Long before painkillers acquired a permanent place in our home or office first-aid kits, people turned to natural therapies, such as herbal remedies, to find relief from pain. Indeed, many of these herbs form the basis of some of today’s painkillers. A characteristic example is the willow bark extract (salicylic acid), which laid the basis for the aspirin we know today (acetylsalicylic acid), an analgesic therapy suggested by Hippocrates, the father of medicine, since 400 B.C. Today, scientists are studying natural painkillers, inasmuch as their analgesic properties are now detectable. Let’s see then, what science has to say about some of the most important analgesics nature provides. Before starting, it should be noted that people who take medication for a chronic health problem are required to consult their physician before resorting to alternative options.
It has been found from the ancient years that certain plants containing salicylic acid alleviate pain and inflammation. It concerns willow bark and meadowsweet (an herb), from which indeed the word “aspirin” derives, due to the chemical constituents of salicylic acid. Today, their analgesic effect is confirmed by scientific research. In a German study which was recently conducted, 4,731 patients with arthritis or back pain received willow bark extract containing 60mg salicylic acid per tablet daily, for a period of 6-8 weeks. The results found that 97% of the patients reported alleviation in pain while only 1.3% reported mild side effects, such as stomach upset and rash. Moreover, in a study of the Institute for Pain Medicine at the Rambam Medical Center, Israel, 210 participants suffering from back pain received either willow bark extract or placebo for 4 weeks. According to researchers, the willow extract proved to be an especially effective painkiller. Pain relief was evident from the first week in the group of patients consuming the highest dose (240 mg of salicylic acid). There are also studies associating the consumption of these herbs with the reduction of migraines, tension headaches and dysmenorrhea.
Where to find them? In shops selling organic products and also in pharmacies in tincture form or in capsules. However they should be avoided if you are allergic to aspirin, have a sensitive stomach or peptic ulcer. Do not consume daily more than 3 weeks.
A plant called Boswellia serrata, also known as “Indian frankincense”, is a native tree, from which the aromatic gum (its “resin”) is extracted and used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. It has an anti- inflammatory action and aids relief from arthritis pain. The results of a survey published in the journal “Phytomedicine” are noteworthy. It was found that patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis who received Boswellia extract (1,000 mg daily) for 8 weeks, reported greater pain relief and reduction in swelling in comparison with patients who received the placebo. Also, many studies conducted on patients with rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome proved that “Indian frankincense” acts as a sedative.
Where to find it? You can find it in tablet or capsule form and as a liquid herbal extract in organic stores and certain pharmacies. Side effects include mild gastrointestinal upset.
Ginger: not just for nausea
Ginger is another herb that reduces noticeably the pain by lowering prostaglandin levels in the body and it is best known for its proved effect against nausea. According to some studies though, it appears that ginger also has an anti-inflammatory effect, which provides relief from joint and muscle pain. Moreover, in one study conducted by the Department of Environmental Medicine at the Odense University, Denmark, it was observed that out of 56 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis or muscle pains who had been consuming ginger from 3 months to 2.5 years, 42 patients reported relief from pain and joint swelling. Nevertheless, experts estimate that more research is needed in order for the anti- inflammatory effect of ginger to be confirmed.
Where to find it: Fresh ginger is sold in supermarkets. Buy dehydrated ginger or ginger in capsules from organic stores and pharmacies. A daily intake of 1-2 g. dehydrated ginger or 2-4 g. fresh ginger is recommended. If you experience abdominal discomfort (bloating, gas), then prefer ginger capsules.
Turmeric: the traditional solution
Turmeric roots are used in traditional Asian medicine and have therapeutic benefits in treating gastrointestinal problems, pain related to arthritis and dysmenorrhea. They also reinforce the organism’s defences. Laboratory research as well as animal experimentation have emphasised its anti- inflammatory effect, owing mainly to its high concentration of curcumin. Studies - especially laboratory ones- are still conducted today and demonstrate that curcumin protects the joints and may be used as a supplementary treatment for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis management. However, more clinical research to patients is required in order to be determined in which form and dosage curcumin is more effective.
Where to find it? You can find turmeric powder in delicatessen and spice stores. You can find it as nutritional supplement in organic stores and certain pharmacies. You should avoid it if you have a sensitive stomach or suffer from peptic ulcer.
Devil's claw: Europe’s favourite
Nowadays, research is being conducted to examine how Devil’s claw root (Harpagophytum procumbens) may aid the reduction of pain and inflammation from osteoarthritis. In fact, its activity is associated with that of ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drug that is most commonly used as a painkiller. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), USA, there is sufficient scientific evidence that Devil’s claw has an analgesic effect on both osteoarthritis and back pain. Devil’s claw is used widely in Europe as a painkiller against joint diseases, back pain and headaches.
Where to find it? You can find it in liquid form or in capsules in organic stores and certain pharmacies. Typical side effects are diarrhoea, and reduction in blood pressure.
FOR THEIR INPUT WE WOULD LIKE TO THANK Mrs. GIOULI MAMI, a director in the Department of Anaesthesiology at “Aghia Sofia” Children’s Hospital and a paediatric pain management specialist, Mr. THANASIS DRITSAS, a cardiologist at the "Onassis" Cardiac Surgery Centre, Mrs. MATINA CHRONOPOULOU, naturopathic physician, and Mrs. ANTONIA MOUTAFI, a nutrition care specialist.