FINDING SOLUTIONS FOR CHRONIC PAIN: HERBS, NUTRITION AND MINDFULNESS
Updated: May 26
Pain response is a self-preservation reaction to a potentially harmful circumstance. Chronic pain, on the other side, is a disorder of the pain perception mechanisms. Chronic pain management should have a multidisciplinary approach including an accurate consideration of the physiological, psychological, emotional, social and environmental dynamics affecting the individual (21). This article will focus on three strategies including a combination of nutritional advice, herbs and supplements that can be helpful in reducing the frequency and intensity of chronic pain
STRATEGY # 1: INFLAMMATION MANAGEMENT
One of the first steps to tackle chronic pain is to reduce the active inflammatory processes in the body to the bare minimum, the reason being that inflammation may lead to a pain response derangement.
Refined sugars (the most common being sucrose, glucose and fructose) have a bad reputation for worsening inflammation (4, 16) and seed and vegetable oils, with exception of very few, are very high in omega-6 which are the building block of pro-inflammatory cytokines (37, 8). Processed foods are strongly pro-inflammatory: not only high in refined sugars but also in trans-fatty acids, which are also an atomic bomb for your immune system (6); Also, alcohol notoriously damages the liver, which plays a vital role in inflammation (35).
On the other hand, oily fish and high quality fish oil supplements are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which provide the body with the building blocks to manufacture anti-inflammatory cytokines (29). Oxidation and reduction are chemical processes that have a profound implication in chronic inflammation: berries, grapes, green tea, and chocolate together with alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), vitamins A,C and E are excellent sources of exogenous antioxidants and can counteract the damage from free radicals (20,25). Finally, cooking with and juicing turmeric and ginger can also be helpful in managing inflammation (27)
Finally, increased intestinal permeability (Leaky gut syndrome) and imbalanced microbiome (dysbiosis) can have a severe negative impact on the immune function (22) . Including in the diet fermented foods (yogurth, kefir, kimchi etc.) prebiotics (fermentable fibres) and collagen proteins (abundant in bone broth) can support a healthy microbiome and reduce gut permeability (32, 11).
STRATEGY # 2: STRESS MANAGEMENT AND MINDFULNESS FOR CHRONIC PAIN
Mindfulness, as defined by John Kabat-Zinn, is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally (23). Daily mindfulness practices have provided evidence to be helpful to improve the biochemical consequence of stress response improving the life quality of people living with chronic pain (34). A study on more than a hundred patients affected by chronic pain showed that mindfulness is valuable for lowering general anxiety and depression, improving mental quality of life (psychological well-being), promoting feelings of control over the pain, and supporting higher pain acceptance (18).
In regards to herbs and supplements for stress management, adaptogens are the remedy of choice. (36). Every adaptogen exerts a unique effect over the body-mind, but most of them lower serum cortisol, calm the mind and balance the immune system. Popular adaptogenic herbs are Ashwaganda root (Withania somnifera), Schisandra berries (Schisandra sinensis), Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Golden root (Rhodiola rosea), Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis) and Chinese foxglove (Rehmannia glutinosa) (36)
STRATEGY # 3: HERBAL ANALGESICS
Ultimately, there are herbs that have anodyne and analgesic effects on the body, meaning that they directly affect and ameliorate pain perception.
Corydalis yanhusuo is a popular painkiller in Chinese pharmacopoeia. It is a distant cousin of opium poppy and contains analgesic and anti-inflammatory compounds which have shown to reduce pain, inflammation and improve depression symptoms (39). It is thought that its properties are linked to a compound called dehydrocorybulbine, which probably improves pain modulation without the side effects of morphine (12)
Eschscholzia californica, also called californian poppy, is another member of the poppy family with analgesic properties. This herb contains a somewhat large amount of psychoactive alkaloids such as sanguinarine, dihydrosanguinarine chelirubine, macarpine which are thought to stimulate GABA receptors and thus promote sedation and analgesia (9,1)
Hypericum perforatum or st. John’s wort is a UK native herb with a strong affinity for the nervous system and commonly used for depression and anxiety. Some evidence supports the use of st. John’s wort as an effective mild analgesic (10)
Mitragyna speciosa, commonly known as kratom, is a plant native to SouthEast Asia and widely used for opiates withdrawal. Although there are some concerns about its long-term safety, it has shown promising analgesic effects similar to the ones exerted by opioid drugs (26)
Chronic pain is a complex phenomena influenced by many physiological and psychological factors. Educating and supporting chronic pain sufferers with proper dietary advice, mindfulness practices and medicinal herbs could result in a remarkable improvement in their quality of life. Seen its extreme burden on healthcare systems across the world and the lack of a silver bullet to cure it, it is of paramount importance to increase the awareness of the small but impactful changes that can be done to reduce the incidence of chronic pain disorders
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