A headache. Back pain. Menstrual cramps. A number of minor ailments send us reaching into the medicine cabinet for over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, such as ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen. But taking frequent doses of any over-the-counter painkiller, even small doses, is hard on the liver and can lead to long-term health problems such as stomach bleeding and increased risk of stroke. (For more on the risks of OTC painkillers, check out The Dangers of Over-the-Counter Painkillers.) Fortunately, many natural alternatives exist that can reduce your pain without risky side effects. Before you pop that pill, check the bottle for the list of active ingredients your painkiller contains, and consider these natural pain relief options to treat your pain.
Natural Pain Relief for Arthritis
More than 27 million Americans suffer from arthritis; osteoarthritis is the most common type. This degenerative joint disease is characterized by stiffness, loss of movement, and pain caused by inflammation and a breakdown of cartilage around joints, which results in bones scraping against each other. Although arthritis can’t be cured, herbal and home remedies can help reduce the inflammation, stiffness and pain associated with this disease.
Bromelain: Derived from pineapple, this enzyme fights the compounds that cause pain and inflammation. Bromelain may also break down proteins that hinder blood circulation and cause blood clots, which can help relieve pain. A common dose is 500 milligrams (mg) three times a day between meals.
Capsaicin: Capsaicin creams won’t prevent or restore lost cartilage, but they can help reduce pain. Found in cayenne peppers, this compound interferes with transmission of pain signals between brain and body. Pain relief usually occurs within 14 days of beginning application but may take as long as six weeks. Your physician can advise which concentration is best for you—nonprescription topical products contain 0.025 percent to 0.075 percent capsaicin, but ointments with higher concentrations are available with a prescription.
Devil’s claw: This herb from southern Africa is prized for its anti-inflammatory properties. Early in the 20th century, devil’s claw was introduced into German phytomedicinal practice, where it is primarily valued for reducing arthritis inflammation and pain. Today, the popularity of devil’s claw as a medicine has put it at risk of extinction, so purchase the herb from a sustainable source. A common recommendation for dosage is 1,500 to 2,500 mg of powdered herb or 1 to 2 milliliters of the tinctured herb three times a day.
Fish oil: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil supplements may help reduce joint inflammation. Choose a supplement with at least 30 percent EPA/DHA. For rheumatoid arthritis, aim for up to 2.6 grams twice daily. (Although flax seed oil is a common alternative, it doesn’t provide the same benefits.)
Ginger: Ginger decreases pain and inflammation. In one study, 250 mg of ginger extract taken four times a day diminished pain from knee osteoarthritis after three months of use.
Glucosamine sulfate: Found naturally in the fluid around joints, glucosamine sulfate can help prevent the breakdown of cartilage and fluid around joints and rebuild lost cartilage. Research has shown glucosamine sulfate to effectively treat osteoarthritis, especially of the knee. Take 1,500 mg daily.
Turmeric: The curcumin in turmeric contains potent anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce joint pain and swelling. Curcumin is often combined with bromelain or piperine (found in peppers) to help increase its absorption by the body. Two long-term studies show that a curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex (Meriva) improves arthritis symptoms and reduces blood levels of inflammatory chemicals.
Exercise for Arthritis
While overuse can cause acute joint pain, exercise doesn’t exacerbate arthritis pain. In fact, physical activity helps maintain joint health and is an essential part of the treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Obesity poses a much greater threat to joint degeneration than exercise. The Arthritis Foundation recommends sufferers practice three types of exercise: at least 15 minutes a day of flexibility exercises; strengthening exercises every other day (see examples of arthritis exercises); and aerobic exercise such as jogging, swimming or bicycling three to four times a week for at least 30 minutes. If a particular activity seems to cause pain, consult your physician.
Natural PMS Relief
Hormone fluctuations the few days before a woman’s period can wreak havoc on her physical and mental well-being. Painful cramps, uncomfortable bloating and ever-changing mood swings can leave us feeling less-than-human and wishing for our normal lives back. If you’re sick of the suffering, make a few changes to better your life. No matter the degree of your symptoms, you can reduce your suffering by identifying simple, natural solutions.
Cramps: Painful abdominal cramps are one of the most common—and uncomfortable—PMS symptoms. Acupressure and applying heat or essential oils, such as lavender, to your abdomen can all help alleviate these paralyzing pains.
Mood swings: Intensified feelings of anger and sadness not only leave us feeling drained, but they can also affect our relationships. Banishing bad moods can be as simple as changing a few habits. Start by eating a healthy breakfast to stabilize blood sugar, and be sure to get enough omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins to boost brain function.
Lack of energy: Some women feel exhausted the week before their period. Be sure to get plenty of sleep and eat iron-rich foods. For an extra spurt of energy, ditch the coffee and try natural energy boosters such as citrus or peppermint aromatherapy, coenzyme Q10 or B vitamin supplements, and herbs such as ashwagandha, astragalus, ginseng and licorice.
3 Steps to Relieve PMS
Reduce symptoms with healthy everyday choices.
1. Eat a proper diet. The foods we eat have a major effect on our hormone levels. High-fiber foods help stabilize blood sugar, which can moderate mood and help the liver metabolize hormones. Leafy greens provide calcium and magnesium, minerals shown to improve PMS symptoms, and soy products supply hormone-balancing phytoestrogens. On the other hand, red meat and dairy products contain high levels of saturated fat, which can increase estrogen levels. Sugar raises blood-sugar levels, increasing the likelihood of mood swings and worsening fatigue, headaches and the ability to focus.
2. Stress less. The stress hormone cortisol competes with progesterone for common cell receptors in our bodies, which can contribute to the estrogen imbalance that causes cramps and irritability. Learning to manage stress can help balance hormones and reduce PMS symptoms. Experiment with techniques such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises. Learn how to cope with stress using adaptogens and other remedies.
3. Exercise. Regular aerobic activity can help regulate your hormones and stress levels, not to mention increase your supply of endorphins (which will help with mood swings). Aim for at least two and a half hours of moderate exercise each week.
Natural Headache Relief
Headaches are one of the most common ailments to send us reaching into the medicine cabinet. Most of us experience headaches from time to time, whether it’s an irritating dull ache or disabling, throbbing pain. Not all headaches are the same, and knowing which type is plaguing you is the first step to treating your pain naturally. Cluster headaches usually affect just one side of the head and can cause intense pain for a few days. Tension headaches are often characterized by throbbing pain in the head or neck. Severely painful migraines usually affect just one side of the head, and can impair vision and induce nausea.
Herbal Relief for Headaches
Feverfew: The incapacitating pain of a migraine headache is often accompanied by sensitivity to light, vision problems, nausea and vomiting. Feverfew is a well-known herb in the world of migraine treatment. While it may be useful for those in the throes of a migraine, the herb’s real value lies in preventing migraines when it’s taken daily. Studies show that feverfew stops the clumping of platelets in the blood and reduces blood vessel constriction and dilation, which can cause migraines. Look for a product with the dosage standardized, usually at 250 to 500 micrograms (mcg).
White willow bark: Willow bark helps ease pain and inflammation. Researchers believe that the chemical salicin, found in willow bark, is responsible for these effects, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. But studies have identified several components of willow bark that have antioxidant, fever-reducing, antiseptic and immune-boosting properties. Some studies show willow is as effective as aspirin for reducing pain and inflammation (but not fever), and works at a much lower dose. Willow bark doesn’t work as fast as ibuprofen or Advil, but it’s also less likely to cause gastrointestinal bleeding. Take 60 to 120 mg daily. You can also make a tea from the herb with this recipe for Willow Bark Tea.
Aromatherapy for Headaches
Peppermint: Rubbing a few drops of peppermint oil on your temples and neck has been shown to relieve tension headaches. Peppermint oil creates a cooling sensation when it comes in contact with skin, and it helps to relax the muscles in your head and neck. The scent of peppermint oil also has the power to calm nerves and clear nasal passages, which may help if your headache is caused by stress or sinus pressure. Use caution when applying essential oils directly to the skin. For sensitive skin, dilute essential oil in a carrier oil, such as almond oil.
Eucalyptus: Applying eucalyptus oil to your forehead can help relieve headaches in the same manner as peppermint oil. Like peppermint oil, eucalyptus oil can soothe, relax muscles and clear nasal passages. You can also use steam to help clear nasal passages by placing a few drops of eucalyptus oil into a pot of steaming water and inhaling deeply.
Lavender: The scent of lavender has a powerful effect on the nervous system, relieving problems such as insomnia, anxiety and stress, which can all contribute to headaches. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the scent of lavender can help relieve the pain of even the worst headaches, including migraines. Place a few drops of lavender essential oil on your pillow, create a lavender sachet or brew a cup of lavender tea to benefit from this natural headache reliever.
Note: All of these essential oils can be used in either a hot or cold compress for headaches. Simply add a few drops of whichever oils you desire to the cloth and place the compress on your forehead when a headache starts to form.
Brew this headache tea to help ease migraine pain, or drink it regularly to reduce the incidence of headaches.
Steep equal parts of the herbs in water for 20 minutes and drink a cup two to three times a day as needed, especially before bedtime.
Natural Muscle Pain Relief
Aches and pains plague us all. Whether you’ve overdone a workout, experienced an injury or are coming down with the flu, pain in your back and limbs might send you reaching for OTC painkillers. Exercising can result in microscopic tears to muscles and a buildup of lactic acid, both of which can contribute to achy limbs. Dehydration during illness can also lead to aching muscles. These natural options can help relieve the pain of sore muscles.
Epsom Salt: What we know as Epsom salt is actually just magnesium sulfate. Magnesium has a natural sedative effect on the nervous system, which can help relax tight muscles. Epsom salt also has detoxifying powers, which can help soothe sore muscles and joint pain. Magnesium is poorly absorbed by the digestive tract, but easily absorbed through the skin. For a muscle-relaxing soak, add two cups of Epsom salt to a warm bath and soak for 15 minutes.
Arnica: Arnica’s anti-inflammatory compounds make it beneficial for treating sore muscles, sprains, swelling and other related ailments. Arnica also contains a compound called helenin, which acts as a natural analgesic. Arnica is available for topical use as creams, gels, salves, ointments and oils. Be sure to never ingest this herb or apply it to an open wound, however. When taken internally, arnica can be toxic.
Ginger: Ginger’s warming properties can increase circulation, helping relax sore muscles. For a soothing ginger bath, shave a couple of tablespoons of fresh ginger into a mesh bag (so you don’t have to fish pieces of ginger out of the bathtub when you’re done) and toss it into the tub. For muscles that need more attention, try this Ginger Compress.
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