The Opioid Epidemic

Good Health Lifestyles Features

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid abuse killed more than 42,000 Americans in 2016¾more than were killed in car accidents that same year. And more than 40 percent of those deaths involved a prescription opioid like Vicodin or Oxycontin.

The opioid crisis rocketed to public awareness with the untimely death of Prince, followed by the recent news of Tom Petty’s overdose. Both musicians suffered from chronic hip pain, conditions for which opioids were prescribed. While the mention of some opioids, like heroin, evoke visions of junkies desperate for a fix, the truth is that an addiction to opioids can happen to anyone¾rich or poor, young or old, rock star or soccer mom.

Opioids and the Brain

To understand what makes opioids so addictive is to understand how they work in the brain. Opioids act on three major opioid receptors¾mu, kappa, and delta¾in both the spinal cord and brain to reduce the perception of pain. Of those three, the mu-opioid receptor is responsible for most of the drug’s effect. Opioids also impact parts of the brain that control emotion, which can further diminish the effects of painful stimuli.

But because opioids work on more than one pathway, they also trigger the release of dopamine in the midbrain that activates the brain’s pleasure and reward system. Other areas of the brain create a lasting memory of these pleasurable feelings, setting the user up for opioid cravings. These drugs also raise cortisol levels¾a hormone that plays a primary role in the stress response. Stress can increase the initial desire to take opioids and intensify the urge to keep taking them. But over time, the more you want, the more you need¾and these escalating doses create changes in the brain so that it functions more or less normally when someone is “high” and abnormally when the opioid isn’t present. When a person becomes a functional opioid addict, they need to take higher doses to get the same affect. They also become more susceptible to withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit. And that’s what makes opioid addiction so problematic.

While there are some people who genuinely need opioids to treat their chronic pain, they are the exception. For the majority of people suffering from acute or chronic pain, opioids aren’t the only answer. Natural approaches can effectively tap into the body’s own healing systems to help manage pain safely and very effectively, without the fear of addiction.

The Solution to Chronic Pain

A critical thing to remember is that pain is not an outside invader. Rather, it is part of the body’s monitoring system telling us that something needs attention. Think of it like the oil light on our body’s dashboard. The medical approach is to put a Band-Aid over the oil light with medications, such as narcotics. As you can imagine, this works out very poorly.

There is an alternative.

My published research, and experience with treating thousands of people with chronic severe pain, has shown that most people can get pain-free by treating the root cause of the pain. So if the oil light is on, put oil in the car and it will go off. If your body has pain, give your body what it is asking for and the pain will go away. It really can be that simple.

Meanwhile, in most cases your body is not asking for medication. It is asking for natural alternatives to turn off the inflammation, help your muscles and joints to heal, and speed wound healing. I have found some of these to be a pain-relief miracle. Here are my favorites:

Safer Supplements

When faced with treatment options for pain, you have a choice. Unlike opioids, the majority of herbs and nutrients listed here target inflammation¾the underlying cause of most pain. Plus, they are non-addictive and have been clinically shown to be both safe and effective.

Curcumin, the vibrant golden compound in turmeric, has a long history of relieving chronic pain thanks to its powerful anti-inflammatory properties. It reduces pain by modulating key inflammatory cytokines including IL-1beta, IL-6, IL-12, and TNFα. And that can spell relief for people suffering from chronically painful conditions like fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis. It’s proven so effective that researchers report that combining a bioavailable form of the herb boswellia with BCM-95 curcumin delivers even better results than the arthritis drug celecoxib. Another study that was published in the journal Pain and Therapy found that curcumin was also an effective alternative for hard-to-treat neuropathic pain.

There’s just one glitch: Standard curcumin supplements are poorly absorbed by the body because of their lack of solubility. Curcumin is also quickly metabolized in the gastrointestinal tract and excreted by the body. Fortunately, researchers have developed a very unique form of curcumin with greatly enhanced bioavailability. This unique formulation, known as BCM-95, is created by combining curcumin with turmeric essential oils—a strategy that increases absorption into the blood stream 10-fold and boosts blood retention 7-fold compared to standardized curcumin supplements.

Boswellia is another pain-relieving anti-inflammatory that works particularly well for chronic joint pain. The active compounds in the herb are boswellic acids¾and the most important of these is acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA). AKBA modulates an enzyme called 5-LOX that activates leukotrienes that induce inflammation. Like curcumin, however, boswellia is not well absorbed by the body. That problem was solved with the creation of a highly absorbable form of boswellia standardized to provide at least 70 percent boswellic acids, including 10 percent AKBA. Unstandardized boswellia extracts can contain as little as one percent AKBA.

DL-phenylalanine (DLPA) is an amino acid that soothes pain by blocking the enzymes that break down two of the body’s own pain-killing chemicals, endorphins and enkephalins. Though not an anti-inflammatory, research shows that DL-phenylalanine helps reduce the pain associated with migraines, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia by stimulating nerve pathways in the brain that control pain. It’s even been shown to alleviate the pain often experienced by late-stage cancer patients. One clinical trial of 20 patients found that DLPA reduced their chronic pain by 50 percent in just two weeks. Other studies have shown that taking DL-phenylalanine the day before undergoing acupuncture for pain management increased the effectiveness of the treatment, especially in people with dental and low-back pain.

Hemp Oil is the non-psychoactive form of the Cannibis sativa plant that offers real pain relief when taken orally thanks to its strong ability to check inflammation. While home to more than 100 beneficial compounds, hemp’s most famous compound, cannabidiol (CBD), works with the body’s own endocannabinoid system to relieve pain. One study that appeared in the European Journal of Pain suggests that a topically applied CBD gel eased osteoarthritis pain. After just four days, the researchers noted a distinct drop in inflammation and also in the signs of pain¾and all without any side effects. Other research investigating the oral use of CBD suggests that it can be effective for managing rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic inflammatory diseases. Those with fibromyalgia may also find relief. A 2011 study that evaluated 56 patients found that those using CBD experienced far less pain and stiffness than those using traditional pharmaceuticals to manage the condition. They also reported a better quality of life than those using conventional methods.

Bottom line: There are safe and effective alternatives to opioids that are non-addictive and typically free from side effects. Combined with a healthy lifestyle, they can offer real relief to anyone experiencing chronic pain. As the opioid crisis grows¾and conventional doctors find themselves under pressure to find alternatives¾these four natural remedies just might be the answer they are looking for.


Alternative Approaches

Got pain? Pair one or both of these complementary therapies with the supplements in this article for healthy holistic relief.

Yoga, when combined with mindfulness meditation, was shown to reduce the perception of pain and boost feelings of well-being in a study that appeared in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry.

Acupuncture has been found in numerous studies to help alleviate pain due to a variety of conditions. One recent 10-week clinical trial of 17 women with chronic pelvic pain reported significantly less pain after weekly acupuncture treatments.

The Physical Effects of Opioids

Overall, people who chronically abuse opioid drugs on a long-term basis have an 87 percent higher mortality than non-users across all causes. Here are the many ways opioids negatively affect the body and the brain.


Can cause daytime sleepiness. Long-term use significantly raises risk of major depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder.

Endocrine System

Testosterone suppression is a routine and frequent problem caused by chronic opiate abuse. This can cause sexual dysfunction, fatigue, and infertility in males. It increases the risk of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes. What’s more, low testosterone levels can amplify pain.

Respiratory System

Slows breathing. High doses can cause respiratory arrest and deprive the brain and body of oxygen. This can result in death.

Gastrointestinal System

Slows digestion and leads to constipation.


Because some opioids like Vicodin or Percocet are combined with acetaminophen, chronic use or large doses can result in liver damage.

The number of days it can take to become addicted to opioids, according to a report in the CDC’s journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.


Just Say No

Unfortunately, some doctors still pass out opioids like they are giving away candy on Halloween. However, knowing which drugs fall into the opioid family can help patients seek safer, more natural, non-addictive alternatives. Here are the drugs you may want to avoid:


Opioid Generic Name Brand Name(s) Need to Know
Codeine Only available as a generic Often combined with acetaminophen
Fentanyl Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora, Abstral, Onsolis Synthetic opioid similar to heroin. Fast-acting and highly addictive
Hydrocodone Hysingla ER, Zohydro ER Highly addictive
Hydrocodone/acetaminophen Lorcet, Lortab, Vicodin Among the most abused drug in the U.S.
Hydromorphone Dilaudid, Exalgo Works in the same way as morphine
Meperidine Demerol Do not use if you have asthma or are taking an MAO inhibitor
Morphine Kadian, MS Contin, Morphabond Used for severe pain, often after major surgery
Oxycodone OxyContin, Oxaydo Long-term use impacts endocrine system; depresses respiration
Oxycodone/acetaminophen Percocet, Roxicet Often combined with acetaminophen
Oxycodone/naloxone Targiniq ER Used for severe pain, such as cancer pain; can depress respiratory system


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