Chronic pain can be so pervasive that drugs and even mind-body approaches may not be enough to give you a break. As many as four out of five people with chronic pain have tried alternative remedies, including eating certain foods or ingredients that are thought to bring some pain relief. Some have research — not just anecdotal evidence — behind them.
All of the following foods have a place in a healthy diet, so eating and cooking with them can be good for you in general. Even so, it’s always a good idea to let your doctor know what kinds of remedies you’re trying to be sure that none will interfere with another.
Ginger is a root that can be used in flavoring dishes from stir-fry foods to gingerbread cookies. It is most often recommended for easing nausea, but in the lab it’s been found to contain compounds that fight inflammation, which often causes pain.
Though clinical studies have not shown it to be consistently effective for joint pain, there are few side effects to including ginger in your diet or consuming it in tablet form.
Some research has found that even low doses of caffeine (about 100 milligrams, or the amount in a cup of drip-brewed coffee) can help reduce the perception of pain during a painful and exhausting task.
Coffee is one of the most common sources of caffeine, but it can be found in other food products, like tea, chocolate, and many sodas. Even if caffeine helps your chronic pain, talk to your doctor about safe levels for you to consume.
Researchers have become interested in the anti-inflammatory benefits of olive oil because people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet (which is rich in olive oil) seem to have fewer health conditions related to inflammation, such as degenerative joint diseases or diabetes.
In fact, extra-virgin olive oil might contain compounds similar to ibuprofen, making it a great oil for cooking foods or in recipes like salad dressings as part of your daily management plan when living with pain.
Salmon is a deep-sea fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and is a great addition to every diet, even if you aren’t living with pain. Foods with this type of healthy fat are thought to have numerous benefits for health, including a reduction in inflammation.
In addition to its healthy fats, salmon also provides calcitonin, which has been shown in clinical studies to reduce the inflammation in joints and may protect against pain from osteoarthritis.
Turmeric, also known as curcumin, is a spice that gives curry and other Indian foods their unique yellow color. It also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects and has been studied as a possible way to ease the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis.
Turmeric comes in capsules if you want to try taking it for pain, but you can also include it in your cooking on a regular basis — it combines well with ginger in curries.
Red grapes contain resveratrol, a chemical compound that is thought to have anti-inflammatory benefits. Resveratrol is also found in foods such as berries and peanuts. In the lab, resveratrol has been shown to stop certain cells in the body from responding to the signals of inflammation, suggesting that it could ultimately help fight pain. Subsequent research has shown that combining resveratrol with turmeric may enhance the ability of both to fight inflammation, important when you’re living with pain.
Thyme is an herb with tiny, fragrant leaves, used in cooking to enhance the flavors of many foods. Research suggests that compounds in thyme may interfere with the perception of pain, although researchers are not yet entirely sure how the plant accomplishes this. In the lab, thyme was as effective as the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone in reducing pain perception in mice. While investigations continue, try adding thyme to flavor stews, sauces, and other dishes.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH