Top Six Analgesic Herbs
Pain is an essential part of survival. When an injury occurs, the body launches prostaglandins, these are hormones that initiate the swelling of tissue around an injured area, attracting immune cells to clear debris and mend skin or bone. Heat around the area is increased and pain is signalled to the host, so they are aware they are injured and understand they must rest or protect the hurt part. Whilst pain is essential for survival, it is also very difficult to tolerate. Over the counter pain killers work by restricting the body’s production of prostaglandins, thus limiting the processes leading to pain symptoms. Pain killers also have side effects (depending on their strength) and for people who are suffering with long term, chronic and regular episodes of pain, medications can become stronger, and more harmful to the liver, the mood and life in general.
The good news is that the natural world is full of plants that have a strong anti-inflammatory and analgesic action on the body. As well as being supported by a strong body of research, plants have a long history of use all over the world in place of allopathic medicines. Plant chemicals, or phytochemicals, are quickly absorbed by the body and they have an excellent safety profile. They are also more holistic in nature, this means that the plant chemicals are working together to bring the body back into homeostatis or balance as nature intended and because of this can have less side effects.
Cayenne pepper (Capsicum minimum)
Capsicum, best known as Cayenne or chilli pepper is one of the most studied plants for pain relief due to its multiple pain blocking actions[i]. Cayenne contains a phytochemical called capsaicin, which has been found to block the TRPV1 neurotransmitter, which is one of the body’s pain messengers[ii]. By blocking this nerve, desensitisation occurs[iii]. This beautifully versatile pepper is extremely versatile, delivering a massive dose of nutrients along with a pain-relieving action[iv]. Add Cayenne to soups, stews, morning smoothies, juices: take it as a powder or tincture, and its pain relieving benefits will be delivered. Used topically (in very small doses, preferably on an oil base and never ever freshly cut) on the skin, it will have a local pain-relieving action and warm up stiff joints and muscles[v]. A note of caution however: not good if you have ulceration, open sores or can’t tolerate the hot spicy sensation of this pepper.
Frankincense, best known for its starring role in the biblical story of the 3 wise men, is a resin taken from the aromatic Boswellia trees that grow throughout the Middle East. It has been used medicinally since Ancient Egyptian times for multiple ailments, all of which have one thing in common: inflammation. Boswellia contains Boswellic acids, phytochemicals that inhibit pro-inflammatory immune cells, thus reducing in the same way that NSAID medications do. Studies on Boswellia are particularly optimistic about its application for the relief of arthritic pain, where trials show that Boswellia performs as well as NSAID’s for pain, only without the harmful side effects. It does have side effects, however. Like most aromatic oils, taking too much can cause an upset tummy. It can be taken as a powder in foods and drinks, as a tea, as a tincture. Essential oils of Boswellia can be massaged into sore joints, and the aroma of Boswellia incense or oil is uplifting and vibrant – precisely what is needed when you are feeling sore or stiff. An excellent herb to have in the cupboard for times of stiffness, soreness and pain[vi].
Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)
Chronic joint inflammatory disorders such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have in common an upsurge of inflammation, and oxidative stress, resulting in progressive and disabling symptoms. Any herb that will reduce inflammation will have a knock-on effect of reducing pain, and Turmeric is one of the key players on the anti-inflammatory herbal team.[vii] Currently used conventional medication (ranging from pain-killers to biological agents) is potent, but frequently associated with serious, even life-threatening side effects. Used for millennia in traditional herbalism, medicinal plants are a promising alternative, with lower rate of adverse events and efficiency frequently comparable with that of conventional drugs[viii]. Studies on the use of Turmeric for pain show that it reduces inflammation, reduces pain and is of moderate to low risk. The best way to take Turmeric is as a food as it works best when warm and combined with an oil of some kind. Two heaped tablespoons in any soup, stock, dinner or smoothie with a sprinkle of black pepper and you have yourself an amazing anti-inflammatory mixture.
Cats Claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
Cat’s claw is a woody vine that grows in the Amazon rainforest. It is part of the Brazilian pharmacopeia and medical system and is commonly subscribed for the pain of osteoarthritis[ix]. When an injury occurs, the body increases production of a substance that enflames the tissues surrounding the injury. This substance is called E-NTPDase, and there is a lot of it around arthritic joints. It causes swelling of the surrounding tissue, and consequently: pain[x]. Cat’s claw is thought to reduce the production of this inflammatory molecule, thus reducing the pain of arthritis inflammation[xi].
Devils claw (Harpagophytum)
Devils claw has been traditionally prescribed by herbalists for any pain that throbs. It has two pain relieving actions. Primarily, it reduced inflammation, and so heat, throbbing and pulsating around injury or soreness is reduced[xii]. The second is as an analgesic, meaning it numbs the sensation of pain. Studied for its suitability for arthritis in particular[xiii] and found that it reduced the progression of pain and slowed the regulatory of inflammatory episodes.
White Willow Bark (Salix Alba)
White Willow Bark has a thousand-year history of use as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory before researchers were able to create Aspirin from it. Like its extracted family member Aspirin, White Willow Bark will have a “blood thinning” effect, thus reducing the intensity of throbbing, palpating pain around an injured or painful area of the body. It is used regularly in sports performance injuries, for lower back pain and for its pain-relieving effects. Researchers have since conducted thousands of hours into researching exactly the mechanism by which White Willow Bark can do this and it appears that there are multiple phytochemicals that have a pain-relieving action. Allergies to this plant are more common that to other plants so proceed gently and with caution.