Herbal Pain Relief

Willow bark, boswellia, and cherry make an excellent herbal mix for reducing occasional pain resulting from muscle overuse and exercise.

Willow Bark

Willow bark is the original source of aspirin, but when used as the entire herb it has been found to be much safer and is often more effective. Like aspirin and Celebrex, the active ingredient is salicin, and it acts as a COX (cyclooxygenase enzyme) inhibitor, decreasing inflammation. Yet, unlike these medications, willow bark does not cause gastritis (stomach irritation) or ulcer bleeding. (See Willow Bark for more information.)


Boswellia Serrata, also known as Frankincense, has been found to be quite helpful in treating inflammation and pain and it also does this without causing ulcers, like aspirin family medications often do. It has been shown in studies to be helpful for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. It also can be very helpful for colitis and asthma. (See Boswellia for more information.)


Cherry fruit (Prunus cerasus) also contains compounds which inhibit COX-1 (inflammation) and possesses both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Many people find that simply eating 10 to 20 cherries a day helps relieve their arthritis considerably. Research even suggests that cherry fruit may also inhibit Colon and perhaps other cancers.

Although these herbs often help in minutes, the effect increases at one week and even more at 6 weeks. They can be taken with pain medications, and after 6 weeks you can ask your physician to lower the dose of the medications (and you can lower the dose of the herbs as well). (See Cherry for more information.)


An amazing leap forward in herbal medicine has been the development of a very highly absorbed form of curcumin (turmeric), called "BCM 95." This has increased absorption over the previous best products by 693%, meaning 1 capsule replaces 7 old ones.

Over 1,000 studies show curcumin to be a very promising herb. What really caught my attention was that we were getting some near miraculous reports of pain relief from many people who had suffered for years. We have worked with a number of helpful herbal and natural treatments for pain, and though many have been very helpful, we have never seen anything as dramatically effective as herbal formulationss based on curcumin. If you have pain — whether from fibromyalgia, tendonitis, or basically any cause — get a bottle, take 1 tablet 3x a day for 3-6 weeks or until the pain is gone (whichever comes first, then you can usually lower the dose). Be prepared to be wowed!

A Good Mix

An outstanding natural mix for helping relieve most kinds of occasional pain include a combination of a highly absorbable form of curcumin, Boswellia, DL phenylalanine (DLP A — an amino acid that helps raise levels of your natural pain fighters called endorphins), and Nattokinase, which breaks down clots so that these essential nutrients and herbs can get where they are needed.

Insomnia and Pain

Unfortunately, insomnia often accompanies pain. The good news is that many natural remedies that are very effective for sleep also directly help pain. My favorites are:

  • Wild Lettuce. Traditionally, wild lettuce has been found to be wonderful for anxiety and insomnia, as well as for headaches, muscles, and joint pain. Wild lettuce also helps to calm restlessness and reduce anxiety.
  • Jamaican Dogwood. The extract acts as a muscle relaxant and also helps people to fall asleep while calming them.34 According to tradition, Jamaican dogwood was used by Jamaican fishermen. Large amounts were thrown in the water. The fish would then be sedated and easy to net.
  • Hops. This is a member of the hemp family, and the female flowers are used in beer making. It also stimulates some hormonal activity; can suppress breast, colon, and ovarian cancer in test tube studies; and has been reported to reduce hot flashes in menopausal women. It also is associated with antibiotic and anti-fungal activity. It has a long history of being used as a mild sedative for anxiety and insomnia. A study using 120 mg of hops combined with 500 mg of valerian showed an improvement in insomnia with effectiveness similar to Valium® family medications. It is considered to be very safe.35
  • Passionflower (Passiflora). This excellent herb is used throughout South America as a calming agent and is even present in sodas. In fact, when one is anxious, it is not uncommon for their friends to tell them "why don’t you go get a passion flower drink." In addition to being used in the treatment of muscle spasms, herbalists have also used it to treat colic, dysentery, diarrhea, anxiety, and menstrual pain. A number of studies support its having a calming effect. Early data also suggests that it may increase men’s libidos. The active component is in the leaves.36 Passionflower has other pain management benefits as well. In one animal study, it was shown to decrease morphine tolerance and withdrawal, thereby improving morphine’s effectiveness and safety.37
  • Valerian. This is commonly used as a remedy for insomnia. One placebo-controlled study showed that people taking valerian (400 mg of extract each night for 2 weeks) fell asleep quicker and had better sleep quality without next-day sedation. Another placebo-controlled study using 450 and 900 mg doses for just 1 night also showed improved sleep, but there was some hangover with the higher dose. A number of other studies also show benefit, including an improvement in deep sleep. The benefits were most pronounced when people used it for extended periods as opposed to simply taking it for 1 night. Another study showed it to be as effective as a Valium family medication (Oxazepam®). A review of multiple studies found that "valerian is a safe herbal choice for the treatment of mild insomnia and has good tolerance. Most studies suggest that it is more effective when used continuously rather than as an acute sleep aid."38
  • Theanine. This comes from green tea and has been shown to improve deep sleep and to also help people maintain calm alertness during the day. Green tea also is helpful as an immune stimulant and has many other benefits.

Other Helpful Herbals

  • Ginger acts to decrease inflammation by inhibiting two key enzymes (cyclooxygenase and lipooxygenase with secondary leukotriene inhibition).46 Although studies suggest some benefit with arthritis, I consider the effect to be modest compared to curcumin, Boswellia, or willow bark.
  • Butterbur—development of standardized extracts of butterbur has led to a powerful new natural tool in both the prevention and treatment of migraine headaches. Two randomized placebo-controlled double-blind studies have found it to be effective. In the first study, 60 migraine patients received 50 mg of the butterbur twice a day. By the 12th week, there was a 60 percent decrease in the number of migraine attacks compared to the placebo group. A second study of 202 migraine patients, who were given 75 mg of butterbur twice a day, showed a 58 percent decrease at 3 months. The 100 mg a day group had a 42 percent decrease at 3 months. About 20 percent of people taking the Butterbur noted increased burping.47
  • St. John’s Wort is best known for its effectiveness in the treatment of depression. It has, however, also been found to be helpful in treating neuropathic pain. In one study using approximately 1,000 mg a day of St. John’s Wort for 5 weeks, approximately 20 percent of the subjects had a good response. The effect was modest however, not quite reaching statistical significance.48 This study is a good example of the difference between clinical and statistical significance. Although there was clinical benefit that justifies trying it in some refractory and severe cases, the number of patients in the study was small enough that the effect did not reach statistical significance. Because this treatment is safe, helps depression, and is inexpensive, it is worth a try — especially if other treatments have failed. For treating neuropathies, I would recommend taking 600 mg 3 times a day for 6 weeks. At that time you can decide whether the benefits justify staying on it.


34Fleming, T., ED. "Jamaica Dogwood" PDR for herbal medicines. 1998 pp 428 – 9.

35"Humulus Lupus," Monograph. Alternative Medicine Review, 8(2)2003.190 – 192.

36Cronin, J.R. "Passionflower—Reigniting Male Libido and Other Potential Uses." Alternative and Complementary Therapies, April 2003. pp 89 – 92.

37Dhawan, K., et al. "Reversal of Morphine Tolerance and Dependence by Passiflora Incarnata." Pharmaceutical Biology, 2002; 40 (8): 576 – 580.

38Hadley, S., et al. "Valerian." American Family Physician, 2003; 67 (8): 1755 – 1758.

39Blonstein, J.L. "Control of Swelling in Boxing Injuries." Practitioner, 1969; 203: 206.

40Donath, F., et al. "Dose related bioavailability of Bromelain and trypsin after repeated oral administration." Clin Pharm Therapy, 61,157 1997.

41Bailey, S.P. "Effects of protease supplementation on muscle soreness following downhill running." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May 1999; 31 (Five): a 214, S. 76.

42Ramirez-Bosca, A., et al. "Antioxidant curcuma extracts decrease the blood lipid peroxide levels of human subjects." Age, 18: 167-9, 1995.

43Arjun, R., et al. "Curcumin attenuates allergen induced airway hyper responsiveness in sensitized guinea pigs." Biol Pharm Bulletin, 26(7)1021 – 1024 (2003).

44Joe, B., et al. "Biological properties of curcumin-cellular and molecular mechanisms of action." Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 2004;44(2): 97 – 111.

45Cronin, J.R. "Old spice is a new medicine." The Biochemistry of Alternative Medicine in Alternative and Complementary Therapies, February 2003: 34 – 38.

46Chem Pharm Bulletin 1992; 40: 187 – 91.

47Brown, D.J. "Standardized butterburr extract for migraine treatment: a clinical overview." HerbalGram # 58, 2003 p19.

48Sindrup, S.H., et al. "St. John’s wort has no [statistically significant] effect on pain in polyneuropathy." Pain, 2001;91: 361 – 365.

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