Salmon and other fatty fish. Omega-3 fats in salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring reduce your body’s production of inflammation-producing biochemicals in your body and therefore calm your body’s overall pain response. Research shows that diets high in omega-3s can reduce pain from rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, migraine headaches and chronic muscle pain.
Make it work for you: For best results, aim for two-to-four meals a week of a fatty fish and cut back on pro-inflammatory saturated fats, trans-fats and corn and soy oils. It may take three months or more to begin to feel better, but stick with it and you will continue to improve for up to a year. If you take fish oil capsules, you’ll need at least 3,000 mg a day to start seeing pain relief.
Tart cherry juice. Powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins that give cherries their bright red color fight inflammation that can cause muscle and joint pain from strenuous exercise, osteoarthritis and gout. In one study, ultramarathoners who drank 10½ ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day recovered faster from their grueling 197-mile event.
Make it work for you: For normal aches and pains, doctors recommend eight ounces of juice or two tablespoons a day of tart cherry juice concentrate a day. Look for tart cherry juice or concentrate in the health foods sections of grocery stores. It’s made from Montmorency, or sour pie cherries, which have the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food, including blueberries, pomegranates and other fruits.
Ginger. Long used as a digestive aid, ginger is also a potent anti-inflammatory painkiller. It inhibits some of the same inflammation-causing biochemicals as ibuprofen and fish oil. In one study, nearly two-thirds of patients with chronic knee pain reported less soreness upon standing and walking, and needed less pain medication, after taking a ginger extract. Ginger may also ease post-workout pain.
Make it work for you:Two or three teaspoons a day of powdered or fresh ginger root is considered a therapeutic dose. You can take ginger capsules or add freshly grated ginger root to dishes like stir-fries and curries. Candied ginger slices and freshly-brewed ginger tea are also options. But don’t expect immediate results. Several weeks of treatment might be necessary before you see significant pain relief.
Turmeric. This mild yellow spice, related to ginger, is used in India to relieve pain and swelling, and to treat intestinal complaints. Modern-day research shows it is a powerful anti-inflammatory and can relieve the pain of rheumatoid arthritis as effectively as ibuprofen. It also seems to inhibit the destruction of joints from arthritis. A big plus–turmeric also fights cancer.
Make it work for you: Turmeric colors the dish called yellow rice, often served with red beans. It’s also in many Indian dishes. You can take it as capsules or as a tea. It’s best absorbed when eaten with some fat. Like ginger, you need two or three teaspoons a day of powdered turmeric–and it will take some months to see improvement.
Dark leafy greens. Kale, Swiss chard, deep-colored lettuces, and mustard and turnip greens are rich in magnesium, a mineral that relaxes muscles and blood vessels and improves blood flow. Magnesium helps post-exercise pain, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, angina, Raynaud’s syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome. An added bonus: It’s essential for energy production, so getting enough makes everything in your body work better!
Make it work for you: Magnesium is lacking in many processed foods. In addition to leafy greens, the best sources are beans and lentils, whole grains, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
Milk and other vitamin D-fortified foods. Many people with pain-related muscle and bone conditions such as chronic back pain and osteaoarthritis are low on vitamin D. Giving them supplemental vitamin D often improves their pain. In one study of people with back pain, all were found to have low levels of vitamin D. After taking vitamin D supplements for 3 months, symptoms improved in 95 percent, and allof the people with severe deficiency got back-pain relief.
Make it work for you: Higher-than-usual amounts are often needed to achieve the blood levels of vitamin D associated with pain relief. Fortified foods, usually dairy products and cereals, and cod liver oil, are the best sources. But most people don’t get all the vitamin D they need from foods, and often don’t get enough from sunlight exposure, so supplements are the way to go. Most adults can safely take 2,000-4,000 IUs a day, or even more, but’s good to check with your doctor for the amount that’s best for you. Use vitamin D3, the activated form.