Chronic pain affects 116 million American adults. That's more than a third of the US population. And while pain pills reduce suffering, they can be addictive and produce side effects. Worse, they often fail to eliminate the true cause of the pain.
"No matter how well you prescribe medication, chronic sufferers don't get complete relief," says Dr. James N. Dillard, author of The Chronic Pain Solution. "It's an enormous problem, and the medical community is doing a bad job solving it." But there is an alternative, and it's right in your kitchen. Certain foods ease aches by fighting inflammation, blocking pain signals, and even healing underlying disease.
"Almost always, if we find pharmaceuticals doing the trick, we'll find a plant doing the same trick---and doing it more safely," says botanist James A. Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods. But before you can reap these rewards, you have to quit the junk food that riles up your body's pain system. The typical Western-style diet is heavy on foods that promote inflammation, including highly processed foods and refined carbs. No fruit, vegetable, or herb by itself can alleviate your pain if you don't change the pattern of your diet to reduce processed food and increase whole foods.
This may not be easy, says Dr. Peter Abaci, medical director of the Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center in Los Gatos, Calif. "But if you stay committed to a good nutrition plan, you may be able to say good-bye to pain."
The Rx: Cherries
The Target: Arthritis, muscle pain
The Dose: 45 daily
Compounds in cherries called anthocyanins—the same phytonutrients that give cherries their rich ruby hue—are powerful antioxidants that work in two ways to tamp down pain. "They block inflammation and they inhibit pain enzymes, just like aspirin, naproxen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories," says Muraleedharan Nair, natural products chemist at Michigan State University's College of Agricultural and Natural Resources. One study in the Journal of Nutrition showed that people who ate a bowl of cherries for breakfast reduced a major marker of inflammation by 25 percent. Other researchers found less muscle pain in runners who drank 12 ounces of tart cherry juice twice daily for 7 days before a distance run.
The Rx: Ginger
The Target: Migraines, arthritis, sore muscles
The Dose: 1/4 teaspoon daily
This spicy root is a traditional stomach soother, easing seasickness and nausea. It's believed to work by breaking up intestinal gas and possibly blocking a receptor in the gut that induces vomiting. But there are good reasons to eat ginger even when you're not doubled over. Another natural aspirin impersonator and anti-inflammatory, it can offer relief from migraines, arthritis pain, and muscle aches.
There are plenty of ways to include ginger in your diet. Add it grated into Asian dishes, smoothies, and juice. Or make ginger tea by placing sliced, peeled gingerroot in boiling water and letting it steep for 15 minutes. For ginger lemonade, combine grated gingerroot, lemon juice, and honey with ice water.
The Rx: Cranberry Juice
The Target: Ulcers
The Dose: 1 cup daily
Ulcers are the result of a pathogen called H. pylori, which attacks the protective lining of the stomach or small intestine. Antibiotics are the usual cure, but you can help prevent ulcers in the first place by drinking cranberry juice, thanks to its ability to block H. pylori from adhering to the stomach lining. One study found that just under a cup a day for 3 weeks eliminated almost 20 percent of all cases of H. pylori infection—without drugs. But the juice becomes inflammatory when it's loaded with sugar, so grab a bottle of 100 percent natural cranberry juice. If it's too bitter, add water or a natural sweetener such as stevia.
The Rx: Salmon, Herring, Sardines
The Target: Achy back, neck, joints
The Dose: Two to three 3-ounce servings weekly
Eating fish low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acids can help relieve back pain. In a healthy back, blood vessels at the edge of spinal disks transport crucial nutrients to those disks. If blood flow is diminished, the disks lose their source of oxygen and other nutrients, and they begin to degenerate, says Dr. Neal D. Barnard, author of Foods That Fight Pain.
Omega-3s help by improving blood flow and tamping down inflammation in blood vessels and nerves. But for the full effect, you may need supplements. One study in the journal Surgical Neurology found that taking 1,200 mg or more of EPA and DHA per day could reduce both back and neck pain. And there are added bonuses: "Any amount of fish oil is beneficial for cardiovascular protection and mood elevation," says Dr. Joseph C. Maroon, the study's lead researcher. A study in the journal Pain found that people are more aware of their discomfort when they're glum. (An additional bonus: Omega-3s also may reduce brain shrinkage.)
The Rx: Turmeric
The Target: Achy joints, colitis (inflammation of the colon)
The Dose: 1 tablespoon daily
This essential curry spice has been used for years in Ayurvedic medicine to relieve pain and speed up digestion. But researchers like it for another reason: its anti-inflammatory properties, courtesy of a substance called curcumin. "Turmeric can protect the body from tissue destruction and joint inflammation and also preserve good nerve cell function," Abaci says.
Not a fan of curry? Sprinkle turmeric on salad dressings, soups, cooked grains, and vegetables. Or get an even heftier dose by taking a turmeric supplement. (Make sure the label says it contains 95% curcuminoids.) And note: When you cook with turmeric, use the pepper mill. "Turmeric and black pepper should always go together," Dillard says. "The piperine in black pepper releases curcumin from the spice."
The Rx: Yogurt
The Target: IBS
The Dose: One or two 8-ounce containers daily
For the roughly 20 percent of Americans who have irritable bowel syndrome, stomach pain is a given. But help may come in the form of a bug—billions of bugs, actually. Several bacterial strains that are often in yogurt (especially B. infantis and L. acidophilus) reduce pain, inflammation, and bloating, according to a 2010 review. Another study found similar results with B. lactis. But shop smart. Not every yogurt contains probiotics. Look for a brand with "live and active cultures." Vegans can get their daily dose from probiotic-enriched soy yogurt.
The Rx: Coffee
The Target: Headaches
The Dose: Two 4-ounce cups
Coffee isn't just a morning pick-me-up. It's good medicine. "Caffeine helps reduce pain by narrowing the dilated blood vessels that develop with headaches," says Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. And coffee delivers a one-two punch by reducing pain-promoting compounds and amplifying the effect of other pain relievers too. (But be warned: If you're a java junkie, too much caffeine can have the opposite effect. When you quit, you can get withdrawal headaches. Coffee works as a headache reliever only if you don't consume it regularly.)
The Rx: Mint
The Target: IBS, headaches
The Dose: 1 cup of tea daily
Chewing on peppermint can freshen your breath, but there's another reason you should try the herb. The menthol in peppermint helps prevent muscle spasms, one of the reasons peppermint oil effectively treats irritable bowel syndrome. The oil is also useful for relieving headaches. Rub some on your temples or wrists and breathe in the minty scent.
Duke recommends brewing mint tea for any type of pain. Pour boiling water over peppermint leaves and steep until the tea is as strong as you like. Add wintergreen leaves for an extra pain-fighting boost; a compound in wintergreen called methyl salicylate blocks the enzymes that cause inflammation and pain. "You could call it herbal aspirin," he says. A final squeeze of lemon will help you extract as many pain-reducing chemicals as possible from the plants.
The Rx: Edamame
The Target: Arthritis
The Dose: 1/4 cup daily
When it comes to culinary fixes for pain, osteoarthritis poses a challenge. Wear and tear on the joints—the kind that leaves cartilage tattered and bones grinding against one another—is not reversible. Still, there's some hope for relief.
Researchers from Oklahoma State University gave participants either 40 grams of soy protein (about 1/4 cup of shelled edamame) or milk-based protein for three months. At the study's end, pain was reduced for those who ate soy protein but not for those in the milk protein group. "I'm talking about tofu, tempeh, other fermented forms of whole soy—not soy protein isolates, which you commonly see in processed snacks," says Dillard, author of The Chronic Pain Solution. Cooking with tofu is simple as long as you know the basics. Silken tofu is soft and often used in creamy dressings, soups, and desserts; firm tofu is typically cooked like meat—say, marinated and grilled..
The Rx: Hot Peppers
The Target: Arthritis
The Dose: Half a teaspoon of powder daily
The same peppers that singe your tongue and bring tears to your eyes can take away pain. An ingredient in hot peppers called capsaicin does the trick by stimulating nerve endings and depleting a chemical that relays pain signals. You can buy capsaicin-containing creams at most pharmacies, says Duke, who uses capsaicin to alleviate his own arthritis pain.
Though topical relief is most effective for arthritis, eating hot peppers also yields pain-fighting benefits. Duke adds peppers to soups and sprinkles chili sauce on his food. The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. But after handling hot peppers, wash your hands thoroughly. A towel wet with milk cuts the pepper better than water. If you touch your face before that, you'll understand why capsaicin is the main ingredient in Mace.