Pain can serve as a protective function by letting us know that something is wrong and needs to be corrected before relief can be achieved. Pain is often due to inflammation, a protective function that prevents bacteria, toxins, and foreign material at the injury site from spreading. Injured tissues release chemicals that irritate the nerves, one of which is histamine, which dilates blood vessels, increasing their permeability, so healing can commence. The brain responds to pain by producing morphine-like hormones known as endorphins. Though prescription drugs may offer relief, they can also cause side effects and usually don’t help in removing the cause of pain.
Food can alter our brain chemistry in a way that affects perception. The amino acid tryptophan (found in avocados, bananas, grapefruit, nuts and seeds (especially flax and sesame seeds), papayas, peaches, tomatoes, millet, black rice, buckwheat, oats, and quinoa, poultry, and raw dairy products) encourage the production of the calming neurotransmitter, serotonin. If you eat seafood (especially cod, halibut, tuna, flounder, striped bass, salmon, and herring), they help relieve pain due to their content of anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fatty acids. Particularly beneficial foods for pain include nutrient-dense broccoli, cauliflower, winter squashes, cherries, and celery. Strawberries contain natural salicylates and are cooling and anti-inflammatory. Both papaya (containing papain) and pineapple (rich in bromelain) contain enzymes that aid digestion and reduce inflammation. Enzymes present in fresh foods, such as salad greens, raw vegetables, and fruit, can reduce inflammation. Condiments that may be helpful to include in the diet to relieve pain because of their ability to improve circulation and reduce inflammation include turmeric, rosemary, ginger, sage, and olive oil.
Foods can also be potentiators of pain. Foods rich in the amino acid tyramine (yeasts, processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, and aged cheese) can cause vasoconstriction, which can increase pain by impairing circulation. The additives MSG and aspartame contain neuron-activating compounds known as excitotoxins that can increase pain sensitivity and are best avoided. Trans fat and fried foods, high in Omega 6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils like soy and canola oil), can increase inflammation and thus pain. Sugar and alcohol increase insulin levels, which can dramatically worsen pain. Some people, especially those that suffer from arthritis pain, fare better when omitting Nightshade Family members (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant) out of their diet, as some react to their inflammatory properties. It might also be worth experimenting to see if avoiding gluten (found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and kamut), which are common allergens that can be very inflammatory for some people, and avoiding them can help reduce pain. Junk food contributes to weight gain, unhealthy eating habits and can irritate muscles, disrupt sleep, and compromises immunity.
Herbal medicine has been used by millions of people for thousands of years. Herbs that help pain can be classified in several ways: Analgesics help allay pain when used internally without affecting consciousness. Anesthetics numb existing pain either locally or generally. Anodynes are sedating and help keep pain from being transmitted. Antispasmodics relax muscle spasms. Sedatives promote rest and peace.
Cannabis (Cannabis sativa) is an analgesic, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory agent that can help promote relaxation.
Cayenne pepper (Capsicum frutescens) stimulates endorphin production and is an anti-inflammatory agent. It contains a compound called capsaicin that blocks the transmission of substance P, which transports pain messages to the brain.
Corydalis root (Corydalis species), a relative of Poppy (though it is not habit-forming), helps relieve pain from traumatic injury. Corydalis binds with opium receptors in the body and slows down the breakdown of the B vitamin and neuro-protecting nutrient, choline. Corydalis is analgesic, antispasmodic and sedative.
Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulis) is an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and sedative. It can calm menstrual cramps, rheumatism, and spasms of the legs and back.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) herb inhibits certain inflammatory type hormones known as prostaglandins and prevents blood platelet aggregation (clumping together). Used regularly, it helps prevent migraines, and relieves arthritis and menstrual cramps. Feverfew is anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic.
Ginger root (Zingiber officinale) is warming and improves circulation. It can improve the pain of arthritis, backache, and menstrual cramps. Chew a piece of fresh root for sore throat. Ginger is analgesic and anti-inflammatory. Ginger tea makes a pleasant warming beverage but is also available in capsules and tinctures.
Hops strobiles (Humulus lupulus), a relative of Cannabis, are sedating to the nervous system. They calm cramps, insomnia, restlessness, stomachache, and stress. Hops are an anodyne, antispasmodic, and sedative.
Kava kava root (Piper methysticum), enjoyed by many tropical island natives, is a skeletal and muscle relaxant. It improves anxiety, cramps, gout, insomnia, neuralgia, pain, and rheumatism. It is an analgesic, antispasmodic, and sedative.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) doesn’t make you more passionate but slows the breakdown of neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Try it for cramps, headaches, insomnia, muscle spasms, neuralgia, shingles, and stress. It is anodyne, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and sedative.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a common ingredient in both curry and chili powder. The addition of black pepper can even be more effective. If using a capsule or tablet, look for one containing Bioperine, one of the active ingredients in pepper. It helps make one of the active ingredients in turmeric, known as curcumin, be released more easily. Turmeric is greatly regarded for its circulatory improving and anti-inflammatory properties.
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) is a smooth muscle and skeletal relaxant. Try it for cramps, headaches, insomnia, neuralgia, shingles, stress, and trauma. Valerian is anodyne, antispasmodic, and sedative.
White Willow bark (Salix alba) contains salicin, one of the original aspirin compounds, and is a traditional herb for arthritis, backache, gout, headache, joint inflammation, migraine, and general pain. It is an analgesic, anodyne, and anti-inflammatory.Supplements available from natural food stores can also be allies in pain relief. Vitamin B-1 and calcium raise one’s pain threshold. Vitamins C and E are necessary for the production of endorphins. Magnesium can help relax muscle spasms. There is even a little poem that doesn’t rhyme, but I remind my students and clients, “If you have spasms, think magnesium.” Omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and inhibit unfriendly prostaglandin production.
Because pain is actually registered in the brain, hypnosis and other relaxation techniques may all be of help. Exercise and acupuncture can both help to stimulate endorphin production. So effective is acupuncture that in the Orient, it is used by itself as anesthesia during surgeries. Acupuncture can send stimuli to the spinal cord, blocking the dorsal gate and closing one’s perception of pain. Yoga, Rolfing, massage, chiropractic, and osteopathic work may help relieve pain by improving structural alignment and circulation to a painful area. Check out the book Somatics by Thomas Hanna. It has wonderful simple exercises that can help one get into proper alignment that can relieve back and neck pain.
Practice deep, slow breathing. Visualize inhaling healing light and exhaling pain out of your body. The color blue is considered anti-inflammatory. Some have found that exposure to blue light, visualizing breathing in the color blue, or simply wearing blue helps them experience less pain. Tightening the area around where the pain is centered and then releasing it can help to alleviate achiness.
Some find it helpful to write about their experience with pain in a journal. This may even help one find clues such as “pain is lessened on the days when you take a walk, nap, or avoid sugar,” for example. Art can be used to describe pain.
Is the pain like a biting dog or burning flames? Draw or paint it. In your mind’s eye, muzzle the dog or pour water on the fire. Then draw the images that may soothe pain and visualize them giving relief.
Essential oils can be used in the bath (5-10 drops per bath) or 30 drops per eight ounces of coconut oil or massage and include oils of birch, cajuput, camphor, chamomile, eucalyptus, frankincense, geranium, ginger, lavender, peppermint, rosemary, and wintergreen.
Combining several modalities to help relieve pain, including diet, herbs, and exercise, and lifestyle techniques, can help the body repair and find relief. Be patient and willing to try several techniques together to best support your body in finding a way to live with less pain.
Brigitte Mars is an herbalist and nutritional consultant of Natural Health with over fifty years of experience. She teaches Herbal Medicine at Naropa University and The School of Health Mastery in Iceland. She has taught at Omega Institute, Esalen, Kripalu, Sivananda Yoga Ashram, Arise, Envision, Tribal Visions and Unify Festivals, and The Mayo Clinic. Brigitte is the author of many books and DVDs, including Natural First Aid, The Home Reference to Holistic Health and Healing, The Country Almanac of Home Remedies, The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine, Beauty by Nature, Addiction Free Naturally, The Sexual Herbal, Healing Herbal Teas, Rawsome! and co-author of The HempNut Cookbook. Her latest project is a phone app called IPlant. Brigitte is also a Psychedelic Sitter and End of Life Doula. Please check out www.brigittemars.com