Ease Pain with Food
The latest science suggests that changing the way we eat may ease chronic pain. Research is revealing that certain foods may reduce chronic inflammation, block pain signals in our bodies, and increase brain chemicals that make us feel good. The best part? The same foods that offer these benefits also add more color, flavor and a nutritional jolt to our diets, making our meals not only better for us, but better tasting, too. Here are some foods that may help reduce your pain.
Hot and Spicy
Want to spice up your life, and reduce your pain? Think peppers, and the hotter the better. Fiery peppers contain more of an active ingredient called capsaicin than mild peppers do. “Capsaicin can stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, which can help to reduce pain and anxiety,” says Muraleedharan Nair, Ph.D., professor of natural products and chemistry at Michigan State University. “When you chew or eat a hot pepper you may sweat a little but at the same time you get this feeling of a high. That is the endorphin rush.”
A Cherry or Two
In one study, Nair and other researchers found that cherry extract was 10 times more effective at reducing inflammation than aspirin. “Cherries contain compounds called anthocyanins that give them their red color, and that also help to block the action of certain enzymes that can lead to inflammation in the body,” Nair says. But don’t consume beets and cherries at the same meal, he cautions. Beets contain chemicals that can nullify that action of the anthocyanins in cherries. And if you have type 2 diabetes, check with your doctor before adding cherries to your diet, since the fruit is also high in sugar.
Sage not only provides a distinctive flavor, but it may help reduce pain, too. You can have it brewed into a tea or used in cooking to enhance meats and vegetables. Studies in Switzerland and Germany found that when used in a throat spray, the herb reduced the inflammation and pain of sore throats just as well as an analgesic medication or a throat spray containing a topical anesthetic-and with a lower risk of side effects like a bitter taste in the mouth or a slight swelling of the tongue. Sage has both anti-inflammatory effects and what doctors call antinociceptive (pain-reducing) properties.
The wonder of Ginger
Ginger’s medicinal uses-from treating headaches to motion sickness to the common cold-date back more than 2,000 years. Recent research shows that consuming ginger may alleviate pain and other symptoms related to osteoarthritis. In one study of people with osteoarthritis of the knees, doctors at the University of Florida found that participants who consumed ginger for six weeks were more likely to note improvement of their pain upon standing than people who did not consume ginger. “Ginger offers both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, an anesthesiologist and nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You can use it either fresh or dried in teas, stir fries, baking and many other ways.”
While some foods improve pain once you have it, prunes (dried plums) might actually prevent pain by strengthening your bones to avoid fractures. In one study, Arjmandi and colleagues at the University of Florida compared postmenopausal women who consumed about 10 prunes a day to those who ate about the same amount of dried apples. Over a year, the prune group had significantly higher bone density in their spines and arm bones than the apple eaters. Prunes, Arjmandi says, appear to have anti-inflammatory properties and may also help prevent the breakdown and reabsorption of bone, which can result in bone thinning, a process that speeds up after menopause.
Prunes are high in fiber, so if you’re not used to consuming them, Arjmandi advises increasing your intake gradually. “Start by eating two or three dried plums a day for a week, then add another two the following week until you work up to eating eight dried plums per day,” he says. And be sure to drink lots of water; without it, prunes can actually leave you constipated.
The oils in salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies and many other fish can help reduce inflammation, and studies show they may lessen pain and improve other symptoms of conditions including arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and severe menstrual cramping and pain. The omega-3 fatty acids, especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA ) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), in fish are believed to reduce pain and inflammation in the body by minimizing the body’s production of certain pain-stimulating substances including prostaglandins, leukotrienes and thromboxanes. In studies, women with severe menstrual symptoms who consumed fish oils were able to stop taking their ibuprofen or other medication, or at least take less. Other studies of people with rheumatoid arthritis find that fish oil consumed alone can reduce pain and inflammation; when taken with other medication, it can have a synergistic effect, improving symptom relief so that you might need less of your medication. Talk to your doctor about the best way for you to get more fish oil into your diet. If supplements are not recommended, simply adding one or two more fish meals per week to your diet may help reduce your pain without side effects.
Garlic and Onions – Pungent Pain relief
The benefits of garlic and onions are worth the pungent aromas they leave behind when you eat them. Onions and garlic have components that act as antioxidants to prevent cell damage, and they’re anti-inflammatory agents that may reduce swelling and pain in your body. Onions are among the best natural sources of quercetin, a substance that some research shows may reduce inflammation in heart cells, lowering your risk for heart disease. Quercetin may also help with certain pain conditions including chronic pelvic pain and, in men, prostatitis. Garlic contains sulfur compounds that have both anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects in the body. “Include garlic and onions as part of your daily diet and over the long-term you are likely to reap the pain and inflammation-fighting benefits of these foods,” Arjmandi says.
Consuming pineapple juice promotes healing in muscle and tendon injuries, according to studies in animals, plus researchers at Duke University and the University of Chicago recently found that the fruit juice can treat symptoms of colitis, irritation and swelling of the colon that can lead to diarrhea, stomach pain and other problems. The key ingredient in pineapple? An enzyme called bromelain that has anti-inflammatory effects and is found in both the stem and the fruit of the pineapple plant.
Nuts to you
Unless you are allergic to them, you can’t really make a mistake by eating nuts. Tiny powerhouses of carotenoids, polyphenols, tocopherols and other beneficial plant chemicals, nuts offer a slew of health benefits including antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-viral and cholesterol-lowering properties, and their anti-inflammatory action may help in pain reduction. And although they are calorie dense, studies show that eating a handful of nuts a day as part of a well-rounded diet can actually help you control your weight. To maximize the benefits of nuts, eat a variety of them, including cashews, almonds, walnuts, macadamias, pistachios and pecans.
Turmeric is the ingredient that gives curry dishes that golden hue and rich flavor. In addition to being a staple of Asian cuisines, turmeric also has a long history as a medicinal plant dating back more than 2,000 years. Recent studies have found that turmeric and its active ingredient curcumin have anti-inflammatory properties, making it helpful in reducing pain in some people who have osteoarthritis and other chronic pain conditions. Bonus: Recent studies indicate that turmeric might also protect against Alzheimer’s disease, possibly through antioxidant properties that can reduce damage to brain cells. “Eastern and Indian cultures may use as much as 3 teaspoons of turmeric per serving in foods, but you may be able to get many of the benefits of this spice by using less,” Gerbstadt says.
Cinnamon it up
Whether you sprinkle it on your morning latte or oatmeal, use it to spice up a vegetable stew, or include it in your favorite cookie recipe, cinnamon is a versatile spice with multiple health benefits, including reducing pain and inflammation, lowering your cholesterol, helping you regulate your blood sugar, and fighting off bacteria and fungi. Its use as a medicinal herb dates back to the ancient Egyptians, but recent studies have found it may reduce the pain and inflammation of colitis when ingested, and when applied topically as part of an herbal cream it may improve knee osteoarthritis more effectively than a topical aspirin-like product. The secret to cinnamon’s many health benefits may lie in one of its potent components, eugenol, a natural analgesic that’s also found in cloves.
As if you need another reason to eat more vegetables, broccoli, kale, spinach and other green leafy favorites are high in magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant. Studies show that magnesium may help reduce leg cramping, menstrual cramps and pain, menstrual headaches and pain and tenderness associated with fibromyalgia. The magnesium in foods also works together with other minerals, including potassium and calcium, to strengthen your bones, making you less likely to fracture them. Most of us don’t need magnesium supplements. “Getting magnesium from leafy, green vegetables and other foods is a safe way to meet your magnesium needs,” Gerbstadt says. “It’s important to maintain a balance in the body between levels of magnesium, zinc, calcium and other nutrients, and taking supplements of magnesium alone may throw off that balance.”
Cook them into pasta sauces, drizzle them with olive oil in a salad or stuff them with rice and bake them. Any way you eat tomatoes, you may be reducing pain in your body and lowering your risk for serious health conditions. One recent study at Wayne State University found that a compound in tomatoes called lycopene may be effective in the treatment of endometriosis, a painful condition in which tissues of the lining of the uterus grow in places in the body outside of the uterus. Other researchers are exploring the use of lycopene in treating nerve pain caused by diabetes. Plus, lycopene’s antioxidant properties have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease and several types of cancers.
Blueberries for Muscle Pain
If muscle strains and pain keep you from exercising as often as you should, try upping your consumption of blueberries. The fruit contains high levels of anthocyanins, natural antioxidants. One recent study from New Zealand found that muscles recovered faster after a workout in athletes who ate blueberries before and after a strenuous workout than in athletes who didn’t eat them. Similarly, researchers in North Carolina recently found that runners who consumed blueberries for six weeks had higher levels of certain immune chemicals in their blood that fight off inflammation and stress to muscle cells. Bonus: Another compound called polyphenols in blueberries may help you control your weight, according to new research from Texas Woman’s University.