Health and wellness are big in Austria. Not only is spa culture popular here but many Austrians also tend to opt for herbal or traditional remedies when they come down with a cold, cough or stomach ache.
There’s a common perception that these are healthier and safer than over-the-counter medicines. Many remedies have been passed down through generations and you’ll find that some of the “cures” in this list are usually found in the kitchen and not in the medicine cabinet. This reflects the Austrian idea that good health begins with the food you eat. And maybe there’s some truth to this - the average life expectancy in Austria is 81, compared with an EU average of 79.
A century ago many of Austria’s Alpine communities lived isolated from the rest of the world, and found novel ways to survive, existing on what they could find on their doorstep, including traditional natural medicine.
Some of these remedies have been tried and tested and others are a bit more dubious - but they might be worth a try next time you need a quick fix.
Gargle with Schnaps for a sore throat
Schnaps is a strong alcoholic drink which in Austria is often flavoured with fruit. It’s very warming and good as a winter tipple. As alcohol tends to have numbing and antiseptic qualities there may be some truth to the belief that it can help alleviate the symptoms of a sore throat. A friend’s sprightly octogenarian Oma (grandma) swears by a morning shot of Schnaps every day as a general way to maintain good health. Younger Austrians tend to prefer fruit and vegetables and vitamin C and Zinc lozenges.
Fermented cabbage juice for a healthy tum
Sauerkraut juice is widely available in health food stores and supermarkets in Austria. It’s an acquired taste but cabbages have been shown to create compounds in the digestive tract that are anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory. Raw cabbage juice is believed to help stomach ulcers and acid reflux, and also help strengthen the immune system. Fermented cabbage juice contains beneficial bacteria, enzymes and vitamins and minerals. It’s recommended that you drink it in small quantities i.e. one small glass a day - and consult a doctor about drinking it if you have a thyroid condition.
Hug a tree if you have a headache
Photo: Flickr/Andrea Willa
We’re not sure if the weight of science is behind this one - and it sounds like something an old hippy would recommend, but there is some evidence that just being around trees can boost one’s sense of well-being. A recent book called Blinded by Science by UK author Matthew Silverstone claimed that trees have beneficial effects on mental illnesses, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), concentration levels, depression, and can also help alleviate headaches.
Take a hay bath for achy joints
Popular in Alpine regions, the Heubad treatment involves being tightly wrapped in herb-enriched hay that has been soaked in water heated to at least 40C. You’re meant to take the ‘bath’ for about 20 minutes, at which point sweat will start to stream from your pores. It’s said to ease rheumatism and general aches and pains, boost the immune system, improve circulation, and help with weight loss. Warning: The soggy hay can be a bit itchy.
Topfen: A cure for everything
Topfen - a fresh dairy product known as Quark in Germany - is a popular ingredient in Austrian cakes and puddings. But it’s also a popular remedy for all kinds of elements. Our sources tell us that doctors recommend smearing it on your head if you suffer from a dry, itchy scalp (!). If you have a fever a traditional remedy is to put Topfen on your feet and wrap them in towels (the so-called Topfenpatscherl treatment). It’s also been recommended as a topical cream for sore breasts. Worth keeping some in the fridge perhaps?
Yogurt to soothe a sore sunburn
Another common remedy involving a dairy product. Apparently smearing yogurt on a sunburn not only helps to cool and moisturize the skin - it also helps reestablish the pH balance and promotes faster healing. Use plain, unsweetened, full-fat yogurt if you can, let it sit on your skin until it warms up and then rinse off with tepid water. Some people recommend mixing a paste made of equal proportions of barley, turmeric and yogurt. It all sounds a bit messy - we prefer good old Aloe Vera.
Wormwood tea for stomach ache
Medicinal, herbal teas are very popular in Austria. If you have a cold you’re sure to be prescribed thyme tea but a more old fashioned tea is made from the bitter-tasting wormwood herb (which is also used to make Absinthe) and is meant to be good for treating digestive problems, including flatulence, bloating, heartburn and indigestion. It was also used for medicinal purposes in Ancient Egypt and Rome. However, it’s not recommended that you drink it every day, and you should avoid it if pregnant. Too much of it can prevent you from sleeping - or might make you have strange dreams.