Painkillers are a part of everyday life. Athletes often joke about relying on “vitamin I,” aka ibuprofen, to get through the aches and pains of training. But they’re not the only ones who depend on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief. Every day, more than 30 million Americans take NSAIDs like ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen for everything from headaches, muscle cramps, and sport injuries to chronic conditions like arthritis, neuropathy, and back pain.
Much of the pain we feel comes from inflammation—a defensive response that causes tissues to swell and amplifies the signal from pain nerves—so reaching for an anti-inflammatory makes perfect sense. NSAIDs do block inflammation-causing enzymes and lower pain. But unfortunately, they come with some pretty serious side effects. With regular use, NSAIDs raise the risk of ulcers, bleeding in the stomach, strokes, heart attack, and kidney damage—in part, by interfering with important, hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins. “I wouldn’t take them on a regular basis for more than a few months, if at all,” says Jonathan Wright, MD, medical director of the Tahoma Clinic in Washington. “Some individuals might even see adverse effects after just a few days.”
No need to grin and bear it though. Nature has provided an array of effective, yet gentle, remedies that decrease inflammation and soothe pain—letting you say bye-bye to vitamin I.
Boswellia. Also known as frankincense, this herb eases both chronic and minor pains. The active ingredients, boswellic acids, decrease the production of inflammatory compounds implicated in many chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Look for a formula standardized to 60 percent boswellic acids, and take 750 mg per day in three divided doses. A 90-percent formulation just came out this year, adds Wright; follow the dosage on the label of this new formula.
Arnica. This centuries-old remedy comes from the bright yellow arnica flower, which grows in the alpine meadows of Europe. Compounds in arnica called sesquiterpene lactones decrease inflammation and boost the immune system.
In a 2007 Swiss study involving more than 200 people with osteoarthritis, a topical arnica gel soothed pain and restored joint function just as well as ibuprofen. Also ideal for acute injuries, such as sprains, strains, bruises, and postoperative healing, arnica cream or gel should be applied three to four times a day. For a one-two punch, take arnica homeopathically at the same time, using remedies of 6c, 12c, or 30c potency—three pellets under the tongue, three times a day.
Curcumin. Often called the “spice of life,” turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which not only blocks inflammatory proteins, but also enhances the body’s ability to quell inflammation. Studies have found curcumin alleviates the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis, and numerous animal studies suggest it helps ward off Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes. Take 400 to 600 mg of curcumin three times daily. To increase absorption, take it with equal amounts of bromelain—an anti-inflammatory enzyme found in pineapples—20 minutes before meals.
Omega-3 fatty acids. “These are critical for long-term pain reduction,” says Wright, “because your body breaks omega-3 fatty acids down into anti-inflammatory compounds.” Also, if you don’t get enough omega-3s in your diet, you’ll experience more pain and greater inflammation when you do get injured or ill.
Found in flaxseed, hempseed, and cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, omega-3s also come in supplement form. For basic maintenance, shoot for 1,000 to 2,000 mg a day. For chronic pain, take 2,000 to 4,000 mg a day.
Make sure to take 400 IU of vitamin E (in “mixed tocopherols” form) each day as well, which will prevent the omega-3 fatty acids from oxidizing in your body and attacking healthy cells.
Ginger. This flavorful root contains enzymes that inhibit the production of inflammatory compounds. But “the amount of ginger in a spice, tea, or candy isn’t going to provide much pain relief, no matter how good it tastes,” says Paul Anderson, ND, at Bastyr University in Seattle. For acute pain, 2 grams of ground dehydrated ginger daily, in three divided doses, should do the trick. For chronic conditions, cut to 1 gram daily, in three divided doses.
Devil’s claw. Native to South Africa, the prickly devil’s claw is a hard fruit covered with sharp little hooks that snag onto fur and flesh, causing pain. As an herbal remedy, however, it takes pain away, with research showing it significantly alleviates back pain and arthritis.
One four-month study examined more than 120 people with knee and hip osteoarthritis and found that devil’s claw decreased pain and increased function just as well as a common osteoarthritis medication, but with far fewer side effects. Other studies have shown similar results for low-back pain.
The active ingredients appear to be compounds called iridoid glycosides, in particular, one called harpagoside, which have potent pain-relieving and inflammation-fighting properties, says Wright. Take 50 to 100 mg of harpagoside daily or 400 mg of dried devil’s claw. People with stomach ulcers should consult their doctor first since devil’s claw stimulates the production of gastric acid.
White willow bark and feverfew. Nothing sends you racing for a bottle of aspirin quite like a screaming headache. Yet one natural remedy that may work equally well is white willow bark. It contains salicin, a compound very similar to aspirin. It decreases inflammation, just like aspirin does, but is gentler (Note: Do not give willow bark to children because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome). An extract with 120 to 240 mg standardized salicin every three to four hours should work wonders.
For long-term relief, feverfew helps stop headaches before they occur. A member of the sunflower family, feverfew relaxes blood vessels in your brain and prevents them from constricting, a primary cause of migraines. In one recent study on migraine sufferers, researchers found that after 16 weeks of treatment with feverfew extract, attacks had decreased from almost five per month to just under three a month. Feverfew works best to stave off migraines rather than treat ones that have already developed, but keep in mind that it takes one to two months to see benefits. Take 100 to 200 mg daily, standardized to contain at least 0.2 percent of the active ingredient parthenolide.