Herbal helpers to ease the “ouch”
Whether it’s a headache, sore muscles, or stiff, achy joints, when pain strikes, life suddenly seems to stop. So you may reach for an aspirin, or maybe some ibuprofen or naproxen. But, while over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers can temporarily interrupt pain, most come with undesirable, even dangerous, side effects—and some may actually worsen the problem by inhibiting the healing process.
For most people, pain is occasional and fleeting. But for anyone suffering from arthritis, back pain, or other types of chronic pain, even everyday tasks can be challenging. In fact, one study that appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society noted that people in their 50s who suffer from chronic pain can have the physical limitations of pain-free people in their 80s!
Regardless of the type of pain you have, relief doesn’t need to depend on popping handfuls of potentially harmful medications. Instead, making a few simple lifestyle changes and adding targeted supplements can quell inflammation and help resolve the root cause of your misery. But the first step in alleviating pain is to understand what’s behind the “ouch” factor.
The Anatomy of Pain
When you experience pain, sensory receptors (which are located all over your body, especially in your skin, the surfaces of your joints and bones, and certain structures in your skull) send a message to the brain via your nerves and spinal cord. Once the brain then registers and processes this message, you become aware of the pain.
Pain is also a result of inflammation. When you suffer an injury, the body releases inflammatory enzymes including one called COX-2 (cyclooxygenase-2). The release of these enzymes speeds up the production of chemical messengers called prostaglandins that trigger an increase in blood flow and summon white blood cells to assist in healing. While this is a perfectly normal response, it also increases the sensitivity of pain receptors in the injured area. Fortunately, there are a number of natural remedies that can effectively diminish COX-2 and provide safe and effective relief.
The Dynamic Duo
If you are dealing with acute pain or a chronic ailment, these two essential pain-relieving herbs can’t be beat.
Curcumin. Whether it’s your joints, your lower back, or overworked muscles, curcumin—the highly pigmented compound from the curry spice turmeric—can effectively address both pain and inflammation. With a long history of medicinal use in both Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine, curcumin is a safe and effective alternative to NSAIDs and other pain medications.
Studies show that curcumin helps stop inflammation and manage pain through multiple pathways. It does this by suppressing cytokines, which are substances secreted by the immune system that play a part in inflammation. Curcumin also downregulates the COX-2 enzyme. Because of these dual actions, a growing number of athletes are turning to curcumin to tame post-workout muscle pain. However, much of the research into curcumin’s pain-relieving powers center around the compound’s ability to ease arthritis pain. Two studies that followed 150 osteoarthritis sufferers found that a daily dose of curcumin significantly reduced painful symptoms by 58 percent and improved the ability to walk within three to eight months. One of these studies also showed a dramatic reduction in chronic inflammation.
Unfortunately, curcumin is very poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. It’s also rapidly metabolized in the gastrointestinal tract and quickly eliminated by the body. Until recently, this meant that extremely large amounts of curcumin needed to be consumed to get any benefit. However, researchers have discovered that combining curcumin with AR-turmerone—a proprietary formula known as BCM-95—can greatly enhance both the absorption and bioavailability of curcumin.
Research in the European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine reports that when osteoarthritis patients took a supplement containing BCM-95, both their pain and their range of motion improved. Plus, the researchers noted a significant improvement in inflammation markers. In another study referenced in the journal Pain and Therapy, curcumin even proved effective in relieving hard-to-treat neuropathic pain.
Boswellia. Prized since biblical times, boswellia is often used to support joint health. The key to boswellia’s effectiveness is boswellic acids shown in preliminary studies to modulate inflammation. The most important of these acids is acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA), which has the unique ability to inhibit a pro-inflammatory enzyme called 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX).
Not only has boswellia withstood the test of time, there is strong scientific evidence supporting its use. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, patients with joint pain were given either boswellia or a placebo for eight weeks. By the end of the study, those taking the herb not only reported a significant reduction in pain and inflammation, they also experienced an increase in flexibility and walking distance.
Fortunately, a unique form of the herb, known as BOS-10, has been created that is standardized to include at least 10 percent AKBA. This makes it significantly stronger—up to 10 times more effective than unstandardized boswellia.
Of all the different types of pain you can experience, back pain is among the most common. Whether it’s from an injury or from overuse, a combination of curcumin and boswellia is a great place to start. Add devil’s claw and white willow to the mix and you’ve got a winning remedy for lower back pain.
Devil’s Claw. This African herb has been used for centuries to effectively relieve both pain and stiffness. Devil’s claw has been shown to inhibit inflammatory enzymes, which can help stop the deterioration of the joints seen in those with arthritis. Clinical trials have found that a daily dose of devil’s claw results in significantly less lower back pain and a marked improvement in mobility. And unlike pharmaceuticals, the study participants didn’t experience any side effects.
Other research shows that devil’s claw can also strengthen the extracellular matrix that acts like a shock absorber between the vertebrae by an average of 38 percent. Devil’s claw also boosts hyaluronic acid synthesis in chondrocytes, which are the cells that produce and maintain the natural cushioning cartilage between your vertebrae. Just make sure to check the label before choosing a supplement. Many extracts are only standardized to two percent harpagosides, which is the plant’s key compound. The most effective extracts are standardized to 20 percent.
White Willow. Often called nature’s aspirin, white willow bark contains salicin, the natural inspiration for aspirin. Salicin is responsible for lowering those prostaglandins that can cause inflammation, as well as aches and pains. Besides salicin, willow bark includes a combination of polyphenols that contribute to its pain-relieving properties. Look for a white willow bark extract standardized for at least 30 percent salicin.
Heading Off Headaches
Severe headaches and migraines can leave you in agony, but even a mild headache can be painful enough to negatively affect your life. If you are a frequent victim of head pain, these two common nutrients can help!
Magnesium. If headaches seem to occur often, it’s likely you’re not getting enough magnesium. Deficiency is particularly evident in women who suffer from menstrual migraines. While intravenous magnesium has been shown to stop migraines or reduce their severity, oral magnesium has been deemed effective at preventing migraines. Magnesium is particularly appealing as a preventive measure against headaches because of its solid safety record. As a bonus, this multi-tasking mineral also eases muscle aches and can help to soothe you to sleep thanks to its relaxing properties.
B Vitamins. This family of essential, water-soluble vitamins can ease headaches in several ways. Taking 400 mg of vitamin B2 daily has been shown to ward off migraines, and vitamin B6 was found to help prevent menstrual headaches. A Cambodian study looked at women who experienced headaches while using oral contraceptives and concluded that those who took vitamin B6 reported fewer headaches. For best results, look for a formulation using the active form of B6, known as P-5-P (pyridoxal 5’-phosphate). Another trial found that supplementing with a combination of folic acid, B6, and B12 reduced migraine disability from 60 percent to 30 percent after six months.
Is It Acute Pain or Chronic Pain?
Acute pain is a temporary event, lasting only until the cause of the pain is removed or the underlying damage has healed. Pinpricks, bee stings, cuts, and stubbed toes fall into this category. But some conditions like osteoarthritis, peripheral neuropathy, or cancer can cause chronic pain that can last for years. Chronic pain can also be idiopathic, which means that it has no identifiable underlying cause.
4 Ways to Manage Pain
- Adopt an anti-inflammatory diet. Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables as well as omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel. Just be careful with tuna as it may contain high levels of mercury.
- Get enough sleep. Aim for seven to nine hours of shuteye each night. If pain is keeping you up at night, try taking the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin.
- Work out your pain. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins—those feel-good chemicals that can help ease pain. Just don’t overdo it. Talk with your doctor about the best approach for you, and make sure to increase your physical activity gradually.
- Sidestep Stress. Pain can make you stressed—and stress can make pain worse! Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and guided imagery can help manage both your stress and your pain.