The 5 Pain-Relieving Herbs This Integrative Neurologist Swears By
We are in a crisis in this country. Over 50 million people suffer from chronic pain, which greatly interferes with their mobility, their productivity, and their interactions with family, friends, and co-workers and contributes to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression. It isolates people and puts them at greater risk for chronic diseases. Chronic pain destroys the fabric of who we are as a community.
Those who suffer seek medical care and are given prescriptions for a wide range of medications which can include opiates. Opiates are part of the crisis, as approximately 130 people die from opioid overdose each day from both intentional and unintentional overuse. The access to and availability of opiates is due, in part, to the prescriptions that are given to those with chronic pain—often without proper education from doctors.
When it comes to natural approaches for pain, I would be remiss not to mention the tremendous benefits of modalities such as meditation, acupuncture, diet, exercise, biofeedback, and more. But Mother Earth has provided us with a plant world that offers numerous compounds with analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory qualities that should be considered before someone is prescribed medications that come with potentially horrendous side effects.
While the precise mechanisms of action have not always been completely understood (some reduce the expression of the Cox-2 enzyme, which influences both pain and inflammation), many of the plants below have been providing pain relief to people from various cultures around the world for thousands of years.
The most effective pain-relieving plants.
The plant world provides us not only with powerfully nutrient-rich foods, but with potent natural compounds that can be extracted and used for their healing powers. My patients often appreciate either a natural or integrative approach to pain management, and many have found relief from these five options below.
While these plant remedies haven't been FDA-approved for pain, there is evidence in clinical studies that they provide relief and have minimal risk for side effects when used appropriately. Of course, it's always wise to consult your doctor before using one of these plant-based remedies to treat your pain symptoms:
1. Devil's claw
Devil's claw is so named because the fruit of this plant has claws that attach to animals in an effort to spread their seed. This is a perennial plant, and the tuberous roots contain a group of compounds called iridoid glycosides, the most potent of which is harpagoside. Harpagoside has been shown to inhibit enzymes the cause inflammation and the pain response. Devil's claw is quite the multitasker, as it's effective for back pain, muscle pain, joint pain, and even headaches.
This yellow spice, commonly used in Indian food, is derived from the root of the turmeric plant. Curcumin, which has potent anti-inflammatory properties, is the primary active constituent in turmeric and has been widely studied for its therapeutic properties. While it may be most commonly associated with managing joint pain and arthritis, I've also found turmeric to be effective for managing neuropathic pain, headaches, and acute muscle and joint injuries.
3. Willow bark
Willow bark (available in capsules or as a tincture) comes from the bark of one or several species of willow tree. It is the original source of salicin, which is the active ingredient that makes up aspirin. Willow bark is used effectively for back pain, joint pain, gout, muscle strain, headaches, and dizziness.
Bromelain, an enzyme derived from the pineapple fruit, is important for inhibiting some of the inflammatory mediators that are directly related to pain, including the Cox-2 enzyme. Its efficacy has been found to be similar to some prescribed pain medications. Bromelain is helpful to relieve pain from traumatic injury or muscle spasms. It's also been shown to have antithrombotic effects, meaning it reduces the formation of blood clots.
5. Evening primrose oil
The oil derived from the evening primrose plant is one of the most potent sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential omega-6 fatty acid with significant anti-inflammatory properties. While it can be used topically to promote skin health and hair growth, oral supplementation of evening primrose oil not only improves symptoms of neuropathic pain but may also aid in the repair and regeneration of damaged nerves.
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