Healing Foods That Fight Pain Naturally

Science is recognizing that foods can relieve pain as well as—or even better than—drugs

“No matter how well you prescribe medication, chronic sufferers don’t get complete relief,” says James N. Dillard, MD, author of The Chronic Pain Solution. “It’s an enormous problem, and the medical community is doing a bad job solving it.” But there is an alternative, and it’s right in your kitchen. Certain foods ease aches by fighting inflammation, blocking pain signals, and even healing underlying disease.

The Rx: Cherries

The Target: Arthritis, muscle pain
The Dose: 45 daily

Compounds in cherries called anthocyanins—the same phytonutrients that give cherries their rich ruby hue—are powerful antioxidants that work in two ways to tamp down pain.

The Rx: Ginger

The Target: Migraines, arthritis, sore muscles
The Dose: ¼ teaspoon daily

This spicy root is a traditional stomach soother, easing seasickness and nausea. It’s believed to work by breaking up intestinal gas and possibly blocking a receptor in the gut that induces vomiting. But there are good reasons to eat ginger even when you’re not doubled over. Another natural aspirin impersonator and anti-inflammatory, it can offer relief from migraines, arthritis pain, and muscle aches.

The Rx: Cranberry Juice

The Target: Ulcers
The Dose: 1 cup daily

Ulcers are the result of a pathogen called H. pylori, which attacks the protective lining of the stomach or small intestine. Antibiotics are the usual cure, but you can help prevent ulcers in the first place by drinking cranberry juice, thanks to its ability to block H. pylori from adhering to the stomach lining. One study found that just under a cup a day for 3 weeks eliminated almost 20% of all cases of H. pylori infection—without drugs.

The Rx: Salmon, Herring, Sardines

The Target: Achy back, neck, joints
The Dose: Two to three 3-ounce servings weekly

Eating fish low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acids can help relieve back pain. In a healthy back, blood vessels at the edge of spinal disks transport crucial nutrients to those disks. If blood flow is diminished, the disks lose their source of oxygen and other nutrients, and they begin to degenerate, says Neal D. Barnard, MD, author of Foods That Fight Pain.

The Rx: Turmeric

The Target: Achy joints, colitis (inflammation of the colon)
The Dose: 1 tablespoon daily

This essential curry spice has been used for years in Ayurvedic medicine to relieve pain and speed up digestion. But researchers like it for another reason: its anti-inflammatory properties, courtesy of a substance called curcumin. “Turmeric can protect the body from tissue destruction and joint inflammation and also preserve good nerve cell function,” Abaci says.

The Rx: Yogurt

The Target: IBS
The Dose: One or two 8-ounce containers daily

For the roughly 20% of Americans who have irritable bowel syndrome, stomach pain is a given. But help may come in the form of a bug—billions of bugs, actually. Several bacterial strains that are often in yogurt (especially B. infantisand L. acidophilus) reduce pain, inflammation, and bloating, according to a 2010 review. Another study found similar results with B. lactis. But shop smart. Not every yogurt contains probiotics. Look for a brand with “live and active cultures.” Vegans can get their daily dose from probiotic-enriched soy yogurt.

The Rx: Coffee

The Target: Headaches
The Dose: Two 4-ounce cups

Coffee isn’t just a morning pick-me-up. It’s good medicine. “Caffeine helps reduce pain by narrowing the dilated blood vessels that develop with headaches,” says Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. And coffee delivers a one-two punch by reducing pain-promoting compounds and amplifying the effect of other pain relievers too. (But be warned: If you’re a java junkie, too much caffeine can have the opposite effect. When you quit, you can get withdrawal headaches. Coffee works as a headache reliever only if you don’t consume it regularly.)

The Rx: Mint

The Target: IBS, headaches
The Dose: 1 cup of tea daily

Chewing on peppermint can freshen your breath, but there’s another reason you should try the herb. The menthol in peppermint helps prevent muscle spasms, one of the reasons peppermint oil effectively treats irritable bowel syndrome. The oil is also useful for relieving headaches. Rub some on your temples or wrists and breathe in the minty scent.

The Rx: Edamame

The Target: Arthritis
The Dose: ¼ cup daily

When it comes to culinary fixes for pain, osteoarthritis poses a challenge. Wear and tear on the joints—the kind that leaves cartilage tattered and bones grinding against one another—is not reversible. Still, there’s some hope for relief.

The Rx: Hot Peppers

The Target: Arthritis
The Dose: Half a teaspoon of powder daily

The same peppers that singe your tongue and bring tears to your eyes can take away pain. An ingredient in hot peppers called capsaicin does the trick by stimulating nerve endings and depleting a chemical that relays pain signals. You can buy capsaicin-containing creams at most pharmacies, says Duke, who uses capsaicin to alleviate his own arthritis pain.