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Layers of Healing: Realizing the Power of the Ordinary Onion

They’re a staple in stews, a flavor in fried foods, and that ‘sting’ in salads. The sharp, savory taste and juicy crunch give them versatility in the kitchen cooked and uncooked — but they really deserve a place in your permaculture medicine cabinet.

That’s right–the ordinary onion.

I’d never have believed it either, but one day, in the agony of an ear infection, I read that an onion sliver could help quell the infection and calm the pain. My ear ached so badly I would have tried almost anything short of shooting the Queen of England, so I heated a tiny onion ring and slipped it into my ear for a while. We had some extremely potent, weep-your-eyes-out young yellow onions; I could actually feel the fumes moving around in my ear. Ear pain like that usually continues for days for me, but repeated applications of onion cleared everything up within about half a day. It helped that my infection had just started, but still, the results aroused curiosity. Does the onion really have antibiotic effects, or did the potent fumes just clear up a painful pressure inside my ear? More importantly, can you lasso the power of this plant to heal you, too?

If the onion had antibiotic effects in my ear, it’s for the same reason that the onion hurts me when I dare cut into it. Chemists tell us that breaking the onion’s cells mixes enzymes normally separated by cell walls. Those enzymes break down sulfenic acids in the onion’s cytoplasm — cell goop — and make propanethiol S-oxide, a very highly reactive gas that forms sulfuric acid when it dissolves in the liquid in your eyes. In high concentrations, sulfuric acid is a strong compound that we use for industrial applications; it’s a component of environmentally harmful acid rain, extremely reactive with water or alcohol, and corrosive enough to burn through aluminum, copper, stainless steel, and skin. That’s right: the onion essentially forces burning poison into the chef’s eyes. When this acid forms in the liquid in my ear, the bacteria must become uncomfortable. Nobody likes to live in a bath of sulfuric acid.

Crazy theory? It’s not just me. One study found that purple and yellow onion extracts killed and kept cholera bacteria from growing in petri dishes — onions may have a similar effect on wounds or in the human body. Another study released in the Journal of Medical Chemistry in 2012 found that yellow onion extracts showed significant antibacterial activity against gram positive bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus ATCC 25923 (strep throat) and Bacillus subtilis (a generally harmless bacteria normally present in soil and the human body). That means onion extracts may kill the bacteria that causes strep throat. Onions also contain chemicals made from the antioxidant and antibacterial agent quercetin, which means they can harm MRSA, a bacteria that causes skin disease, and H. Pylori, a bacteria that causes stomach ulcers. Unfortunately, common food-poisoning offender Escherichia coli resisted the onions — but other spices, like olive oil, lemongrass, and apple skin can help inactivate that microbe.

The American study that investigated those other spices also found something even more astonishing about onions: adding onion powder to cooking meat decreased formation of the carcinogen PhIP by 94.3%. Cooking’s a bit of a catch-22, because we have to cook our food to kill bacteria, but the more we cook it, the more we create cancer-causing chemicals in our foods. When onions stop PhIP from forming in your food, they stop this process — but they also offer anti-cancer benefits once inside the body. Researchers have called onion extract "an anticancer substance of high value" because of onion extract’s ability to keep cancerous cells from proliferating or growing out of control, and because phenols and flavonoids in the onion act as antioxidants to neutralize harmful free radicals.

Now, like grapefruit and other special foods, onions may interact with medications. Sometimes that’s a good thing: Zwiebelane A, another organosulfur chemical in onions, enhances the fungus-killing activity of popular eye-drop polymyxin B. If you’re allergic to onions, however, WebMD claims a reaction with aspirin could make the allergies worse. A 2011 study found that onion peel extract seemed to reduce diabetes in obese rats: if onions have the same anti-diabetic effect in humans, they may amplify the effects of diabetic medications like glimepiride and Actos.

What’s the best way to harness this little orb of goodness as an at-home remedy? It depends on what you want. Chilling or heating the onions makes them easier to cut without crying: extreme temperatures inactivate the enzymes that make that nasty vapor. If you want to use that vapor to harm bacteria, though, avoiding the tears might not be the best option. Onions also contain a lot of vitamin C, a well-known immune-system-booster, and any kind of heating will destroy that — C is a very weak, water-soluble chemical. On the other hand, it’s generally believed that the heat provides the pain relief for ear infections — try just heating the onion slightly to compromise between the two effects. Remember never to stick anything smaller than your elbow inside your ear; just place the onion at the opening. You may also want to try putting a clean onion salve or paste over an infected wound or MRSA, or drinking an onion tea or soup to help ease that strep throat or stomach ulcer. Even when there’s nothing wrong with you, include onions in your cooked meats to maximize those anti-cancer effects: an onion a day might keep the kisses away, but the health benefits make them well worth it.

9 Comments

  1. Whenever I get a cough I make up a syrup with a diced onion and 2 tablespoons of raw honey (you can use pasteurised honey or even sugar in the same quantity). I pour the honey on the onion in a cup and leave it for a few hours. After that time there will be a syrup of which I take a couple of spoonfuls. It’s also great for sore throats and the honey soothes the raw throat caused by coughing too. It also tastes pretty nice and without the stinging bite that raw onion usually has. My kids love it.

  2. A couple of years ago my DH came down with Swimmer’s Ear because of a too well fitting Blue Tooth ear piece. I was able to diagnose this because I have an otoscope and the fungus was very easy to see. He was in a lot of pain when I looked up possible home remedies. I came up with a few choices for him, and he, of course, chose the weirdest (at least in my opinion) one: onion juice. He pressed some fresh pieces of onion & I dripped the juice into his ear with a dropper. We did not heat or cool the onion; it was at room temperature. After about an hour he wanted me to look in his ear again as it felt like it was opening back up to him. It was! And the fungus was visibly receding. I dripped the juice in his ear once or twice more, and the fungus was fully gone in about 3 hours. Amazing, and such a relief! We’re definitely sold on onion here.

  3. Plants are amazing. So many common greens have anti-imflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal (some even have anti-viral) properties that a diet rich in diverse plant material is an absolute winner. Great post. Herb lore is worthwhile getting into as well.

  4. Hi,i have also problem in my ear due to long time talking with mobile phone and also Bluetooth.

    I can’t hear properly and never consternate to any word what I listen over phone.
    my ear start paining not more but little pain and also itching inside a ear.

    one day my grandfather were told me why you not apply drops of onion thought its joke.
    I go to medical store and bring expensive ear drops and put into my ear but nothing happened.
    one day I was put 2dropes of onion and amazing result.
    now no need to go to doctor and pay fee.
    thanks onion

  5. I cut my forehead on a pointed shower handle it cut through my skin like a razor. I was left with a 2 inch thick cut in the middle of my forehead. The doctor said if I stiche it up it will leave a hideous buckled scar. I had it cleaned up and a silicone bandaid was put on. I started to research what worked best using natural remedies, onions. I was skeptical but placed a piece of the onion on the cut forehead and it actually stuck in place, it’s been 2 weeks and it completely closed over . The butterfly cut sealed itself back to gether, thanks to the onion remedy. It works better then polysporin.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. Please may I ask how long did you leave the onion on to close the scar? I just cut myself and applied a piece of onion and bandage. Thank you.

  7. Since I was a child, some 50 years ago, I have always used onion juice on a burn. Having had fireplaces, ovens, wood cook stoves, hair curlers, etc, have had plenty of burns. When the juice is directly applied, and bad burns wrapped with cling wrap, the pain is gone within 30 mins., and never a scar.

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