Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are as common as candy, a staple of every home medicine cabinet and tossed casually in desk drawers, purses, and briefcases. Many people take these drugs, which include ibuprofen (sold as Motrin and Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin, at the first sign of headache or muscle cramps — and they are a daily ritual for many arthritis sufferers.
But few people realize that NSAIDs carry a black-box warning, the strictest warning issued by the Food and Drug Administration. “Most people think that the government or FDA would not allow something dangerous on the market, especially since most of them are over-the-counter and [used] without a prescription,” says integrative medicine expert Sunil Pai, MD, author of An Inflammation Nation. “A black-box warning is the FDA’s attempt to let you know that you can end up in a casket if you are unlucky enough to suffer one of a medication’s serious reactions.”
Not only have NSAIDs been linked to a slew of serious side effects, including ulcers, hearing loss, allergic reactions and miscarriages, but they can actually worsen some of the conditions, such as arthritis, they are supposed to help.
“The scientific literature makes it abundantly clear that NSAIDs…have a significant negative effect on cartilage,” which accelerates the deterioration of arthritic joints, says Pai. “NSAIDs have no beneficial effect on [cartilage] and accelerate the very disease for which they are most used and prescribed.”
Even worse, NSAIDs do not address the underlying conditions that cause pain and inflammation, such as a leaky gut, and can even exacerbate them. Stress, infections, alcohol, and a poor diet can all irritate the gut lining and lead to a leaky gut, but so can NSAIDs.
“If you use a full therapeutic dose of NSAIDs for two weeks, there is a 75 percent chance you will develop a leaky gut that doesn’t go away when you stop taking the drug, Leo Galland, MD, tells Experience Life magazine.
So, how can people with acute or chronic inflammatory conditions fight pain naturally? Some simple dietary interventions go a long way towards fighting inflammation and healing a leaky gut:
Try an Elimination Diet
Removing common foods that can irritate the gut, including gluten, sugar, dairy, processed foods and soy, can jumpstart the healing process. Sugar (and refined grains, which turn to sugar in the body), for example, is one of the single biggest drivers of inflammation and its downstream consequences. When sugar cravings strike, try roasting root vegetables or sweet potatoes. Roasting concentrates the natural sweetness of the plant, but the fiber slows down sugar absorption in the bloodstream.
Eat Whole Foods
Michael Pollen’s recommendation – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – is great advice when it comes to naturally fighting inflammation. Eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) — high in processed foods, unhealthy fats, and sugars — is like pouring kerosene on inflammation’s fire. Eating whole foods, rich in phytonutrients, helps put out that fire. One fun way to eat more plants? Strive to “eat the rainbow,” or get at least one whole food from all the different colors of the rainbow each day: red (pomegranates, strawberries, tomatoes); orange (sweet potatoes, carrots); yellow (lemon, squash); green (avocado, Brussels sprouts, green tea); blue/purple (berries, olives); white/tan/brown (garlic, onion, mushrooms). Animal protein doesn’t need to be avoided if it’s grass-fed and pastured. Instead, try to reverse the ratio on your dinner plate: Make meat the side dish and vegetables the main course.
Supplement with Glutamine
Glutamine helps heal your gut by fueling the cells in your gut lining. You could think of it as a leaky gut superhero. “Glutamine heals the intestinal lining more than any other nutrient,” Liz Lipski, PhD, CCN, author of Digestive Wellness, tells Experience Life.
Get Your Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are natural inflammation fighters. Good whole food sources of omega-3s include wild-caught fish, grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, algae, and seeds such as hemp, chia, and flax. A high-quality omega-3 supplement is also worth considering. Even on a largely whole-foods-based it can be hard to get the recommended daily amount of omega-3s.
Drink Bone Broth
Bone broth is one of the best natural sources of collagen, a protein found in abundance in our ligaments, tendons, bones, and skin. The collagen in broth is easily absorbed by our tissues and can not only help promote healthier connective tissue and ease joint pain, it can also help heal a leaky gut. The best bone broth is homemade, but increasingly high-quality bone broth is available for purchase at cooperatives and health food stores.
Consider Botanical First Aid
Many plants are powerful inflammation fighters. Turmeric may be the best known and most studied. Recent research suggests that the active ingredient in turmeric (called curcumin) has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities on par with commonly prescribed arthritis drugs like Enbrel and Humira. A lot of other plants and plant compounds show similar activity in the body, including ginger, bromelain (an enzyme found in pineapple), capsaicin (the active ingredient in hot peppers), and ginger. Consult your healthcare practitioner before taking botanical supplements.
Laine Bergeson is a longtime health journalist and functional nutrition educator and coach with Healthful Elements. She believes lifestyle medicine is a blockbuster drug.