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Foods that fight pain

Foods That Fight Pain

by: Debra Bokur, Healing Lifestyles & Spas Magazine Recipes by: Deborah Madison

Surprise: Your kitchen shelves are actually a medicine cabinet, filled with natural remedies for pain relief.

Once upon a time, corner drugstores did not exist. Instead of bottles of mass-produced capsules and pills, people relied on plants and other natural ingredients that were close at hand for pain relief, trusting in the wisdom and traditions handed down by generations of elders and healers.

In folklore, medicinal herbs were often believed to be imbued with magical qualities and spiritual powers. Cultures in Asia and other parts of the world have compiled detailed pharmacopeias of plants and their various attributes, along with recipes for their preparation for the treatment of varying complaints.

By the 15th century, trade routes between Asia and Europe had expanded, introducing Europeans not only to such spices as ginger, cardamom, and turmeric, but also Ayurvedic medicine. Cardamom, a member of the ginger family, was favored by the ancient Egyptians as a perfume; and in Biblical times, turmeric was used as both a flavoring for foods and as a perfume. Turmeric, explored in several well-documented studies, has exhibited a greater ability to reduce inflammation than hydrocortisone.

Ginger's ability to provide relief for chronic joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis has been shown to rival that of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to reduce inflammation and block this type of pain. Cherries, red peppers, and sunflower seeds have also shown the ability to reduce the pain of headaches, gout, and muscular discomfort. The recent uproar over the side effects of some NSAIDs has alerted consumers to their potential risks. If foods and plants have been used successfully throughout history as antidotes and cures for pain, why has Western medicine been so slow to embrace their use? "Unfortunately," explains Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., Medical Director of Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers, Inc. and author of Pain Free 1-2-3: A Proven Program to Get YOU Pain Free! (McGraw Hill, 2006), "almost all the information that physicians receive is paid for by the drug companies. This includes the journals they read, the conferences they go to, and the drug reps that supply them with studies. Fortunately, more and more physicians are becoming holistically oriented and are learning about natural remedies."

Pain comes in two main types: chronic and acute. Acute pain, such as a headache or the type you experience when you slip and twist your ankle, comes on quickly and usually subsides within a reasonable amount of time, or with the healing of the initial injury. Although it may start out as acute pain, chronic pain persists over a long period of time, and can give birth to side effects including depression, anger, stress, and despair – which only serve to make the original pain more unbearable. "Cherries, turmeric, and ginger can be helpful for both, but are likely to be most effective for chronic pain," says Teitelbaum, adding that the use of botanical and food medicines is more effective if used in conjunction with other natural modalities. "Patients do best when they combine (the use of) natural remedies, nutritional support, diet, exercise, and psycho-spiritual modalities. In my thirty years of treating patients, I have found that a simple way to assist your psyche with the healing process is to choose to keep your attention on what feels good. Joseph Campbell summarized it brilliantly when he said, 'Follow Your Bliss.'"

We chose to follow Deborah Madison, cookbook author and founding chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco, into the kitchen, where she created recipes that include natural ingredients for the relief of common pain. Madison is also the author of eight award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway, 1997) and Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen (Broadway, 2006).

Add these foods to your diet for healthy and pain-relieving benefits:

GINGER Pain relief for a variety of conditions, including headaches, Fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis.

TURMERIC Powerful anti-inflammatory, particularly useful in the relief of pain from rheumatoid arthritis.

CHERRIES A popular remedy for gout. Can help relieve both chronic and acute types of pain.

RED PEPPERS A source of salicylates, naturally occurring pain compounds. Contain capsaicin, which stimulates the release of endorphins.

CARDAMOM The true, or green version, of this spice is useful in relieving stomach pain and digestive cramps. A member of the ginger family, it offers many of the same properties.

SUNFLOWER SEEDS A rich source of the chemical phenylalanine, which helps reduce and control pain.

Recipe for Healing:


(Serves 4–6)Historically, turmeric has been used to address pain associated with headache, gout, arthritis, swelling, and tendonitis. There is a generous amount of turmeric in this red lentil and vegetable soup. Any tendency it has to become acrid is corrected by the inclusion of plenty of lime juice and creamy coconut milk.


4 tsp. ghee butter or sunflower seed oil
1 cup finely diced onion
1 celery stalk, peeled and diced
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup finely diced winter squash or zucchini
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
3 tbs. cilantro stems, minced
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 cup red lentils, rinsed well
1 can light coconut milk

juice of 1–2 limes, or to taste
2 scallions, including an inch of the greens, thinly sliced freshly ground pepper to taste


Over medium heat, melt the butter or heat the oil in a wide soup pot. Add the vegetables and cilantro stems and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, turmeric, and cumin, and cook another 3 or 4 minutes before adding the rinsed lentils and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils have broken down and are sufficiently tender, about 20 minutes. Puree about half of them in a blender and return them to the soup. Stir in the coconut milk and return the soup to a boil. Taste for salt and add several grindings of pepper and season to taste with lime juice.

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