These Foods Are Science-Backed Ache and Pain Relievers

Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates

Published on November 17, 2021

Last updated November 23, 2021

Ariane Resnick

As we get older, we often find we have more and more aches and pains that have no obvious origin. (It’s one aspect of aging we’re not thrilled about.) But here’s a small bit of good news: there are foods that have scientifically-proven pain-relieving properties, so if we incorporate them into our diet, we might be able to feel fewer everyday aches and pains.  

Some of these remedies work in the moment to relieve immediate pain, while others build up over time to have a long-term effect. For instance, soothing foods like ginger and turmeric help the body calm its inflammation response, creating a healthier, long-term physical state, while topical ingredients like clove gel can offer short-term, acute relief.

We spoke with two physicians to get their expert opinions on what foods are best for pain relief. We explore how these natural ingredients work to combat pain so you can determine which ones might be right for you. 

How do natural ingredients provide pain relief?

There are several different ways that a natural, edible ingredient may be able to offer pain relief:

1. Combat inflammation

The origin of pain is inflammation. By treating inflammation as the cause of pain, you can actually lower pain levels. As a bonus, combating inflammation has many other health perks, including reducing your risk of chronic diseases.

2. Relax muscles

Chamomile is a great example: it’s best-known as a tea that helps you get to sleep, but it effectively relieves muscle soreness by relaxing them — which can lessen discomfort.

3. Have an analgesic effect

An analgesic is simply a substance that reduces pain. One of the most common is simple over-the-counter aspirin, but there are other natural ingredients that contain analgesics. Note: When taken internally, a substance like aspirin goes through your entire blood system — so while that gives you the result of a reduced ache or pain only in the place that hurts, it’s actually because you exclusively notice the effect of the analgesic in the areas where you’re feeling discomfort.

4. Anesthetize

A less common, but still very valid way for an ingredient to offer pain relief is through a numbing sensation. While we normally think of anesthetics in the pharmaceutical sense (yep, they’re the serious chemicals that knock you unconscious before a surgery), they can also be taken in a much smaller, safer capacity. Ultimately, anesthetics are just compounds that remove feeling. For instance, think of the kava plant, a natural anesthetic. When you drink it, it numbs your mouth and throat.

Common pain-relieving ingredients: 

Best for topical use

Some of these topical ingredients may also be used internally, but they’ve been most studied in relation to external pains. (Also, the concentrations at which they’re most effective may not be safe for ingestion.) 

Capsaicin

You’ve probably heard of capsaicin, which is the component of chili peppers that provides their heat. Applied topically, the warming sensation of capsaicin can relax muscles. “Capsaicin actually decreases a chemical that gets released after injury and inflammation,” says sports physician Olusen Olufade, MD, who goes by ‘Dr. Alfy.’ “Capsaicin is used in the treatment of conditions like knee osteoarthritis, and it can also be used to alleviate pain caused by nerve conditions.”  

Menthol

You’re familiar with capsaicin for its heat — so you might also know menthol for creating a sense of cold. “Menthol is one of the most widely used chemical compounds for topical pain relief,” says Andrea Paul, M.D., Medical Advisor to Illuminate Labs. “It’s been studied for a wide variety of pain conditions. Many topical analgesics have only been proven to work for one or two inflammatory conditions, so this makes menthol stand out. Menthol creates skin sensations that distract from pain, and thus reduce patient experience of pain.” 

Clove gel

This ingredient might seem surprising for external use, given that we typically associate cloves with pumpkin pie or mulled cider. However, the active component in cloves, eugenol, is a natural anesthetic that can also reduce swelling. 

“The topical treatment of clove gel has been found in one animal study to be effective as an analgesic,” Dr. Paul says. “Clove was found in another study to reduce pain when applied as an anesthetic, and to be as effective as benzocaine.”

Best for internal use

Omega-3 

From little fish come huge rewards. “Omega-3 is one of the most effective natural anti-inflammatory agents,” Dr. Alfy says. “There have been a number of positive clinical studies that show the effectiveness of omega-3 compared to traditional pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory agents.” 

While omega-3 is found in fish oil, chia seeds, and walnuts, a high dose is key for inflammation reduction. “Most of the studies involving omega-3s and pain used doses of two grams or more,” Dr. Paul says. That means your pain needs will be better addressed with a pill supplement than a hearty dose of wild fish (although you should totally eat more sardines, anyway).

Grass-fed gelatin

Bone broth made it famous, but gelatin from grass-fed animals isn’t just trendy: it has a host of benefits that include digestive repair and joint mending. It’s been used for pain and healing among athletes, and many people opt to take just one component of it, collagen, for pain relief. You can consume gelatin as bone broth naturally, or use gelatin powder to make treats like fruit gelatin. It’s important to note that the gelatin from grass-fed animals is key here; although you might not think it would matter, grass-fed gelatin is far more anti-inflammatory than grain-fed gelatin, making it vital for pain relief. 

White willow

A natural version of aspirin, white willow actually contains the same active component as aspirin. This analgesic may also be safer than taking aspirin while offering a similar type of relief. Studies have shown that it’s effective for combating pain, and it’s been demonstrated especially to help with lower back pain.

Concerned with how much to take? “Doses are usually around the 240 mg/day range, but should be approved by a doctor,” notes Dr. Paul. 

Great for internal and external use

Turmeric

Turmeric is a spice — the one that gives curries their distinctive yellow color — and curcumin is its principle active component that lends it its anti-inflammatory properties. “Turmeric can be used in the treatment of osteoarthritis,” Dr. Alfy says. “I usually recommend a dosage of 400-600mg taken three times a day.” He does have one word of caution, though: “People should be careful when consuming turmeric for pain relief if they are taking large doses of other anti-inflammatories or are on blood thinners.” 

Ginger

Another cooking spice that’s also a natural healing agent, ginger is used in multiple ways to relieve pain. Ginger has been shown to benefit those suffering from arthritis and boasts strong anti-inflammatory properties. “It also has antioxidant, anti-anxiety, and anti-nausea properties,” Dr. Alfy says. “And it’s been found to be beneficial in improving cardiovascular status.”

Chondroitin

Commonly found in shark cartilage, this ingredient is particularly useful for joint pain. “Chondroitin is an over-the-counter nutritional supplement made of chondroitin sulfate,” Dr. Alfy says. “It works by stopping degradation of cartilage and restores lost cartilage. According to one study, chondroitin improved knee pain by 20% with little to no side effects.” 

Fortunately, you don’t have to eat a ton of (illegal!) shark fin soup to reap the benefits of chondroitin: this ingredient can now be made in a lab, and is also found in cows. You can find chondroitin in pain creams, making it available for topical usage. Unlike ingredients with heating or cooling sensations, you may not notice a particular feeling when you use chondroitin topically, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working.

Good food brings people together.
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Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.

Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.