When we talk about pain from an integrative medicine approach, there are many factors to consider. Nutrition is among one of the most important. Eating healthy whole foods can decrease inflammation to provide natural pain relief. Whereas, the wrong foods, can promote inflammation and increase pain.
But it’s not quite as simple as changing up the food on your plate. It also largely depends on the nutrients your body is absorbing. Digestive health, including the health of your microbiome, can affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food that you eat. As a result, we see micronutrient deficiencies more regularly even though people may be eating a lot of food. Micronutrient deficiencies contribute to chronic illness, poor healing and increased pain.
A multivitamin can act like an insurance policy for your overall health, but they do not replace food. Beyond that, you can get a bit more specific with your symptoms and get a blood test done by your doctor to determine any deficiencies you might have.
Vitamins and Minerals for Natural Pain Relief
Research tells us that the five nutrients below are commonly associated with issues of chronic pain when low. However, it’s always best to work with your personal practitioner before starting a supplementation regime to ensure the dosages and nutrients are appropriate for your health.
1. Vitamin D
Living in the northern hemisphere, vitamin D deficiencies are extremely common. They’re also common in chronic pain populations across the globe1. Deficiencies are linked to body-wide inflammation as well as a weakened immune system.
Vitamin D is classified as a fat soluble vitamin, but internally it acts just like a hormone. It’s used in a number of bodily systems and cells making it essential for your overall health. In studies, Vitamin D has been shown to improve muscular strength2, as well as provide natural pain relief.
You likely get the majority of your vitamin D from the sun, but certain times of year depending where you live can make it difficult. Low levels are more common in the elderly, the obese and those with darker skin tones. If you’re supplementing with vitamin D, look for vitamin D3 as opposed to D2. It’s more readily absorbed by the body. Taking 1000-2000 IU is generally recognized as safe for a daily dose.
Magnesium deficiencies are among one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in America. It plays a role in over 300 metabolic reactions in the body and is essential for collagen production, bone density, nerve firing, and muscle relaxation.
Despite being common, it’s not always easy to pinpoint a deficiency. Blood tests alone can’t accurately determine where your levels stand. Magnesium is stored in your bones and your muscles, so while these storage areas may become depleted, your blood results may appear normal.
Symptoms rather, can help to determine magnesium needs. Leg cramps at night, high blood pressure, constipation, cardiac arrhythmias and even fibromyalgia can point to a need for supplementation.
The best forms to supplement with include chelated magnesium or magnesium glycinate, citrate and ascorbate based on their absorption rates. How much you use depends on your body. Magnesium can be taken up to bowel tolerance – meaning until you experience loose stool. The amount it takes to get there can vary significantly from person to person. If you experience loose stool, reduce your dosage.
Regular supplementation of magnesium can be extremely beneficially for natural pain relief. It can help reduce inflammation, muscle cramps, spasm, and myofascial tightness. Magnesium can even reduce migraine frequency and improve sleep.
3. Vitamin C
How much vitamin C you need varies each and every day based on your stress levels, exercise, injury or illness. It plays an important role in the production of neurotransmitters, bone and collagen, all of which are essential for your physical and psychological health. This water soluble vitamin is also responsible for tissue repair and helping your body adapt to stress.
Signs of deficiency include a weakened immune system, swollen or bleeding gums, dry or red scaly skin or nosebleeds and bruising.
You can often get enough vitamin C from food, but it is however easily lost from oxidation and heat. The best way to ensure your diet is rich in vitamin C is to eat raw vegetables and fruit. Avoiding smoking is also important, since cigarettes can deplete the body of vitamin C3.
For supplementing vitamin C, 2000mg per day is considered a moderate dose. Dividing your dosages may also help since it’s water soluble.
4. B Vitamins
B vitamins are essential for energy production and detoxification. They help to maintain neurologic health, and support various aspects of muscular function. Vitamin B12 in particular has been associated with neurological dysfunction and chronic pain.
For the most part you’ll get your B vitamins from food including vegetables and whole grains. The bacteria in your microbiome can also make B vitamins, so if your gut is healthy, you’ll be less likely to experience a deficiency.
B12 is the exception when it comes to diet, as you’ll need to get it from animal-based foods such as meat, eggs or dairy. For proper absorption, B12 is reliant on healthy stomach acid and intrinsic factor – a protein released from your stomach cells. If you follow a vegan diet, or just don’t get enough from food, supplementation is your best choice. Look for methylcobalamin in a sublingual form for optimal bioavailability.
Absorption of B12 declines with age and can also be impacted by the use of antacids or prescription PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) for acid reflux. If you think you might be deficient, you can get your levels tested through a blood test with the help of your doctor.
5. Omega 3 Fats
Omega 3 fats are a type of essential fatty acid that helps to reduce inflammation in the body. They activate anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, a group of fats with hormone-like effects that help to repair tissue damage. Omega 3 fats have been researched for headaches and rheumatoid arthritis. They have been shown to provide natural pain relief and reduce the need for pain-killing medications.
Since your body can’t make omega-3s you need to get them from food or supplementation.
Food sources of omega 3 fatty acids include cold water fish, algae, and nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds or chia seeds. Fish is generally recognized as a better source because it contains the converted forms of omega-3 as EPA and DHA.
In plant-based sources of omega-3 your body will have to make the conversion itself, which can be affected by a number of other factors. However, if you’re supplementing with plant-based omega-3 from algae, you’ll have no problem getting DHA, though your body will still have to convert the EPA.
For natural pain relief, you want to look for 3000-4000mg combined of EPA and DHA. It can usually be found easily within 6000-8000 mg of fish oil.
Chew on this
Supplementing with nutrients that you’re deficient in can help to provide natural pain relief and improve your overall wellbeing. However, supplementation should never be considered a replacement for a healthy diet. If you’re concerned about possible deficiencies, I recommend consulting with your healthcare practitioner prior to supplementation. Integrative medicine doctors or naturopaths are great resources that can help you find the right dosage for your needs.
- Al Faraj S, Al Mutairi K. Vitamin D deficiency and chronic low back pain in Saudi Arabia. Spine. 2003;28(2):177–179. doi:10.1097/00007632-200301150-00015.
- de Torrente de la Jara G. Musculoskeletal pain in female asylum seekers and hypovitaminosis D3. BMJ. 2004;329(7458):156–157. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7458.156.