Herbal remedies and alternative nostrums are increasingly popular with UAE residents. We visit a Dubai clinic to learn more.
'Natural' flu remedies growing in popularity in UAE
"Take an onion, add sugar, let it ferment - then sip the juice that comes from it," says Samantha Walther-Jones. "It's a brilliant cough mixture!"
When it comes to seeking cures for flu-related symptoms, you are more likely to find the 41-year-old British mother of two in the vegetable section of your local supermarket than buying over-the-counter drugs in a pharmacy. Having turned her back on conventional medicine six years ago, Walther-Jones is a convert to traditional Chinese remedies and a regular visitor to Dubai's Herbal and Treatment Centre (DHTC).
"My girls (ages three and five) had tonsillitis and had I gone to a general doctor, they would have been given antibiotics," she says. "Instead, Dr Maria [Alonso] gave them a tea with all kinds of herbs I had never seen before in my life. They drank the concoction and were over their infection within five to six days. It was amazing because it was so natural a healing process."
With colds at their most widespread during the winter months, Alonso, DHTC's medical director, is busier than ever prescribing alternative herbal elixirs for her patients.
"Although there's sometimes no way around it, antibiotics are never my first option," she says. "Commonly, antibiotics act fast, but your immune system will be lower afterwards as good cells have been destroyed. I see this a lot with children - where they recover with the antibiotic and then one or two weeks later they have another bug."
Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese remedies are becoming increasingly popular with UAE residents looking to ease flu symptoms, says Alonso.
Opened in 2003, the centre specialises in complementary and alternative treatments alongside allopathic medicine.
"Treatment varies with each patient", says Alonso, "and according to the phase their cold is at, but I might use a variety of up to 10 different herbs to treat them, which often include lonicerae flos, chrysanthemi flos, cinnamoni ramulus, menthae herba, agastachis herba and magnoliae flos.
"Usually, I'll put a patient on supplements for the immune system with vitamins including zinc and also probiotics. I'll often recommend acupuncture as well. In terms of prevention, we recommend echinacea, but only before you get sick."
Mariam Hareb, a 32-year-old Emirati who works for the Emirates Marine & Environmental Group, has been going to see Alonso for 12 months now, to break a cycle of constant colds.
"Having a baby of almost two years old means a lot of sleepless nights and going to nursery, he brings everything home," she says. "There was a phase, before I went to Dr Maria, when I was ill almost every other week. She prescribed herbal tablets for me to take, including ginseng, twice to three times a day and also umckaloabo [a medicinal plant], which I take during the day - and it worked! I have a little cold now - the first one in three months - which for me is an amazing result."
Despite Hareb's estimate that a one-month course costs her around Dh1,000, the results, she says, are beyond price.
In the same category and for those with a particularly discerning palette, is a natural cold remedy offered by a former beekeeper, Abdul-Aziz Bamadhaf, 40, the owner of Bees Kindgdom in Abu Dhabi.
"We stock a variety of UAE, New Zealand Manuka Honey and one from Yemen which costs about DH1,500 per kilo," he says. "It is full of benefits and a good antibiotic for those with colds and even asthma."
"Emirati families on average use 3kg of honey a month and all Arab countries use it like a medicine. There is even a Surat in the Quran recommending its use for healing purposes.
"We sell propolis [honey bee resin] in powder and liquid form to prevent colds. It is good to mix ginger, lemon, Seder honey and water with some bee pollen or royal jelly and drink it 30 minutes before breakfast when you have a flu infection. People really love the taste of it - honey makes you healthy and happy!"
Collected by honey bees from tree buds, sap flows and botanical sources, this resinous substance is stocked at various health food shops across the UAE. Used frequently by natural-medicine practitioners to strengthen immune systems, lozenges and tinctures are often recommended for sore throats and to reduce inflammation. Depending upon its composition, propolis can also act as a powerful local antibiotic and even help with skin burns.
Known as Oscillo for short, this homoeopathic medicine is used to ease cold and flu-like symptoms. Derived from duck heart and liver, the remedy was devised by the French physician Joseph Roy in 1925 during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1917. Having examined the blood of flu victims, Roy's published findings identified an oscillating bacterium which he dubbed Oscillococcus. Despite the medicine still being used in more than 50 countries worldwide today, there is medical evidence to suggest it has nothing more than a placebo effect.
This pungent herb tea commonly used in India and Sri Lanka is traditionally consumed in conjunction with a hot stew of coriander and root ginger to ward off cold and flu symptoms. Frequently used by ayurvedic practitioners, who depend exclusively on medicinal herbs and natural ingredients, Samahan is a brand supplying a peyawa remedy in sachet form. Containing 14 herbal ingredients and spices, the concentrate dissolves in hot water, tea or milk and is said to provide rapid relief from body aches, coughs and catarrh-related ailments.
Derived from the roots of North American ginseng, Cold FX is manufactured by a pharmaceutical company in Canada. The product is said to boost the immune system, stave off influenza and reduce the severity and the duration of the illness. Sceptics question whether the remedy can live up to its claims with particular criticism that studies have been very small scale and paid for by the maker - Afexa Life Sciences/CV Technologies.
Oil of oregano
It was reportedly the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who first used oregano as an antiseptic as well as a cure for respiratory ailments. The perennial herb is today touted by some for its antioxidant and antifungal qualities because of a high concentration of phenolic acids and flavonoids. However, in 2005, the US Federal Trade Commission took to task a company claiming oil of oregano relieved bacterial and viral infections. Statements that the remedy, when taken orally, could treat colds and flus were deemed without "competent and reliable scientific evidence".
Black elderberry has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and Sambucus nigra is believed by some to be a remedy for H1N1 flu. Elderflower can be taken in the form of a cold cordial or mixed with hot water, peppermint and yarrow to make a tea used as a diaphoretic for feverish common colds. Also widely available in tincture and coated tablet form, elderflower is seen as a healthy, inexpensive cold remedy.