Nature’s pharmacy offers a cornucopia of anti-inflammatory plants and herbs that research has shown can benefit people experiencing chronic pain. Traditional medicines such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID)—a class that includes aspirin and ibuprofen—are commonly used by chronic pain sufferers but these can lead to significant side effects including potential stomach ulcers and kidney damage. With that in mind, many people are looking for more natural remedies to reduce chronic pain. Here’s some of our favorite natural herbs for pain. As always, check with your doctor before making big lifestyle changes, especially if you’re taking any prescription medications.
Getting started with natural herbs for pain
Herbs have had an important role in the development of cultures around the world since the dawn of history. Not only were they used for cooking but also for healing. Early healers from cultures as varied as the ancient Chinese and the ancient Celts understood the power of herbs and how they could heal wounds and cure common ailments.
However, it has been in cooking where the use of herbs thrived. Mediterranean cultures like the Greeks and Italians have used a number of herbs in their foods that have become the hallmark of these cuisines. Many Greek dishes are known for their use of nutmeg and rosemary while basil, garlic, and oregano are common in Italian cooking. Middle Eastern foods, various Asian dishes, and Mexican meals (which are a blend of Spanish and Native American flavors) all have their own herbal profiles.
The benefits of herbs are not limited to the boundaries between medicine and food. Ingesting these ingredients as part of a gourmet meal can provide positive nutrients for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is why many healthy eating blogs are also focused on creating rich and flavorful foods. The right herb combinations can eliminate the need for high fat or sugar content making these dishes as delicious as any decadent desserts. The best natural herbs for pain can actually reduce inflammation in the body.
Plants and herbs including turmeric, green tea, and ginger have been proven to reduce inflammation and pain without harmful side effects. Although these herbs come from the soil and not the pharmacy, they “can be the cornerstone of good pain management,” says David Leopold, director of San Diego’s Integrative Medical Education program at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine.
Turmeric in particular represents one of nature’s most potent anti-inflammatory spices, Leopold adds. This bright yellow spice commonly used in Indian cuisine comes from the same plant family as ginger, another powerful antioxidant. Turmeric’s active component, curcumin, reduces inflammation by inhibiting several inflammatory enzymes. Curcumin also gives turmeric its signature color.
Research published in the Italian internal medicine journal Panminerva Medica found osteoarthritis patients taking a turmeric supplement experienced a 58% drop in pain and stiffness and reduced their reliance on traditional drugs like NSAIDs.
Most commonly found in Indian cuisine, turmeric is extremely healthy. Other studies have shown that it may have anti-inflammatory properties and is good for individuals with arthritis. In fact, some research has indicated that it may be more effective at helping with arthritis pain than some prescription medications.
Turmeric is used in many curries along with other Indian spices. It is most commonly found in a powder form and is available at Indian markets and in some grocery stores. The spice will add a rich yellow color to your cooking. Use it to make a tikka masala sauce that you can add to vegetables, chicken, seafood, or rice. Or, look around natural health stores for new varieties of turmeric teas or applications.
One of the more popular spices around the winter holidays, cinnamon is more than just a fragrant additive to foods. It has been shown to lower blood sugar levels which, in turn, can help diabetic patients better control their condition. It has also been known to reduce cholesterol levels which can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Like turmeric, cinnamon can be taken as an extract but you may want to consider adding it to your regular menu. Most people think of sweet foods when they consider cinnamon but Middle Eastern cultures, like Lebanese and Syrian, frequently use cinnamon in savory dishes which give them a distinctive and delicious flavor. Just avoid mixing cinnamon with foods that are high in fat and sugar contents to achieve the best results.
This pungent evergreen herb is great with grilled meats or hearty stews. As it turns out, there is a reason for this pairing. Rosemary helps the body avoid the negative effects of carcinogens called Heterocyclic Amines or HCAs, like those that are common on steaks cooked over an open fire or at any high temperature. The antioxidants in rosemary appear to target the HCAs and prevent the development of tumors.
The good news is that rosemary and meat is a delicious combination. Use bundled sprigs to add flavor to a stew or soup. It is also great in conjunction with other herbs such as thyme, oregano, garlic, or basil. Like those herbs, rosemary is easy to grow as well. While you can use a supplement or a powder, fresh or dried rosemary is always a better choice.
Ginger, a relative of turmeric, is another proven inflammation buster. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that eating ginger daily reduced muscle pain among heavy exercisers. The spice can be drank as tea or used in fresh or powdered form to flavor meals. Research published in the journal Arthritis found ginger extract to be as effective as the anti-inflammatory medication betamethasone.
Though technically a root and not an herb at all, ginger is a great treatment for nausea from a number of conditions. This includes pregnancy, motion sickness, or even nausea related to chemotherapy. Ginger blocks the effects of serotonin that your body creates when it is nauseated which, in turn, stops the stomach from feeling upset.
Common in many Chinese meals, ginger is great for soups, stir fries, or as a dressing on a salad. Like cinnamon you can use it in many sweet preparations, such as gingerbread. Combine ginger and cinnamon for flavored teas like chai, which can provide you with not only the benefits of those individual herbs but also from the black tea itself.
As it turns out, a specific version of the common basil plant, once known as “holy basil,” is great at helping reduce stress. Ingesting this herb increases adrenaline in a healthy way and decreases the body’s production of serotonin.
Basil is extremely common in Italian dishes including pesto sauces. Replacing common basil with holy basil can give you the added stress-relieving health benefits you may need. Use it in place of raw basil as the base of a Caprese salad. Toss with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar.
Finally, very few home cooks can go for long without adding garlic to their cooking. Almost all cultures, from Chinese to Italian, use it. It’s one of the most versatile ingredients you can use. As it turns it, it is also one of the healthiest. The benefits of garlic are many. It can lower the risk of developing cancer, help with a common cold, and decrease the risk of high blood pressure. It even has antibiotic properties.
Fortunately, garlic is also one of the easiest things to cook with. Keep whole cloves on hand to roast and spread on hearty, crusty bread in place of butter. Add minced garlic to pasta sauces, soups, or stir frys. Garlic is the kind of herb that you can add to just about anything in order to create a delicious dish that everyone in the house can enjoy.
Finally, if adding exotic spices to food isn’t your style, you could also sip green tea. This powerful beverage reduces inflammation and promotes health.
Green tea, used for centuries in Chinese and Indian medicine, has gained fame in Western societies for its catechins that reduce inflammation and the risk for many types of cancer.
The popular beverage has shown promise in reducing chronic pain, particularly for people with rheumatoid arthritis. A study completed at the University of Michigan found green tea’s anti-inflammatory benefits alleviated symptoms associated with the disorder. Michigan researchers found that epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG)—an active compound in green tea—thwarted the production of molecules that lead to joint destruction and bone erosion in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Have you tried any natural herbs for pain? Do you have any great recipes that incorporate lots of these ingredients? Share them in the comments!