Natural Alternatives for Pain Relief
Updated: Sep 20
Whether you’re living with chronic or acute pain, you know how much pain can take over your life. You might have tried over-the-counter or prescription pain medications and found that effects of these often don’t outweigh the benefits. If you’re looking for natural alternatives for pain relief – and freedom from the distraction and stress of pain – you have more options than you might think.
Foods That Provide Pain Relief Naturally
When you’re hurting, your first impulse may be to turn to medications. But for many people, concern about side effects, drug interactions, or dependency leads them to turn to naturally-occurring pain relief from foods instead.
Many foods already contain pain-relieving qualities. And when you get your pain relief from food-derived sources, it’s easy to incorporate them into your day. Many of these ingredients can be added to meals, taken in teas, or even purchased as supplements.
Turmeric is a spice commonly used in Southeast Asian foods, easily recognizable by its deep yellow colour. Curcumin, the polyphenol in turmeric that gives it its medicinal properties, has been shown to relieve pain and decrease inflammation, and benefit many inflammatory-related and degenerative conditions.
One medical study found that 1,500mg of turmeric daily was equally as effective as 1,200mg ibuprofen for pain management when taken by patients with osteoarthritis daily. Turmeric has also been used to treat digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Turmeric is commonly found in curry sauces (it’s what gives curries their distinctive yellow colour), but if curry isn’t your thing it can also be found in powdered form and used as a spice in many dishes. Many people consume turmeric in, or as, a supplement.
Potentially one of the best known foods for natural medicine, ginger is famous for its nausea-relieving qualities. It’s commonly used for motion sickness, settling indigestion, or to help treat symptoms of stomach flu. But did you know ginger can also be a powerful pain reliever and anti-inflammatory as well?
Studies have shown that ginger can be as effective as a prescription NSAID at treating menstrual pain, and as effective as a triptan medication at treating migraine headaches. Ginger has also been demonstrated to be effective at relieving arthritis pain as well as swelling.
Additionally, one study suggests that ginger may help boost the body’s natural immune system, able to help the body fight off infection as well as prevent future sickness.
Ginger is popularly consumed as a tea, either on its own or as an addition to gummies!
CBD (cannabidiol) Oil
Although long-ignored as a treatment for pain due to stigma, CBD oil is proving to be very promising in current research for natural pain relief. CBD stands for cannabidiol, one of the naturally-occurring chemicals found in cannabis plants. CBD doesn’t have psychoactive properties - so it doesn’t alter your mental state. It does, however, have a host of health benefits.
Studies have shown that CBD can be effective at treating cancer-related pain, migraines, and pain associated with fibromyalgia. CBD also works as an anti-inflammatory, making it a popular choice for people with arthritis and other inflammation-related conditions. People with neuropathic pain - pain caused by nerve damage - have also been shown to benefit from use of CBD for pain relief.
With cannabis-derived medications only recently becoming legal, CBD does not have as much scientific research done as other types of natural medicines. That being said, the research that has been done is very promising, and there is a large rise in studies being performed. Anecdotally, users report that CBD offers pain relief for everything from headaches and muscle strains to painful chronic conditions, as well as decreases symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
White Willow Bark
White willow bark has long been in use as a natural pain reliever in herbalist medicine. Willow bark contains a component called salicin, which the body converts to salicylic acid - the active ingredient found in aspirin.
Willow bark has been used for centuries as a natural treatment for pain relief, and many people swear by it. The plant is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, and evidence of its use as an analgesic goes as far back as 4th century Greece.
Studies that have been done show that willow bark is most effective when used to treat acute pain, like lower back pain and headaches.
Although historically, willow bark would be stripped directly from the tree and chewed, or brewed into tea, contemporary use of willow bark most often comes in supplement form.
Although not a food in and of itself, magnesium is an important mineral for many body functions. Magnesium helps the body regulate muscle and nerve function, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and even helps make new bone and DNA. But did you know magnesium also plays an important role in pain management?
Clinical research shows that magnesium can be incredibly effective at treating nerve pain, especially in patients with fibromyalgia and cancer-related nerve pain. IV-administered magnesium has even been found to be the most effective intervention for eliminating the pain from migraines. Additionally, clinical studies showed that magnesium treatment relieved the pain associated with dysmenorrhea, severe menstrual cramps and associated symptoms .
On top of that, research suggests that being magnesium deficient can actually increase the sensation of pain. Many people are magnesium deficient without ever knowing it, so if you’re experiencing pain it might be a good idea to incorporate magnesium-rich foods into your diet. Magnesium is found in high amounts in foods such as leafy greens, fish, and nuts and seeds. Adding dark greens and seeds like chia seeds into foods you already eat is a great way to ensure more magnesium in your diet.
Strengthen Your Body Against Pain
Another option for medication-free pain relief is to help your body cope with unwanted pain and the stress it causes. Living with pain causes physical and emotional stress on the body - and that stress, in turn, increases your sensitivity to pain.
Alternative medicine often advocates for lifestyle changes in conjunction with natural medicines, to support the “whole health” of the person - not just treat the symptoms. Some other methods for pain relief include the following:
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice wherein small, thin needles are inserted into the skin to help direct the flow of energy in the body. Western medicine research suggests that acupuncture works by triggering the body to release serotonin and endorphins, both of which help lessen severity of symptoms such as pain. Although intimidating, acupuncture is not painful, and many people report feeling a sense of calm or joy during and after the procedure.
Yoga is another ancient practice, this time from India. More than just stretching, yoga teaches techniques for breath control, simple meditation, and intentional movements of the body for flexibility, strength, and balance. Yoga can help increase flexibility and mobility lost to pain, lessen the body’s perception of pain, and even help keep blood pressure and heart rate under control. Chronic pain can change the structure of your brain over time - but research suggests that a regular yoga practice can help to reverse those changes. Additionally, the research shows that yoga can slow down the physical brain changes that come with aging.
The Bottom Line for Pain Relief
While pain can drain your energy and joy for life, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a number of lifestyle changes you can build into your day to help you manage pain - both chronic and acute - without needing to rely on medication. Whether that’s starting a yoga practice, adding certain foods into your daily routine, or a combination of things - there are safe and natural alternatives to prescription medication for managing your pain.
As always, talk to your doctor before going off any medication you might be taking, or adding a new supplement to make sure it’s safe for you to do so. This post is not a substitute for medical advice.