My mother was a pharmacist. When we had toothache or headache, the order from her invariably was, “Take 2 Veganin.” We did not get much sympathy but lots of paracetamol, codeine and also caffeine which are the main ingredients of this very widely used painkiller. The strange thing is that although this medication has been in use for about 100 years, nobody is quite sure how it works!
Other popular painkillers are Tylenol 3, Percocet and Vycodin which contain acetaminophen. This ingredient has raised concerns because it has been connected with acute liver failure. Normally, this happens suddenly and is quite distinct from other liver diseases which can take years to develop. The FDA has issued a warning to pharmaceutical companies to limit the amount of acetaminophen to 325 milligrams per dose, because of these worries. As 35% of Americans suffer from chronic pain, you can understand why there has been an alert.
As if that was not enough, some studies show that acetaminophen seems to have a dulling effect on our emotions. It would seem wise to look at natural pain reliever alternatives. Here are 10 which you may not know about.
“Almost always, if we find pharmaceuticals doing the trick, we’ll find a plant doing the same trick—and doing it more safely.” James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods.
1. Ginger root
I wish I had discovered ginger root years ago when I started having problems with arthritis. I have now used it for two years and it has relieved my arthritis pain. I usually put a chopped portion (about an inch) in to boiling water for 10 minutes and then add honey to sweeten it a bit. You can also use it in smoothies, soups and desserts. Some research has been done and one study actually shows that taking a ginger extract twice a day was as effective in killing arthritic knee and hip pain as taking Ibuprofen three times a day. Ginger can also relieve colds, menstrual pain and nausea. It has an antioxidant effect which can break down inflammation and acidity in the fluids around the joints and this is why it is useful for arthritis.
2. Chilli peppers
If you like your food hot and spicy, you can also get pain relief from the main compound in hot chillies and pepper. The key ingredient here is the capsaicin. This can lessen the pain signals that travel to the brain and thereby reduce pain. It can be effective in giving relief for headaches, shingles and arthritis. You don’t have to eat hot curries all the time to get relief! There are several over the counter products such as gels, creams, ointments and lotions for topical application.
If you suffer from heartburn, turmeric spice may be helpful. It contains a chemical known as curcumin which is an anti-inflammatory agent. It can also help with arthritis – but you should not take high doses as it may result in indigestion. If you suffer from gallbladder problems, it is not wise to take this spice. Studies show that taking turmeric or curcumin capsules can really help with joint pain.
I take a magnesium supplement because I suffer from severe leg and foot cramps at night. There is loads of magnesium in lots of foods but modern processing removes a lot of it (which is why we have to take supplements). Not only is it essential for proper bone, muscle and joint health, it is also a great mineral to help reduce stress. This is probably why it is called the “master mineral.” It is no surprise to learn that it plays a vital role in 300 enzyme reactions in the body. If you are not a supplement fan, you can get plenty of magnesium by eating the right foods. These include yogurt, bananas, spinach, avocadoes, kale, nuts, dark chocolate and mackerel.
5. Devil’s claw
Don’t let the name of this herb put you off! If you suffer from heartburn, liver problems or lower back pain, devil’s claw could be the solution. The key compound in this herb are the iridoid glycosides which are highly effective in treating inflammation. You can find it in teas, ointments, and capsules. As with most herbs and spices, there are not enough studies to show whether taking this in the long term is going to have side effects or not. The University of Maryland Medical Center provides an excellent guide to its uses and properties.
6. Birch leaf
You may have taken cortisone to relieve severe pain when joints and muscles are involved, but there is a natural alternative in the birch leaf which acts in a similar way. The main compound in this leaf is methyl salicylate which is similar to the salicylic in aspirin. Birch leaf may be effective as an antifungal med, can help with pain and can also act as a diuretic. More studies need to be done on its safety and effectiveness. One warning is that it may help the body retain salt and thereby might increase high blood pressure.
7. Wintergreen essential oil
This oil is extracted form a shrub (Gaultheria procumbens) which grows wild in the US north east and Canada. This also has a high methyl salicylate content like the birch leaf which makes it an effective painkiller. You need to dilute this oil as it can be rather toxic if used in its pure form. The diluted oil smells fresh and minty and can be used topically and is great for relieving joint and muscular pains. When vaporized, this oil is great for uplifting your mood and relaxation.
8. Cherries and other berries
Who would have thought that a bowl of cherries can help to block inflammation and lessen pain? The main compounds in cherries are anthocyanins which help to give cherries their fantastic color, but they are also used for a lot more than color alone. These precious compounds are also present in blackberries, raspberries, red grapes and strawberries. They perform as pain relievers by inhibiting the pain enzymes and also neutralizing the free radicals which can cause inflammation.
9. White willow bark
Another form of natural aspirin is white willow bark and it has been used for thousands of years to treat pain and inflammation. The key element here is the salicin which is very similar to the acetylsalicylic acid of aspirin. In addition, it has flavonoids which make it an excellent choice for those suffering from backaches, osteoarthritis or headaches. It does take longer to act on the pain than aspirin but the effects seem to last longer. Anyone who is allergic to salicylates may have negative side effects, though.
Aquamin is derived from red seaweed and is found in only a few locations around the world such as Iceland and the south west coast of Ireland. It is rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium zinc, selenium and iron. In one small study, this seaweed extract helped patients with osteoarthritis to reduce their pain and discomfort by 20% in just one month of treatment. It can help to rebuild bones such as the hip and the knee.
Now before you reach for the standard painkillers, why not look out for food, herbs and spices that can help you get relief.
Featured photo credit: Cherries/David Wright via flickr.com