Here in the West, we think more in terms of nutritional supplements for health than we do food, let alone the flavorings we put into it. And we think even less of food as a pain reliever. Yet, flavor profiles like turmeric, capsaicin, and ginger play a main role in pain relief.
Food, herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years for their powerful health building and curative effects. Traditional cultures the world over have well developed medical systems based on substances that appear in nature.
Folk healing traditions of the Native Americans, Malaysians, and Europeans all contain knowledge in the identification, procedures and uses of herbs.
Traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine are among the oldest systems of medicine in the world, and they rely on herbals as a cornerstone of their practices.
The use of spices for healing is less well known, but those two traditions, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, use mixtures of spices in their “food as medicine” principles, including relieving inflammation and pain.
Today, science has helped confirm that adding spices into your daily eating habits can go a long way toward low-side effect, natural pain relief.
Turmeric is a brilliant yellow (and sometimes orange) root grated and used as one of the most recognizable flavorings in Indian cuisine. It’s most active health enhancing component is a substance called curcumin.
Curcumin is proven to reduce inflammation while helping the body to heal. Chronic, acute and low-grade inflammation are major causes of pain and poor health. While acute inflammation is a natural biological response to injury, stress and pathogens, its long-term effects are unhealthy, causing serious health concerns like heart disease.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health note: “Laboratory and animal research has demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties of turmeric and its constituent curcumin.”
Impressively, there are more than 5,500 peer-reviewed clinical studies demonstrating curcumin’s benefits. Recent studies suggest that turmeric is as effective as, yet safer than, more than a dozen prescription medications. You can read about these benefits and their studies on pain, inflammation and cancer treatment in a few previous articles I’ve written, The anti-cancer secret from India and Turmeric: Nature’s Powerful Anti-Inflammatory Root.
Chili peppers and especially cayenne pepper have a substance in them called capsaicin. Capsaicin is the part of the pepper that makes it hot and burns the tongue oh-so-nicely in spicy dishes. But it’s also this heat component that is beneficial to pain relief.
When you ingest it, capsaicin works in the body like one of your neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals. It does this by binding with the vanilloid receptor 1 (VR1).
Why does it relieve pain? Well, when a heat increase is felt in the body, VR1 changes its shape and signals nerve cells to feel heat. The brain is actually ‘fooled’ by capsaicin, however.
When you take capsaicin when you have pain, the brain thinks the heat signal from the capsaicin is actually an increased pain signal.
Capsaicin tricks the brain into reducing the pain (heat) signal by depleting the nerves of “substance P.” And when substance P is depleted the nerves can no longer send a pain signal to the brain.
There have been many clinical trials on the topical and ingested use of capsaicin for pain relief. In one double-blind clinical study, 70 patients with osteoarthritis (OA) and 31 with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) received capsaicin cream or placebo for a month for treatment of arthritic knee pain. The RA subjects experienced a 57% pain reduction, and the OA subjects had their pain reduced by 33%.
As the study paper concludes: “According to the global evaluations, 80% of the capsaicin-treated patients experienced a reduction in pain after two weeks of treatment. It is concluded that capsaicin cream is a safe and effective treatment for arthritis.”
A study on capsaicin for chronic neck pain found that applying topical capsaicin cream to the affected area four times daily for five weeks showed pain relief by deleting the sensory C-fibers of substance P.
Another study on local capsaicin treatment on small nerve fiber function in diabetic neuropathy, can be found here. I could go on. There are hundreds more.
Known the world over as a root for reducing stomach upset, nausea and motion sickness, not to mention making vegetables and chicken taste really good, ginger is effective in reducing inflammation, rheumatism and many kinds of pain.
In one study on the effects of ginger on rheumatism and musculoskeletal disorders, 56 patients were given powdered ginger. Of these, 28 had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), 19 had osteoarthritis (OA) and 10 had muscular discomfort. Over a period of 3 months to 2.5 years, an impressive 100% of participants with muscular discomfort experienced pain relief. What’s more, 75% of arthritic participants experienced relief in pain and swelling. No adverse side effects were reported.
In another randomized, controlled study, women with painful menses were randomly assigned into two groups; one receiving ginger and the other placebo. Each received 500mg capsules of ginger root powder (or placebo) three times daily. The researchers found, “significant differences in the severity of pain between ginger and placebo groups.” And, “Treatment of primary (pain) in students with ginger for 5 days had a statistically significant effect on relieving intensity and duration of pain.”
Traditional cultures from around the world discovered through thousands of years of real world experience that food is medicine. Specifically, they found that thermogenic (heat inducing) spices like chili, turmeric, and ginger (among others) are excellent at reducing inflammation and pain.
Including more of these spices in our meals in their whole food states or in powdered spice incarnation can do much to reduce chronic inflammation and pain. And eating tasty food with a bit of a kick has the added benefit of zero side effects, unlike taxing the body with too many anti-inflammatory pain meds.