Rx for Readers: Potato relief

Believe it or not, potato juice and peels have a palliative effect.

Sweet potato soup (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sweet potato soup
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My late mother had painful shingles when she was over 90 years old that developed into a very painful neuralgia. The source appeared to be in the ear, and the pain traveled down the nerve paths over her shoulder, front and back. Her doctors in England claimed that no medication could help, so she really suffered.
One night she couldn’t sleep. We tried every kind of cream, calamine lotion and even cold water. I stayed with her in her room. In the middle of the night, I was desperate to relieve her pain and suddenly remembered what a friend, a recent immigrant from Russia, had told me. She said that she uses ordinary white potatoes to heal all sorts of ailments. So I peeled and sliced a potato and placed the slices on the painful area. It relieved my mother’s pain, and she fell asleep.
About four months ago, I woke up one night in agony. Some insect bites on my leg caused me a lot of pain, as if it was shingles. I had nothing at home to use, so I sliced a potato and applied the slices to my skin. The pain stopped. My aunt used to make a paste of potato flour and water to put on my cousins’ scratches and injured skin when they were children. Is there any scientific explanation for this? M.S., via email Dr. Menachem Oberbaum, director of the Center for Integrative and Complementary Medicine at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, replies: Many reports on the “healing power” of raw potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) can be found in the popular press. In traditional medicine, the juice of freshly squeezed potatoes is used for stomach complaints because of its antacid and spasm-relieving effects. The first recorded medical use of raw potatoes was for gastrointestinal disorders, and it dates back to the Swiss physician Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner.
Conventional clinical studies partially support claims of the beneficial effect of potatoes for treating dyspeptic complaints. They recommend taking one teaspoon or more of raw potato juice before breakfast and in the evening before going to bed. Using cooked and mashed potatoes, applied locally, has proved to be efficient in treating skin irritations or inflammation (such as after intestinal surgery and fecal incontinence in healthy infants – peri-anal dermatitis).
But skin burns were shown to react no better to “bandages” of potato peels than, for example, applications of honey. Therefore, burns should not be treated with potatoes or potato products.
Other indications for using potatoes are pain relief or softening a furuncle (deep folliculitis, a bacterial infection of the hair follicle); one can apply a pack of warm cooked potatoes.
These indications have not been tested in conventional clinical trials, however. Yet some people may benefit from the “potato treatment.” There is also some evidence that potato proteinase inhibitor might be useful in weight reduction.
But it is important for people who use potatoes to treat conditions to know that they contain a toxic substance (toxic glyco-alkaloids called solanine and chaconine) that may cause nausea, dizziness, respiratory distress and other symptoms if they are ingested in large quantities. Rare cases of death have been reported.
Beware of green potatoes, and peel off every trace of green. When potatoes are exposed to light, these underground tubers interpret it as a sign that they’re no longer completely buried in the soil, so they produce chlorophyll pigments to help them make use of the light’s energy and they produce bitter toxins to discourage animals from eating them. The toxins are about as powerful as their better-known cousin, strychnine. They apparently interfere with the structure of all our cell membranes as well as with the processing of a nerve transmitter and can cause hallucinations and convulsions.
Because the color change in a potato parallels its accumulation of alkaloids, greenness is used as an indicator of toxicity. In any case, as with all medical treatments, consult your physician before you start using potatoes.
I am a 61-year-old man. I have suffered from postnasal drip on and off since I moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv over 25 years ago. At the time, I was diagnosed as being allergic to house dust and dust mites. An allergy to sage brush has since been added to my diagnosis. Until this year, my allergy was confined almost exclusively to the autumn. This year however, it has continued from mid- October until the present time and shows no signs of going away. I find it very difficult to fall asleep, and I also sometimes wake up in the middle off the night because of my condition. I have seen an allergist and an ear, nose and throat specialist. None of the medications that they prescribed (nasal sprays and pills) did any good, and even the cortisone shot prescribed by my GP was of little use. I have an appointment at Sheba Medical Center’s allergy clinic, but it is not for another six weeks. Is there anything I can do before then? 
M.G., Holon Prof. Meir Shalit, director of the allergy unit in the clinical immunology department of Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, comments: Postnasal drip can be caused by a number of things, including allergy. If it was diagnosed correctly as an allergy, you did receive appropriate treatment, but maybe you didn’t get enough of it or you need antihistamines as well. There is also immunotherapy by injections, but at your age it will probably be much less effective because of a weaker immune system.
There is sublingual immunotherapy (medications held under the tongue), which could be more helpful, but these are expensive and not included in the basket of health services.
You can go to your personal physician for medications if you still have to wait to see the allergy specialist.
There are definitely things that can help you.
Rx for Readers welcomes queries from readers about medical problems. Experts will answer those we find most interesting.
Write Rx for Readers, The Jerusalem Post, POB 81, Jerusalem 91000, fax your question to Judy Siegel-Itzkovich at (02) 538-9527, or e-mail it to [email protected], giving your initials, age and place of residence