9 Healing Foods that Fight Pain and Aches
Whether you suffer from an occasional ache or chronic pain, if something hurts, you want it to stop. There are many pills and pain relievers available by prescription and over the counter. But unfortunately, many of them also deliver unwanted side effects. Plus, they may not be able to address the root cause of the pain. And worst of all, many are additive. The solution, fortunately, may be found in your very own kitchen—that is, healing foods that fight pain.
Yes, you read that right. Some foods have been shown to help promote a healthy inflammatory response, support the body’s ability to heal, and even reduce pain signals. On the other hand, there are also foods that are especially common in Western diets that make pain worse. Highly processed foods, for example, as well as refined carbs often stimulate inflammation.
While there are no foods that can stop pain in its tracks, by eating more whole foods, including vegetables and fruits, while reducing the consumption of processed foods and sugars, you may be able to dramatically reduce pain levels to help you get back to the activities and life you love.
This is good news for many people who face pain on a daily basis, and that’s a lot of us. Chronic pain has been shown to affect upwards of 116 million American adults or nearly one-third of the population in the U.S. Ouch!
Ready for some relief? Here are 9 options that top the list of foods that fight pain.
RELATED: Collagen Doesn’t Work (Unless…)
Healing Foods that Fight Pain
1. Cherries and Tart Cherry Juice
Good for muscle pain, arthritis
Cherries provide a big dose of anthocyanins, which are phytonutrients that give cherries their beautiful red color. They’re also antioxidants that have been shown to help tamp down inflammation and reduce the activity of pain enzymes to help reduce aches and pains. Cherries are also a rich source of vitamin C, which helps fight oxidative stress. This is important as oxidative stress contributes to numerous chronic inflammatory diseases as well as aging. 1
In one study, folks who consumed a bowl of cherries with breakfast experienced a 25% decrease in inflammation. Another study found that runners who drank 12 ounces of tart (unsweetened) cherry juice 2 times daily over 7 days experienced less muscle pain when running over distances. 2 Other research has found that cherries may enhance muscle recovery and reduce oxidative stress and pain. 3
Because similar antioxidants (specifically, anthocyanins) are also found in other dark red and purple fruits, like grapes, pomegranates, blueberries, cranberries, and acai, these fruits may have similar beneficial effects when it comes to reducing pain and soreness. 4
Good for headaches (including migraines), arthritis, muscle pain
Ginger is most well-known for its ability to help ease tummy troubles, including motion sickness, morning sickness, nausea, and intestinal gas, 5,6 but there’s another reason to add it freely to stir fries, spicy shakes and smoothies, baked goods, and fire cider. Ginger also naturally supports healthy inflammation, 7,8 which may then decrease the pain from headaches, sore muscles, and arthritis. 9 – 13
One study, for example, found that when people took ginger every day for 11 days, they experienced less pain after exercise compared to those taking a placebo. 14 Other research has found that ginger extract was safe and effective for reducing pain and stiffness in people with knee osteoarthritis. 15
For a simple soothing ginger tea, just peel and slice ginger and steep it for 15 minutes in boiling water. Or if you want a cool, refreshing drink, combine grated ginger with lemon juice, water, and a dash of honey over ice.
Good for painful joints, sore muscles
This key ingredient gives curry powders their unusual orange color, and it’s also known as a medicinal herb, especially in Ayurvedic medicine. Some touted benefits include helping improve digestion, support healthy inflammation, and protect nerve cell function, mostly due to one of the main compounds in the spice: curcumin.
Turmeric has also been found to help manage “oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia.” 16 Research also indicates it may help manage exercise-induced inflammation to decrease muscle soreness and enhance recovery as well as promote performance in active individuals. 16
Even if you aren’t a fan of curry, you can still easily incorporate turmeric into your diet by adding it to salad dressings, stirring it into vegetables, adding it to cooked grains, or by adding some to a morning smoothie or protein shake. When you do prepare food with it, add some black pepper as well to increase absorption. You can also consider adding a quality curcumin/turmeric supplement to ensure you get enough of this powerful compound to appreciate the benefits.
4. Olive Oil
Good for joint pain, inflammation
One of the most touted benefits of following the Mediterranean Diet is decreased inflammation. And this is often attributed to the use of extra virgin olive oil. In fact, people who follow this type of plant-heavy, nutrient-rich diet experience fewer inflammatory-related health conditions, including joint disease and diabetes. 19 – 22
One reason for this is because olive oil contains oleocanthal, which shares similarities to the over-the-counter pain reliever ibuprofen. 23 Consuming around four tablespoons per day appears to have about the same effect as 10% of the recommended amount of ibuprofen, though smaller amounts are also likely to be effective. In other words, while it may not be strong enough to stop acute pain, including extra virgin olive oil in the diet on a regular basis may help reduce chronic aches and pains. 24
To ensure your olive oil has the right compounds for pain relief, take a small sip of straight up olive oil. If it has oleocanthal, it will sting in the throat, according to Paul Breslin, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center. 24
5. Fatty Fish
Good for back, neck, joint aches and pains
By now, most of us are well aware of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids as found primarily in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and herring. Now, we can add it as one of the healing foods that fight pain. This is due to the effect of these key fats in promoting blood flow, which delivers oxygen and other nutrients to cells throughout the body. This includes the disks in the back and neck as well as joints. 17
In addition to helping improve blood flow, another benefit of omega-3 fats is their ability to support healthy levels of inflammation in blood vessels and nerves. One study, for instance, found that 1,200 mg of supplemental EPA and DHA helped reduce back and neck pain. 18 As a bonus, fish oils have also been shown to support cardiovascular health and elevate mood. This is another way these oils may help dampen pain as we tend to notice discomfort more when we’re not happy.
Consuming fish two to three times a week is a great way to help ensure you’re getting more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. If fish isn’t your favorite food, you can also use a quality omega-3-fatty-acid supplement. If you’re vegan, then you could also add seaweed or algae to your diet along with chia, hemp, or flax seeds.
Good for headaches, post-exercise pain
Okay, this is a beverage rather than a food, but it can still be effective for helping fight pain. Research also indicates a mere 100 mg of caffeine (as found in a cup of drip coffee) may also reduce the perception of pain and exhaustion during exercise, such as moderate-intensity cycling. 25, 26 It’s also been shown to be helpful for managing the pain of both migraines and tension headaches. It’s often included in headache medications as it’s been shown to make them up to 40% more effective. 27
If you don’t enjoy a cup of coffee, other sources of caffeine include tea and chocolate. To get the most benefit from caffeine, however, you’ll want to avoid consuming too much. One to three cups of coffee a day appears to be effective for most people.
It’s well known that caffeine withdrawal can also cause side effects, most notably, headaches. 28 Other side effects of drinking too much coffee include nervousness, nausea, abdominal discomfort, and dizziness. 27
7. Sage and Echinacea
Good for sore throats
What do you do when your throat starts to feel sore and scratchy? Reach for a cup of hot tea, right? For even greater relief, try making a hot herbal tea with brewed sage leaves and echinacea.
One study from Switzerland found that this combination (though as a spray rather than a tea) was as effective as a chlorhexidine/lidocaine spray when used every couple of hours, up to ten times daily for up to five days, to decrease acute sore throats. 29
8. Hot Peppers
Good for joint pain
Another food that has solid evidence for promoting a healthy inflammatory response is hot peppers. Foods that contain capsaicin may cause pain in the mouth, but they are also high in antioxidants and may help reduce levels of inflammation. Plus, hot peppers are rich in vitamins C and B6 as well as beta-carotene and other carotenoids. 30
Hot peppers like jalapenos, habaneros, cayenne, and serranoes can, of course, spice up nearly any dish. But even more mild peppers like cherry and bell peppers have similar benefits.
If you find that peppers upset your stomach, causing indigestion or heartburn, you can also find capsaicin in topical products, which can be rubbed into the skin and have been shown to be quite effective for joint pain, neuropathic pain, and other types of pain as well as itching. 31
Good for headaches, stomach cramps
Sometimes called “herbal aspirin,” mint—especially wintergreen—contains a compound called methyl salicylate, which has been shown to block the enzymes that can lead to pain and inflammation. 32
You can chew fresh mint to freshen breath, add fresh mint leaves to water for a refreshing drink, or rub the oil (mixed with a carrier oil) into your wrists or temples to increase energy levels and help ease a headache. You can also rub the oil (again, with a carrier oil) into sore or strained muscles for some relief. 33
Finally, you can always pour boiling water over mint leaves and steep to make a tea. Add a squeeze of lemon for flavor and to help extract more of the pain-relieving chemicals from the leaves.
Foods that Fight Pain: Recap
Over-the-counter and prescription painkillers obviously serve a purpose. But popping these types of pills regularly can have serious side effects. Again, there’s no single food that can stop pain in its tracks. But there are foods, that when eaten regularly and combined with a healthy whole food diet, could help improve the body’s response to inflammation. Over time, this can help ease pain and help the body heal.
Here’s to providing the nutrients we need to naturally feel better!