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While posture, movement, and alignment all play an integral role in dealing with chronic pain, there’s another crucial element that often goes unmentioned: body chemistry.
This encompasses what’s going on in your physiology at the cellular level.
Cellular processes are complex and it’s next to impossible to understand every aspect of these elaborate chemical reactions, but there’s one metric with which you should familiarize yourself: systemic inflammation.
What Is Systemic Inflammation?
Systemic inflammation is a body-wide process that has the direct ability to influence your levels of physical pain.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to irritants or injury. There are two kinds of inflammation. The first is acute, like when you sprain your ankle. The localized area swells and gets hot to the touch, which helps your body bring blood and plasma carrying healing nutrients to the wounded tissue.
The second type, and the one that we’re concerned with here, is chronic inflammation, which happens as a result of the immune system becoming stimulated by too much stress, lack of sleep, over-exercising, or consuming inflammatory foods, such as sugar and alcohol. Inflammation is also a factor in autoimmune conditions.
The result of chronic inflammation is systemic pain—aching joints, sore muscles, and gut issues, among other, more serious conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
How Do You Know if You Have Systemic Inflammation?
Blood tests that measure something called C-reactive protein can tell you how high your inflammation levels are. One study found that your likelihood of developing diabetes was increased by 1,700 percent when there were elevated levels of C-reactive protein1.
Other more generalized symptoms of systemic inflammation include body pain, fatigue, poor sleep, imbalanced mood, depression, anxiety, and gut issues2.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do nutritionally to reduce systemic inflammation. While eating a healthy diet free from processed, chemically-laden foods is essential, there are also many individual nutrients that aid in balancing out body chemistry. Here, I’ll cover the top eight contenders.
No 1. Magnesium
Magnesium is a simple mineral found in basic foods like avocados, black beans, spinach, whole grains, and dark chocolate. It’s involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body, so you need quite a lot of it.
One of the very important functions of magnesium is to help your muscles release a contraction, but the benefits of magnesium go beyond just reducing muscular tension.
According to The Magnesium Miracle by Carolyn Dean, magnesium lowers C-reactive protein, boosts enzymatic activity in the bloodstream (more on enzymes in No. 8 below), supports adrenal health, lowers high blood pressure, improves blood flow, and enhances sleep quality3.
Board certified neurologist Ilene Ruhoy suggests daily supplementation with magnesium to help treat headaches, concussion, anxiety, and insomnia4.
Magnesium comes in many forms and each has a slightly different effect on the body. The best and most bioavailable form is magnesium chloride, which is found naturally occurring in seawater.
You can find topical applications of magnesium chloride to apply to your skin daily. This is an excellent way to supplement your magnesium because you bypass the difficulty of absorbing it through the gut5. If you have a damaged intestinal tract due to IBS, food allergies, SIBO, Crohn’s disease, or other conditions, this is the best magnesium for you. Look for products labeled magnesium oil or magnesium lotion.
Magnesium glycinate is absorbed well by muscle tissue, so this is a great choice if you’re looking to reduce tension. Magnesium threonate has shown a positive effect on brain health6.
Personally, I use a combination of both oral supplementation and topical application to maintain optimal magnesium levels. Because magnesium is a natural laxative, it can be difficult to take enough of it to boost levels without negatively affecting absorption, simply because the more you take, the faster it moves through your digestive tract.
No. 2 Boswellia
Boswellia — better known as frankincense — is a resin derived from large, branching trees native to India, northern Africa, and the Middle East. Frequently used in ancient cultures as a perfume or embalming agent, this fragrant resin is undergoing a resurgence as research has proven its powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
One study demonstrated the anti-inflammatory effects of boswellia on autoimmune conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and bronchial asthma. There were fewer side effects with boswellia supplementation than with traditional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)7.
I’ve found both oral and topical use of boswellia resin to be extremely helpful in alleviating sore muscles and joints. Boswellia is one of the several anti-inflammatory herbs present in the herbal supplement I take for broad spectrum anti-inflammatory support that I personally take daily.
No. 3 Turmeric
The hero of all anti-inflammatory foods is actually a spice called turmeric. Turmeric is a bright yellow-orange-colored rhizome similar in appearance to ginger and has been used as a healing food in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine systems for centuries.
While turmeric may best be known for its natural anti-inflammatory compound curcumin that’s responsible for reducing muscle and joint pain, it has also shown promise in treating cancer, inflammatory conditions, and pain.
There is also strong evidence for the use of turmeric in slowing the progression of neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis8. And turmeric has an additional litany of health benefits, from lowering cholesterol to cardiovascular protection.
With anti-inflammatory effects comparable to over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen9 and none of the unsafe side effects, it makes sense to include turmeric as an integral part of your diet.
While turmeric is a delicious spice with myriad health benefits, but it’s also bright orange, messy, and stains everything. Getting a consistent dose every day can prove trying, so you may prefer to choose a potent supplement to ensure the daily anti-inflammatory benefits.
I switched to a broad spectrum herbal anti-inflammatory supplement featuring primarily turmeric along with a few other powerful anti-inflammatory herbal extracts after getting frustrated by the orange-yellow mess that turmeric created in my kitchen. I noticed an immediate difference, and when I run out or forget to reorder, I can really tell.
No. 4 Devil’s Claw
Native to southern Africa, devil’s claw is a fruiting plant that has a bitter root containing anti-inflammatory properties traditionally used to treat painful conditions including arthritis, bursitis, gout, neuralgia, headaches, and other musculoskeletal aches10.
Studies have demonstrated the anti-inflammatory effects of devil’s claw for treating osteoarthritis11 and found it to be especially helpful in cases of lower back pain12.
Devil’s claw is rich in antioxidants, nutrient compounds that help reduce oxidative stress on cells. In fact, the high content of water-soluble antioxidants13 appears to fuel the anti-inflammatory potency of devil’s claw14.
Devil’s claw does not appear to have serious side effects, but more studies are needed to confirm this. According to WebMD, people with heart problems, hypertension, low blood pressure, diabetes, gallstones, and peptic ulcer disease should avoid devil’s claw15.
Devil’s claw can be consumed as a tea, tincture, or in capsule form. My preferred herbal supplement for anti-inflammatory support contains a synergistic amount of devil’s claw as part of the compound.
No. 5 Ginger
Like turmeric, ginger is a rhizome containing anti-inflammatory compounds, mainly gingerols. Yellow in color and sporting a spicy kick, ginger has been used by Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Unani Tibb traditional medicine practices for centuries16.
While ginger is largely known as a culinary spice popular in Asian cuisine, demand for the spicy rhizome is growing in North America due to its health benefits. In addition to its powerful anti-inflammatory properties, ginger has been shown to have antibiotic, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, and cholesterol-lowering properties17.
Research has also demonstrated the effectiveness of ginger in relieving menstrual pain18, migraines19, and, to some extent, arthritis20 (although turmeric does outperform ginger alone).
Adding ginger to your diet isn’t complicated as it livens up almost any culinary dish. While I’ve personally found the most potent results from consuming the rhizome as part of a freshly squeezed juice, you can also add a chunk of fresh ginger to a pot of bone broth, grate some on top of a salad, or combine it in soups.
While consuming ginger as part of a healthy diet is ideal, I still prefer to take a daily supplement that contains a potent extract along with other anti-inflammatory herbs to ensure both a therapeutic dose and consistent intake. I love the taste of ginger, but even a zesty warming spice like this can become tiresome when consumed daily.
No. 6 GABA
For better sleep, a more stable mood, and reduced levels of muscular tension, you may want to consider taking steps to boost your brain’s levels of a calming neurotransmitter called gama-aminobutyric acid, or GABA.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow neurons—the cells in your brain—to communicate with one another. GABA is one such chemical with a calming effect on neuronal activity.
GABA improves sleep quality21, reduces anxiety22 and muscle tension, and boosts mood23. Low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety, sleep disorders, depression, inability to focus, seizures, and chronic pain. Depleted GABA also results in chronic sympathetic nervous system activation and can be an underlying cause of adrenal fatigue24.
While GABA isn’t something you get from foods like you do other vitamins and minerals, certain foods can support its production inside the body by providing crucial nutrients for the synthesis of GABA.
According to Dr. Ilene Ruhoy, board certified neurologist, GABA requires pyroxidine—more commonly known as vitamin B6—as a precursor. Eating foods rich in B6, such as spinach, bananas, potatoes, rice, raisins, and chickpeas, can support your brain’s GABA production25.
One study showed that probiotic supplementation both increased GABA production in the gut tissue and decreased abdominal pain26. Be sure to include plenty of raw, unpasteurized fermented foods in your diet such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, etc.
Exercise, meditation, and yoga can also boost GABA production in your brain. Researchers found a 27% increase in GABA production in study participants after practicing yoga27.
It’s important to note that movement, deep breathing exercises, and meditation can have fairly immediate effects on GABA levels but the results may be temporary, while nutritional approaches may take a while to naturally increase GABA but are more long-term.
While you can purchase GABA in supplement form, the research is still out on whether this is the best way to replenish depleted GABA levels in the body. For maximum benefit, emphasis should be placed on consuming nutrients that are precursors to your body’s own GABA production4.
No. 7 Omega-3
Omega-3 oils from foods like flax, chia and deep, cold water fish are nature’s first line of defense against inflammation. Clinical trials have shown that fish oil benefits many autoimmune and inflammatory disease conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and migraine headaches28.
In addition to decreasing inflammation, omega-3 oils are a fundamental building material for your brain, supporting the production of new neurons29.
Basically, your brain can’t exist without omega-3 oils, which makes them pretty vital.
It’s a great idea to optimize your diet to include plenty of healthy omega-3 oils, the best of which can be found in wild salmon, grass-fed beef, trout, and sardines.
One study that looked at the diets of Dutch adults found that eating more fish was correlated with a reduced risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s30.
Many westernized diets, such as the standard American diet, are high in another type of polyunsaturated fatty acid: omega-6. Where omega-3 fights inflammation, omega-6 is pro-inflammatory. This doesn’t necessarily make omega-6 bad; your body needs both.
But it needs both omega-6 and omega-3 in a balanced ratio of about 4:1 (four grams of omega-6 to every one gram of omega-3)31, although some experts recommend as much as a 1:1 ratio in favor of more omega-332. Since many people have a diet high in omega-6 oils from soy, canola, and corn, omega-3 consumption becomes crucial to decrease inflammatory responses in the body, thus easing pain and improving brain health.
No. 8 Enzymes
Enzymes are probably the number one anti-inflammatory compound that almost nobody has ever heard of; however, they’re crucial to not only your health, but also to your body’s ability to preserve life.
Your body uses around 50,000 to 70,000 different types of enzymes to break down food and convert it into energy as well as to support metabolic processes. Without the catalyzing properties of enzymes, your body would straight up die33.
You might be familiar with digestive enzymes — those secreted by your stomach and pancreas.
While digestive enzymes are beneficial to aid in breaking down food in your digestive tract and making nutrients more bioavailable, there is a second type of enzyme that we’ll be focusing on here: systemic, or proteolytic, enzymes.
While digestive enzymes dissolve in your stomach so that they can break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, systemic enzyme tablets are enteric coated so that they survive the harsh stomach acid. The enzymes then cross through the intestinal wall, entering your bloodstream and traveling throughout your body.
This allows them to act as blood cleansers, ridding the body of inflammatory proteins that not only cause pain, but can result in diseases which have inflammation as a root cause such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
Proteolytic enzymes decrease systemic inflammation throughout your entire body, improve blood flow, dissolve blood clots, and help to alleviate allergy symptoms. They can also destroy invading bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and fungi by dissolving the protein coating that protects them33.
Supplementation with systemic enzymes both prior to and following strenuous exercise was found to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage, showing favorable benefits for inflammatory, metabolic, and immune biomarkers34 and reducing delayed onset muscle soreness—the achiness you feel a day or two after exercising35.
As you age, your enzyme production drastically decreases, dropping significantly past the age of 2736. While fresh fruits and vegetables supply some enzymes, they’re easily destroyed by cooking them at temperatures above 115 degrees. Therefore, supplementation is imperative to help your body maintain optimal enzymatic activity. It might just be the most important supplement you ever take, in fact.
Enzymes are generally considered as safe and have been in use for decades in Europe, and some are even classified as prescription drugs in Japan36. However, they can have a thinning effect on the blood. You’ll definitely want to check with your doctor before taking enzymes if you’re on prescription blood thinners or have an upcoming surgery scheduled.
It can be tricky to find a high potency enzyme formula that meets stringent quality standards. While there are a few good ones on the market, this one is my current personal favorite and the one I use daily to support decreased inflammation and musculoskeletal pain.
And that’s a wrap. These are eight powerful nutrients with pain relieving qualities. Use one or use them all and you’re sure to see a difference in your overall well being.
For more pain-busting secrets like these, check out my ebook Perfect Posture for Life. I cover every aspect of standing tall and moving without pain (including nutritional secrets like the ones above). Click here to order it and start reading in minutes!
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