out, is caused by a calcium deficit. The plants need the calcium in order to build cell walls: without it, the cell walls collapse, causing the brown squishy nastiness. The calcium deficit is most often caused by insufficient and inconsistent moisture, as the plants need moisture to absorb the calcium. The official recommendation is to set up a drip irrigation system that keeps the plants at a consistent level of moisture.

Well, they’re in buckets, which makes a drip irrigation system kind of impractical. Plus, a drip irrigation system seemed like it would be expensive and difficult to develop.

I thought, “What is wet and is full of calcium?”

“Milk! Milk is wet and full of calcium!”

So I sent Brian around the corner to Braum’s to pick me up a couple gallons of skim milk. (After all, I figured the fat wouldn’t be too good for the tomato plants.) We waited until the evening, because I didn’t want the milk sitting in the hot soil all day, turning to stanky, nasty yogurt. As the dusk descended, I poured two thirds of a gallon of milk on each of my heirloom tomatoes.

Almost instantly I knew I had made a horrible, horrible mistake. Within moments the leaves of the plants began to curl up and turn yellow, like the whole plant was cringing in horror. Seeing this, I decided to abort the plan, and got the hose to flush the milk out of the pots.

Only, the milk wouldn’t come out of the pots. Waiting until evening had not been sufficient time for the soil to cool down, and the milk had curdled on the roots.

Within hours, the plants were dead (though I did spend days trying to revive them in various ways). The milk, however, stuck around, rotting stinkily in the pots.

Did I say I was done with the sinus horror? You would think that after two home-remedy related sinus disasters, I would have learned.

And I did! This semester, upon moving back to the US and  finding myself once again allergic to everything, my sinuses needed some attention. This time, however, I asked the internet, and made up some very reasonable and perfectly effective saline solution. This worked well for a few weeks. Then one morning, as I was mixing up some saline, I thought, “If half a teaspoon of salt is good, then a whole teaspoon of salt will be better!” (This is a very American thought process, I imagine.)

No. No. Just no. A whole teaspoon of salt was NOT better.

One would hope that my recent recognition of this pattern would have taught me not to mess around with these things anymore.

But then a few weeks ago I was experiencing some chest congestion/nasty infectiony stuff and I thought, “Cranberry juice prevents bacteria from sticking to mucous membranes in your bladder and urinary tract! I bet it would stop bacteria from sticking to other mucous membranes, as well! I should put cranberry juice in my nebulizer instead of saline!”

Oh, Rachel. Maybe you should just stick to stuff from the chemist.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “A Penchant for Overkill or Why Home Remedies are Not Something I Should Be Allowed To Use

  1. Rachel

    Rachel….I <3 you.

  2. Jessie

    Apparently your urinary tract is lined with mannose, which also exists in cranberry juice. The idea is that the bacteria stick to the mannose instead of the urinary tract itself and then get flushed away. Thus, the mannose in cranberry juice is helpful. However, I don’t know if you also have mannose lining other passages?

  3. Julia B.

    Just found you from NWEdible’s comments – love, love, love the milk and tomatoes story. My thought process is much the same, well, why shouldn’t it work? Thanks for the chuckle today :)

  4. Pingback: Worst Soil Amendment For Tomatoes?

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