Many moons ago, living in Hong Kong, I had my first taste of the wondrous healing tonics coming from the kitchens in the homes of my local friends. A couple of them noticed my interest and generously began to teach me the ins and outs of using health remedies in daily cooking. Together we toured herbal markets, and I learned which foods and herbs were useful for clearing phlegm, which were immune boosters, the ‘hot’ meats to avoid in summer, and herbal teas to help digest a fatty meal or soothe an aggravated stomach.

One evening after a particularly heated argument around the dinner table, one of my friends imparted with a wry twinkle in her eye the useful tip of serving chrysanthemum and red rose tea. These herbs cool and unblock the Liver Qi, which pertains to anger in Chinese medicine. I marveled as a sense of peace fell over the table.

This was before I’d ever visited an acupuncturist or Chinese herbalist, and long before embarking on my five years’ tertiary study to become a doctor of Chinese medicine.

Now, armed with my toolkit of herbs and acupuncture points to treat patients in clinic, I still find myself drawing on what I learned in those Hong Kong kitchens to treat minor health complaints and using food as preventative medicine. I’ll often send patients away with a recipe for soup, or a list of foods and culinary herbs to incorporate in daily cooking. It makes perfect sense that caring for and nourishing ourselves and our families begins at home.

Home remedies to try

Here are a few DIY home remedies for early stage or mild conditions and prevention of disease. Please be sure to see a registered health professional for treatment and advice in the case of an emergency or if mild symptoms persist or worsen.

For PMS/period pain

• Prepare a tea made from red rose buds (mei gui hua) and red dates (hong zao), both available from Asian grocery stores or your Chinese herbal medicine practitioner. These herbs soothe Liver Qi to ease irritability and feelings of depression, regulate and nourish blood and Qi circulation and relieve pain.

•Boil two cinnamon quills with a handful of hawthorn fruit (shan zha) in 750 mL of water until the water is reduced by half. Add a tablespoon of brown sugar, stir to dissolve and remove from heat. Drink hot as a tea to relieve menstrual cramps.

• Boil 50 g chopped fresh parsley in 750 mL water until the water is reduced to one cup. Crack an egg into the boiling water and whisk. The egg will coagulate to look like flowers. Season with salt and pepper. Eat to relieve menstrual pain.

• Apply warmth and gentle pressure to the abdomen using a heat compress like a hot water bottle or wheat bag.

• Take gentle exercise such as yoga, pilates or tai chi.

For headaches

• Stay well-hydrated.

• Massage peppermint or sweet basil oil into your temples, being careful to avoid the delicate eye area.

• Apply acupressure to the fleshy part between your thumb and forefinger. This acupuncture point is called HeGu and is the master point for imbalances occurring in the head and neck.

• To relieve a headache due to common cold, boil peppermint (bo he) and the crushed up white part of spring onion (cong bai) in water to make a tea. Drink up to two cups a day.

For an upset stomach

• Apply a heat compress (wheat bag or hot water bottle) and some gentle abdominal massage in a clockwise direction to relieve a sore or upset stomach.

• Try massaging with clove oil, tiger balm or peppermint oil for an extra soothing effect.

• Experiment with combinations of the following fresh or ground herbs for an after-dinner digestive tea, or to soothe a sore or upset stomach: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, fennel seed, peppermint, and licorice root.