We are a nation of pill-poppers! While prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs fall slightly short of our addiction to marijuana and alcohol according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, we have a problem nonetheless- especially when it comes to painkillers.
Prescription and OTC (over-the-counter) medications are the most commonly abused substances by Americans 14 and older, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH) organization (1). And the most common OTCs are a group 0f painkiller drugs known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs.
While these medications may seem innocuous, especially because they are so easily obtainable and commonly recommended by physicians for pain, they can be extremely harmful.
According to statistics, doctors in the US write over 70 million NSAID prescriptions each year and OTC sales of these medications have reached 30 billion tablets annually (2).
NSAIDs range from aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen to a variety of prescription products. Unlike steroids, which affect inflammation by suppressing your immune system, NSAID drugs typically inhibit your body’s ability to synthesize prostaglandins—hormone-like chemicals that, among other things, are made in response to cell injury.
The Dark Side of Painkillers
As a society, we have been programmed to simply reach for a bottle of pills to help with our aches and pains, including arthritis, sports injuries, headaches, back pain, neuropathy (nerve pain), muscle cramps, fever, menstrual pain, and arthritis just to name a few. We even give painkillers to our children from the time they are infants, further entrenching the mindset that when we feel pain we should simply medicate it. But study after study shows that our overuse of these medications is dangerous.
NSAIDs have been shown to cause such things as bleeding in your stomach, kidney damage, heart attack, strokes, increased risk of ulcers, hearing loss, allergic reactions, miscarriage, hormonal imbalances, liver damage, and even death (3).
In July 1998, The American Journal of Medicine stated: “Conservative calculations estimate that approximately 107,000 patients are hospitalized annually for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)-related gastrointestinal (GI) complications and at least 16,500 NSAID-related deaths occur each year among arthritis patients alone. The figures of all NSAID users would be overwhelming, yet the scope of this problem is generally under-appreciated.”
Just one year later, the New England Journal of Medicine stated, “It has been estimated conservatively that 16,500 NSAID-related deaths occur among patients with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis every year in the United States. In 2004, The Food and Drug Administration jumped on the NSAID bandwagon and started a consumer education initiative designed to increase awareness regarding the dangers associated with NSAIDs and other painkillers (4).
In March 2016, Science Daily published a study that suggested new safety guidelines for NSAIDs. In particular, they recommended that “When doctors issue prescriptions for NSAIDs, they must, in each individual case, carry out a thorough assessment of the risk of heart complications and bleeding. NSAIDs should only be sold over the counter when it comes with an adequate warning about the associated cardiovascular risks.” (5).
With all of these warnings and studies, it is well past the time we start looking for safer alternatives to painkillers. Luckily, Mother Nature can accommodate us.
10 Natural Herbs For Pain
Here are just 10 of the many natural herbs for pain that have been shown to be as effective as NSAIDs and even more so in some cases, and without the nasty side effects.
1. Turmeric (curcumin)
Turmeric is the new gold standard herb for a variety of health issues, but one of its more powerful properties is its ability to reduce inflammation and pain—fast. The active agent in turmeric is curcumin (6). Researchers have found that to increase the effectiveness of curcumin, it should be used in combination with piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper.
You can buy enteric coated capsules that will help increase the absorption rate of turmeric, effectively allowing the active ingredients to reach your lower intestines intact. Take 400-600 mg of curcumin three times a day. You can also make your own turmeric painkillers at home.
This herb is not as widely known as others on this list, however, it has been shown to work both quickly and effectively. It’s typically used to reduce pain, increase energy, and lift spirits (7). You can typically purchase kratom online in the US states and in most other countries.
3. Devil’s Claw
Devil’s claw contains a group of anti-inflammatory compounds called iridoid glucosides that include harpagoside, its active compound. This native South African plant is actually a fruit covered with small hooks that can dig into your skin and cause significant pain. Ironically, it is used as a remedy to reduce pain.
Studies show that it is especially effective for back pain and arthritis (8). When buying devil’s claw supplements, look for ingredients that include the active compound. Take 50-100 mg of harpagoside daily or 400 mg dried devil`s claw. People with stomach ulcers should speak to their doctor before consuming this herb.
4. White Willow Bark
White willow bark has been used for centuries. In fact, it was originally used as the active ingredient (salicin) in aspirin before the drug/s newer chemical concoction. White willow is very effective for treating headaches and inflammation without side effects (9).
You can take 120-240 mg standardized salicin every 3-4 hours or turn the dried herbs into tea. Like aspirin, you should never give white willow to children as there can be a risk of Reye’s syndrome.
Feverfew is another good herb for pain and inflammation. It can relax the blood vessels in your brain and prevent constriction, thus treating headaches and migraines. According to several studies, this herb can both prevent and treat migraines (10).
This herb is so helpful for migraines, in fact, that Canada’s Health Protection Branch granted a British feverfew (T. parthenium) product, a Drug Identification Number (DIN), allowing the manufacturer to claim it can prevent migraine headaches (11). You can take a daily dose of 125 mg of dried feverfew that contains at least 0.2 percent parthenolide (the active ingredient).
Capsaicin is the active ingredient found in chili peppers. It has been used effectively as a topical agent to soothe for nerve, muscle, and joint pain. Capsaicin works by blocking a chemical (substance P) that transmits pain signals to the brain.
Boswellia, also known as frankincense, is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It can soothe both minor and chronic pain including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, gout pain, carpal tunnel pain, bursitis and tendonitis, injuries such as strains and sprains, fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis as well as soothe dry, chapped skin (13).
You should always look for a product that contains 60 percent of the active ingredient, boswelic acids. Take 750 mg a daily, divided into three doses.
Ginger has been used for stomach issues for centuries. It contains gingerol, the powerful active compound. Studies show there are at least 31 gingerol-related compounds in fresh ginger that can help stop the production of inflammatory compounds. IT works just as effectively as most painkillers.
Ginger can be effective against inflammation, osteoarthritis, and rheumatism (14, 15). For acute pain, you can take 2 grams of dried ginger daily and for chronic conditions, simply reduce your intake to 1 gram daily, divided into three doses.
Arnica contains sesquiterpene lactones, which are compounds that boost immunity and reduce inflammation. It is also widely used for bruises, sprains, muscle aches, wound healing, superficial phlebitis, joint pain, inflammation from insect bites, and swelling from broken bones. New studies are even recommending it for burns.
An ancient herb, arnica is now being added to conventional topical remedies for inflammation. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, you should never take arnica orally without direct medical supervision, “except in an extremely diluted form as a homeopathic remedy, because side effects may be severe.”
A 2007 study on topical arnica, showed that it can soothe pain and restore joint function as well as ibuprofen (16). Apply arnica gel or cream 3-4 times daily. You can also use homeopathic arnica remedies in various potencies (6c, 12c, or 30c), 3 pellets under the tongue, 3 times a day.
10. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Your body uses omega-3 fatty acids to make natural anti-inflammatory compounds. Studies also show that a lack of omega-3 fats in your diet can put you at risk for pain and greater inflammation when you get sick or injured. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in hempseed, flaxseed and cold-water fish such as sardines, mackerel, and salmon (17).
Studies have compared ibuprofen and omega-3 fats, showing that the omega-3 fats work as well as the NSAIDs for arthritic pain. The study showed they are also much safer than NSAIDs and other painkillers for non-surgical neck or back pain (18). You can also get omega-3 fatty acids in supplement form.
Health professionals suggest you take 1,000-2,000 mg daily for maintenance purposes. If you have chronic pain, you should up the dosage to 2,000-4,000 mg daily. You should also include 400 IU of vitamin E daily because it can prevent the oxidization of any omega-3 fatty acids already in your body. Oxidized omega-3 fatty acids can attack healthy cells, so it is important to always get fresh sources and include vitamin E.