Though they can ease minor muscle aches, conventional over-the-counter pain relievers can also cause serious stomach discomfort and nausea, which make them tough pills to swallow whether you’re a runner, cyclist, yogi, or hiker who wants to feel at the top of your game when you’re out doing what you love best.
Plus, some of these medicines have been linked to scary side effects, such as an increased risk for ulcers and bleeding and in extreme cases heart attack or stroke. Still, avoiding them doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it the next time you’re plagued with aches.
Here, four surprising natural remedies that can help you feel better—minus the desperate drugstore runs.
The active component in chili peppers, capsaicin works by decreasing the intensity of pain signals in the body. It can relieve minor muscle aches when applied topically and has been shown to ease joint pain in those with rheumatoid arthritis.
“I usually recommend it as a warm-up or post-workout product for muscles. I find that pre-workout, it helps loosen up muscles, while post-workout it decreases soreness and stiffness,” says herbal pharmacist David Foreman, RPh. Look for capsaicin lotion or gel at your local health food store. One thing to remember: Like chili peppers themselves, capsaicin is hot. Remember to avoid touching your eyes or your face while applying capsaicin lotion or gel, and wash your hands afterward.
This shrub has been used for centuries as a pain and fever remedy, but today it’s used mostly for severe headaches. According to the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society, butterbur is effective for reducing the severity and frequency of migraines. In fact, research has shown that 75 milligrams of butterbur extract, when taken twice daily, can slash the frequency of migraine with aura by as much as 58 percent.
As with any herbal remedy, talk with your doctor to determine the right dosage plan. (Short-term use of butterbur is safe, but the long-term health effects haven’t been studied.) And look for butterbur supplements—which you’ll find at natural pharmacies and food stores—that are free of pyrrolizidine alkaloid, a naturally occurring compound that can be toxic to the liver.
Will a bit of fish oila day keep the doctor away? There’s no guarantee, but studies show that regularly taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement—which reduces inflammation—could help lessen joint tenderness and morning stiffness by up to a third. “After three or four weeks of taking high doses of fish oil, in tandem with dietary changes, like cutting out processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats, my patients start to feel better,” says alternative medicine practitioner Elizabeth Trattner, A.P., D.O.M.
So how much do you need? The World Health Organization recommends that all adults get 300 to 500 grams of EPA and DHA (the type of omega-3s that come from fatty fish) daily. However, you might need more for joint pain relief: “I recommend at least 1,300 milligrams of EPA and 900 milligrams of DHA,” Trattner says. Talk with your doctor to determine the amount that’s right for you, since high doses could put some people at risk for increased bleeding.
It’s not a pill or a supplement, but if you’re not already getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, doing so could be key to managing your pain. “During deep sleep, your body releases restorative hormones, peptides, and neurotransmitters that promote healing,” says Perry Herman, MD, who specializes in alternative treatments for pain management. Slumber is also when your body works to sweep out inflammation-causing free radicals. (Here's 3 medication-free strategies to solve your insomnia.)
Research backs up the connection between sleep deprivation and pain, too. Studies show that when healthy people are deprived of adequate snooze time, they’re more sensitive to pain. In other words, being tired can turn that mild headache or muscle soreness into something that feels a whole lot worse, so be sure to prioritize getting your z's in.
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