Have over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, become your top allies in tackling chronic or recurring pain? If so, you might want to start thinking outside the bottle. “In certain short-term cases, such as a simple headache, OTCs can be very helpful,” says James Dillard, MD, integrative-medicine practitioner and author of The Chronic Pain Solution (Bantam, 2003). But long-term use of OTCs doesn't resolve the root cause of your pain.
In addition to addressing underlying issues such as inflammation, a holistic approach can ease the burden on your liver and protect you from pain-medication side effects. “By using nondrug strategies for pain relief — everything from salves to stretching — you're limiting your potential for adverse reactions,” says Dillard.
Whether you're seeking to soothe a constant backache or banish your migraines, reducing inflammation and stress by tending to your diet, doing certain types of exercise, and using pain-relieving alternative therapies, as well as taking anti-inflammatory herbs and supplements (see “Top Supplements for Pain Relief”), can play a critical role in alleviating your pain for good.
An inflammation-reducing diet
Focus on fatty acids. Balancing your intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is key, says Dillard. The omega-6s found in red meat, margarine, and hydrogenated oils are woefully abundant in the typical American diet; these actually promote inflammation and increase pain. On the other hand, the omega-3s found in wild salmon and other fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts increase your body's ability to inhibit inflammation. If those omega-3 sources aren't a part of your diet, take a fish-oil or flaxseed supplement, suggests Mark Stengler, ND, coauthor of Prescription for Drug Alternatives (Wiley, 2008).
Veg out. “A Mediterranean-style eating plan with high levels of carotenoids from deeply colored fruits and vegetables should be helpful for people with chronic pain,” says Stengler. These powerful antioxidants, abundant in sweet potatoes, carrots, and kale, were linked to low levels of inflammation in a 2007 study published in Clinical Chemistry. Getting plenty of green leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and chard may help prevent pain by delivering B-complex vitamins (important for keeping nerves healthy) and the mineral magnesium (essential for relaxing smooth muscles).
Help yourself to whole grains. Choosing complex carbs (found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and legumes) over simple varieties (such as those in refined sugar, white rice, or white bread) can also help thwart inflammation, adds Stengler. This may reduce inflammation in part by keeping blood sugar in check, suggests a 2007 research review from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Get pH balanced. Certain foods (such as wheat, artificial sweeteners, and some dairy products) increase acidity in the body, which could promote pain, according to Stengler. “Tissues are healthiest in a mild alkaline state,” he says. “Too much acidity can overload the lymphatic system, impede the body's natural detoxification process, and create inflammation.” At each meal, Stengler recommends filling half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with protein, and the last quarter with whole grains. “Fruits and vegetables are alkalizing, while most grains and proteins are acid-forming,” he explains. The least acid-forming grains are quinoa, buckwheat groats, and spelt.
Sleep. “Stress hormones can wreak havoc on the nervous system and ramp up pain,” says Dillard. The best thing you can do to reduce stress? Get enough z's. A 2007 study showed that sleep disturbances could lead to a rise in “spontaneous pain,” such as headaches, stomachaches, and back pain. “Deep, restful sleep restores the nervous system and repairs cells,” says Suzanne Tang, ND, Lac, a naturopathic doctor in Costa Mesa, California. Aim for eight hours each night.
Take up tai chi. Mind-body movement practices such as tai chi can break the stress-pain cycle by calming the nervous system, says Tang. In a recent study published in Pain Medicine, practicing tai chi particularly benefited those with osteoarthritis and lower back pain. The ancient Chinese martial art — which involves slowly moving through a series of gentle postures — may also bring pain relief to people coping with rheumatoid arthritis, suggests a study conducted at Tufts-New England Medical Center last year. For optimal technique, Dillard advises initially opting for a class rather than turning to a DVD for instruction.
Break a sweat. Exercise promotes the release of endorphins, chemicals that interact with brain receptors to change your perception of pain, and helps your body produce GABA, a pain-inhibiting neurotransmitter. Working out regularly also boosts mood, which can offset emotional effects of chronic pain. In one recent report from Arthritis Care and Research, scientists found that exercising just twice a week for eight weeks led to significant improvements for arthritis patients. If pain prevents you from working out, Dillard suggests swimming, cycling, and yoga, which place minimal stress on the joints.
Sources: James Dillard, MD; Suzanne Tang, ND, Lac.
Top supplements for pain relief
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