• Knowledge of how to use herbs to treat ailments is not formally taught but passed down through households. (Getty)Source: Getty
Melbourne naturopath, Inna Mitelman, who emigrated from Belarus, shares how traditional natural remedies, like her grandma's herbal teachings, are used in mainstream medicine in Russia.
Inna Mitelman, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

27 May 2019 - 2:40 PM  UPDATED 27 May 2019 - 3:15 PM

I came to Australia in 1991 when I was 15 years old. When I was little, living in Belarus (when it was formally part of the Soviet Union), herbal medicine was the norm and the belief in ‘food as medicine’ was definitely part of our culture.

My grandmother was very much into herbs. She used herbs and food to treat us for everything from coughs and colds to worms and upset tummies. Grandma was actually a school teacher and not trained in herbs, so the knowledge she had must’ve been handed down to her.

Grandma’s house was on the edge of the town, across the road from a forest. That’s where she taught me about which herbs to pick and which plants had healing properties. We would collect plants, take them to the pharmacy and get paid for them. 

Growing up in Russia, there were no naturopaths. Instead, natural medicine was part of mainstream medicine. Herbal medicines were tableted and prescribed by doctors for common conditions, and they still are today.

Mustard compresses [or mustard plasters] were also the norm and sold in pharmacies. Whenever a child got sick with bronchitis, you’d call the doctor to the house and he would prescribe a hot mustard compress.

Cupping was medicine and routinely prescribed for coughs, even for children. Medical doctors, in my childhood, also used to prescribe Vitamin C for coughs, and honey and lemon tea for colds. If you had a sore throat, you’d be told to gargle with sage and calendula or have honey. That was very normal.

Mustard compresses [or mustard plasters] were also the norm and sold in pharmacies. Whenever a child got sick with bronchitis, you’d call the doctor to the house and he would prescribe a hot mustard compress.

They were cloths impregnated with mustard seed powder and other ingredients, which you would put on children’s chests or backs or wherever it was relevant. The idea is that the irritation caused by the mustard to the skin – the redness and the heat – will draw the inflammation away from the affected organ.

We don’t use mustard compresses here a lot and they are not a naturopathic treatment. I also don’t use cupping and other treatments from my childhood because they were not part of my education in Australia. For better or worse, I only use what I’ve been taught to use [that has evidence to back it up]. Perhaps that's something for me to contemplate. 

As much as the advice of medical doctors was well sought after, back then, people also held a degree of mistrust towards doctors.

It may have been thought that it was not in their best interests to cure you or kill you, so they keep you sick to profit from your sickness.

When I was young living there, medicine was also government-based. Doctors weren’t paid except from a [government] salary. So, in my opinion, there was an underlying belief that if the doctors were paid to give you medical advice then they might [not be giving you the best advice]. It may have been thought that it was not in their best interests to cure you or kill you, so they keep you sick to profit from your sickness.

Personally, I know many doctors in Australia [and Russia] and know this is not true. The same can be said of naturopaths in Australia as well, couldn’t it? But there was an undercurrent of mistrust in the mainstream medical profession throughout society. I believe the distrust of the medical system in Russia is still common among some people today. I’m a member of a Russian mum's group online and ….[I am told] that women who arrive here from Russia freak out because the medical system is so different to the system in Russia. 

I also believe that homeopathy is widespread and extensively practiced across Russia today and herbal medicine is still dispensed by doctors: even leech therapy is practiced by doctors. I have heard of some naturopaths working in Russia, but from what I hear, some practice extreme methods like urinotherapy.

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So much gets treated over in Russia that doesn’t get treated here – for good reason, as we have an evidence-based system in Australia, while in [some instances] in Russia, it’s still authority-based. In my day-to-day practice in Australia, I refer to doctors and they refer to me. Doctors save lives. Drugs save lives. We know this is and it would be completely ridiculous to discount this. But some drugs don’t do very well with treating some chronic conditions or some health issues [like the common colds].

I chose to be a naturopath partly because of my belief in natural medicine, [growing up with a strong herbal remedy tradition]. As a practising naturopath, I try to steer clear of treatments that are not evidence-based. I can prescribe them technically, but I only use what I've been taught to use. But many of ‘grandmother’s recipes’ cannot be researched because there is no value for anyone to research them. Research costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Even still, I don’t prescribe vitamin C for someone who has a cold but I prescribe zinc because there is research backing up its use in treating colds.

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Chicken soup, a traditional remedy for coughs and colds in Russia has evidence to back up claims that it is antiviral and antibacterial. If you put ginger and garlic in it, that will help too because that they are known for their antiviral properties.

Honey is traditionally used and has plenty of evidence to back it up.

Russia had an extensive space program in the 1980s and there was a lot of research that took place on how herbs could be used to improve the mental and physical performance and stress adaptation in astronauts. Herbs like Rhodiola and Siberian ginseng were extensively researched and used on astronauts to improve their level of stress resistance, performance and energy levels.

Calendula and sage were often used as a gargle for sore throats. It’s been researched and studies have shown that this mixture of herbs has constituents that are anti-fungal, antiviral and antibacterial.

I just think that if a herbal remedy has 1,000 years of traditional use behind it, is definitely not harmful or puts anyone's health at any risk, and may be beneficial, then maybe we should be more open to using it?

Inna Mitelman is a Melbourne-based naturopath and lecturer in medicinal food science at Endeavour College of Natural Health.  

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Russians' hats (Ruske kape)

These little layered cakes are the sweetest hats you'll find. Made up of custard cream and a chocolate topping they are covered in shredded coconut for a little texture but you can also use nuts as well, if you have them handy. They are best served chilled and if you aren't much for a dessert fork, then eating these with your hands like a cupcake is absolutely acceptable!

Crispy-baked pierogi stuffed with pork and pine nuts

Crispy pierogi are not a common dumpling, but they are a great alternative to uszka with clear red borscht and also work well with zurek. You should eat these on the side of soups, so that they retain their crunchy consistency. Baked pierogi require a slightly different dough, similar to that of the famous Russian kulebiak, which is just one massive ornately decorated dumpling.

Korolevsky cake

Meaning ‘king’s cake’ in Russian, korolevsky cake was traditionally made in the imperial cities of Russia, and eaten by the aristocracy. Its impressive stature featuring three layers of walnut, chocolate and poppy seed cake aren't overwhelmingly rich, and have just a subtle sweetness, balancing the creamy caramel layers and sweet chocolate ganache on top.