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Folk Remedies: Had Your Gin-Soaked Raisins Today?

January 11, 2007

By Kat Bergeron, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Jan. 11–for arthritis

What do gin-soaked raisins and copper have in common?

Answer: Both are touted as natural or folk remedies for arthritis.

Forty-six million Americans have arthritis in some form or another, and those who do know arthritis can be painful, slow you down, and in some cases, be debilitating. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in this country, arthritis limits the activities of more than 17 million adults.

No wonder so many “home cures” exist alongside more modern pharmaceutical medications and pain relievers. In addition to copper bracelets and golden raisins soaked in gin, there are such commonly heard suggestions as magnets, drinking apple cider vinegar, eating fresh pineapple, and taking gelatin and shark cartilage, to name a few.

Such folk cures — nonconventional or alternative medicine as some call it — persist through generations, despite the lack of supporting medical studies to prove whether they actually work. You likely heard about them from your grandparent, or a work colleague, or a neighbor, or a tennis buddy. Some purported cures, like the gin-soaked raisins, are cyclical in their popularity.

“They persist because on some level they do help because they have anti-inflammatory properties and people will notice some modification of inflammation and pain,” said Jim Borden, a certified nutritionist associated with Five Seasons, a health food market in Ocean Springs.

“But what I tell people is that with such things as raisins they’re only getting a little bit of a piece of their puzzle, and they need to look further into how to prevent their health problems and how to maintain better heath by controlling diet. Proper nutrition for your body type is important. You need to know about yourself.”

So here’s a quick primer on arthritis, which literally means “inflammation of a joint.” The word comes from the Greek “arthron” for joint, and “itis” for inflammation.

Inflammation is the natural swelling that is the body’s response to an injury or infection or irritation. But with arthritis, the body’s natural defense mechanisms run amok and the usual infection-repair roles are reversed to attack the body instead. That’s what causes the pain of arthritis.

That said, there are more than 100 types of arthritic conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, gout, psoriatic arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, and Lyme disease, to name a few. The most common is osteoarthritis, which the Arthritis Foundation says affects 21 million, and is often associated with aging and affects weight-bearing areas such as knees.

Despite a slew of modern arthritis meds and despite naysayers of nonconventional treatments, folk cures persist and continue to intrigue the afflicted. Finding their origins is no easy task, with raisins as a case in point.

In the 1990s when popular radio announcer Paul Harvey mentioned the raisin, there was a run on golden raisins and gin, and it has returned in several cycles of popularity, including in 2006. Political pundits had fun in the last presidential election when Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of candidate John Kerry, reportedly mentioned the gin raisins.

Some people buy regular golden or white raisins in the grocery but some also seek out health food shops, like the one where Borden works, in search of organically grown raisins because they prefer to avoid sulfites common in processed dried grapes.

Although the formula varies slightly according to what Web site you check or what person you talk to, the basics are simple: Eat nine gin-soaked raisins a day. Without that scientific placebo-controlled double blind study, proving the efficacy of this folk cure is hard. It’s literally word of mouth, but that is the way of folk medicine.

Borden explains one possible reason for the persistence of the gin-raisin remedy.

“It’s like making an extract of resveratrol, a flavonoid found in grape skins,” Borden said. He points to a Harvard study that shows mice with resveratrol in their diet are thinner and healthier and have longer life span. He also points out that the substance is found in grape juice, grape wine and other raisins, and that you can buy resveratrol extracts.

That’s the way of these folk cures. There’s often more than one source.

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At a glance

What: In the fields of natural or folk medicines, here are a few commonly cited remedies for arthritis pain and swelling. Each of them, over time, has been tried, dropped, followed, scoffed at, poo-pooed and yet, despite any medical evidence to support the validity of the remedies, touted.

Special note: As in any non-traditional medicines, the user should use common sense and his own research, including possible consultation with a physician, before starting new treatments.

Gin & Raisins: Take a box of golden raisins (sometimes called white raisins); place in shallow container; cover raisins with distilled gin; let soak for a few weeks until gin evaporates; place in jar; eat nine raisins a day. (Note: nine is the number you see most often, but you’ll also see variations).

Apple Cider Vinegar: Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in 8 ounces of water, three times a day. Some people sweeten with honey or add baking soda for pH balance. (Note: EarthClinic.com says it if you stop taking this remedy for a few days, the symptoms return.)

Gelatin: You can buy animal gelatin capsules or you can make gelatin (the store variety like Jell-O) but instead of chilling it, drink it. Some suggest drinking a cup a week, then more as you become accustomed to it. Some people make concoctions with grape juice and pectin (a jam thickener, such as Certo, that contains gelatin powders).

Fresh Pineapple: Eat fresh pineapple frequently for the bromelain, an enzyme found in fresh pineapple (freezing or canning is thought to destroy the enzymes so eat fresh). Bromelain can also be purchased in capsule form as a supplement.

Copper Bracelet: Some believe that copper is absorbed by the skin to relieve joint pain when wearing a copper bracelet but the results are anecdotal and effects controversial. If you wear one, you might want to avoid the ones with anti-tarnish coating.

Magnets: Static magnet therapy is believed to relieve pain by increasing circulation, but that has not been proven by scientific studies. About.com says magnetic treatment is generally considered harmless unless it causes people to forgo other needed medical treatments.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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