15+ Anti-inflammatory Herbs and Spices for Health and Pain Relief

By Val Silver

Anti-inflammatory herbs have a long history of cooling the flames of chronic inflammation throughout the body and easing discomfort caused by injury, overuse, and physical conditions. Some of these herbal pain remedies are proving to be as effective as pharmaceuticals in clinical studies. 

These herbs and spices have not only proven helpful for pain relief, they have shown themselves as effective fighters of chronic inflammation. This on-going condition is implicated as a cause of everything from premature aging to obesity to lifestyle diseases such as cancer. 

One of the best things you can do for your health is to incorporate herbs, spices, foods and habits into your daily life that keep the fires of chronic inflammation at bay. 

What Causes Inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural part of your body's healing process. 

Acute inflammation  occurs with a trauma or injury to your body that needs to be healed. Long-term chronic inflammation occurs and lingers when your body is under some kind of distress.

Pathogens are another cause of inflammation. For example, borrelia, the spirochete responsible for Lyme Disease infection, purposely activates multiple cytokines to create inflammation. Your immune cells (and others) use cytokines to communicate with each other in order to regulate and activate immune responses. Borrelia capitalizes on these cytokines to infiltrate its way through the body and feast on broken down tissue.

Inhibiting the activation of these pathways may well be the new frontier of modern medicine. Control inflammation and you control the spread of opportunistic pathogens and damage caused by-itis conditions. Itis means inflammation.

What is Acute Inflammation?

Acute inflammation occurs when hormone-like substances called prostaglandins activate the acute inflammatory response. This affects many body functions including smooth muscle contraction and relaxation, blood vessel dilation, and inflammation. 

When this happens, your immune system springs into action to minimize tissue destruction. Immune cells gobble up invaders and clear debris. You may experience pain, heat, redness and swelling as tissues become more permeable and blood supply increases. 

Depending on the severity of the injury, symptoms of this healing process begin to resolve in a day or two. In the meantime, over the counter and prescription NSAIDS work well to ease symptoms, but not without cost to your health. Even short term use can cause gastro-intestinal upsets, increase risk of heart attack, and damage your kidneys and liver. Risks increase with higher doses and/or continued use.

Herbal pain remedies and anti-inflammatory herbs along with periods of icing the area may be better choices for the first two days after the injury occurred. Consult your medical provider if you have extreme pain or a suspected serious injury. 

A few words about fevers. This is one way your immune system wages war on infections. Don't be too quick to normalize your temperature with drugs unless the fever goes too high. The Mayo clinic suggests not medicating fevers 102 degrees and under in otherwise healthy adults. See guidelines here. A cold cloth on the forehead makes coping with fever-induced head pain more bearable.

What Causes Chronic Inflammation?

Chronic inflammation often develops when your inflammatory response goes awry due to some kind of stress. This stress may be due to toxins and heavy metals (especially mercury and aluminum), mental stress, poor diet or excess weight. For example, too much daily stress causes your body tissues to become less sensitive to inflammation regulating cortisol. Enlarged fat cells release pro-inflammatory proteins.

When unchecked, being inflamed eventually damages your cells. Sometimes this process continues for many years before its harmful health effects become obvious. Many degenerative diseases such as arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease and others have chronic inflammation as a contributing factor.

Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices can help calm chronic and acute flare ups to ease your pain and guard your health from its harmful effects.

Anti-inflammatory Spices

Many culinary herbs and spices act as herbal pain remedies because they help reduce inflammation. You can keep your fires in check and add flavor to your food by including herbs and spices from the list below liberally in your diet.  

Combinations of non-culinary anti-inflammatory herbs and spices used in herbal pain remedies are more medicinal in nature than those used in foods. Blends ingested as teas, tinctures, and capsules can be particularly effective because they work in synergy to calm your nervous system, block pain signals and cool inflammation. 

For chronic pain conditions, often termed an -itis (meaning inflammation), try a two pronged approach. Orally take slower acting herbs daily and use fast-acting remedies such as menthol or capsaicin cream in the troublesome area for immediate symptom relief. 

herbal pain remedies

Turmeric

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an antioxidant rich anti-inflammatory spice backed by a multitude of studies for its anti-tumor activity and other potent health benefits. Turmeric is helpful for achy joints. Add this potent yellow powder found in curry to food with a little black pepper to aid absorption. The curcumin in turmeric is often extracted as the active part of the plant, but it turns out the whole plant should be used.

Curcumin fights inflammation in two ways. It stops the production of chemicals that cause the inflammatiory response and its anti-oxidants neutralize free radicals that cause oxidative stress. Turmeric also stimulates the body to produce four of its own detoxifying and free radical fighting enzymes including superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione. Curcumin inhibits IFN-a, hyaluronidase and aggrecanase to protect collagenous tissues from breaking down.

Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) is a favorite in liniments and creams for providing quick relief for arthritis, shingles, lower back, neck, and nerve pain. Keep away from eyes and broken skin because it stings! 

Hot pepper works by directly interfering with pain perception. It depletes the neurotransmitter that signals chronic pain while triggering feel good endorphins. It also improves range of motion.

A dash of cayenne taken internally helps relieve uncomfortable gas and indigestion, as well as sinus congestion and headaches. It increases circulation, which can help with pain.

Cinnamon and Cloves

These two culinary favorites can be added to food and beverages for their inflammation-reducing qualities.

Cloves are a well-known folk remedy for toothaches. Crushed buds or a drop of clove oil help numb tooth and gum pain and kill bacteria. Clove massage oil eases arthritis pain and muscle spasms. Make a steam inhalation of clove oil for respiratory inflammation or take a few sniffs straight from the bottle. 

Cinnamon is a delicious anti-inflammatory spice. This beloved culinary spice helps digestive issues such as gas, diarrhea and colic. Research supports its use as a blood sugar controller because it helps with insulin sensitivity and glucose transport while decreasing inflammation. Therapeutic doses are between 1/2 teaspoon to a tablespoon. Enjoy sprinkled in food and tea. 

Sprinkle both spices into baked goods, onto eggnog, or into a cup of tea for their medicinal value and for flavor.  Let your taste buds be your guide. 

Ginger

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a warming spice commonly used in cooking and digestive teas. This anti-inflammatory spice eases cramps, painful joints, headaches and tendonitis. It improves circulation and quells motion sickness. 

Ginger works by inhibits the pro-inflammatory TNF-a and NF-kB cytokine pathways. 

Raw ginger can be ingested raw in juices and smoothies, cooked into a stir fry. Soak finely chopped or shredded ginger in hot water for several minutes to make a tea. Infuse it in honey for a few weeks to make a delicious honey. Peel extra ginger and store whole pieces in the freezer. 

Powdered ginger can be used in all the same ways, but it is less potent and hotter so use less in teas and recipes. 

For significant relief drink 3-4 cups of ginger tea a day or take up to 4000 mg as a supplement. Use raw or powdered ginger. If you don't mind the hot taste, you might enjoy ginger candy. I love how it warms my body right up.

Best Anti-inflammatory Herbs for Pain

Anti-inflammatory herbs are powerful allies against pain and inflammation when used properly. Always read the herbal profile before taking medicinal herbs to verify that they match your need and that they are safe to use if you are taking medications or have an upcoming medical procedure. A number of herbs interact with medication and increase circulation, which can cause excess bleeding during a surgery. 

Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspdatum) is a potent broad spectrum anti-inflammatory herb. It remodulates multiple cytokine pathways including IL-8, IDO, MMP-9, IL-1b, and CD40 and inhibits pathways that cause breakdown of collagen and cartilage.

This plant is active against several gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. It is anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-cancer. Japanese knotweed protects and relaxes the nervous system, protects the heart, and protects the brain from microbial toxins and inflammatory damage. 

Japanese knotweed is one of the main anti-inflammatory herbs recommended by herbalist Stephen Buhner for Lyme disease because it modulates inflammation pathways used by the pathogen. 

Cordyceps

Cordyceps is a fungus (think mushroom) typically grown on caterpillars in China. (Gross, I know). If you can get past that, you will find  it a valuable ally against inflammation. It inhibits multiple cytokines including ERK, JNK, TNF-a, and IL-1b.

Cordyceps helps the body produce and balance stress hormones, including cortisol, making it a helpful adaptogen during times of mental and physical stress. It increases production of superoxide dismutase (SOD), antioxidants, catalase and glutathione in muscles, serum and the liver while reducing oxidative stress. It has a positive effect on mood, memory and insulin secretion. 

The suggested dose of this medicinal food  is six grams a day as a tonic for acute conditions. Add the powder to soups and stews. 

Green Tea and Menthol

Green Tea (Camillia sinensis) is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. Each cup contains approximately 100 mg of EGCG. (400-800 mg consumed throughout the day is considered a therapeutic dose) Green tea has shown promise as an appetite suppressant, cancer inhibitor, headache remedy, liver protector and anti-inflammatory. It inhibits several pathways including IL-8, ERK, and MMMP-9.  Don't overdo if you have a malfunctioning thyroid. Choose organic to avoid contaminants.

Menthol is a compound found in peppermint, spearmint, and other members of the mint family. It is a common ingredient in topical pain relief products because it numbs pain sensations and increases circulation. Not one of the anti-inflammatory herbs per se, menthol works by sending a cooling signal to the brain. 

The cooling properties of mints can be enjoyed in candies, gum, beverages, and tea. Mint green tea is a tasty combination. 

Fennel Seed and Rosemary

anti inflammatory herbs

Fennel seed and rosemary are culinary herbs that flavor food while providing medicinal benefits.

Fennel seed relieves pain and spasms, making it especially good for menstrual cramps and colic. 

While living in Germany, I remember seeing grocery store shelves filled with boxes of fennel tea. It was freely given to colicky babies and drunk to aid digestion and quell digestive pain. Fennel has a light licorice flavor.

You might also enjoy roasting nutritious fennel bulbs or cutting them up and adding to soups and stews.

Toss in a few cloves of chopped garlic for even more benefits. Yummy.

Rosemary is a hyaluronidase inhibitor, meaning it prevents the breakdown of cartilage and collagenous tissues. Rosemary is rich in antioxidants and has the added bonus of clearing the head and improving concentration. Use it in cooking for added benefits. Use rosemary oil externally for muscle pain. 

Saint John's Wort

anti inflammatory herbs

Saint John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the anti-inflammatory herbs with many actions. It improves mild depression and relaxes the nervous system to quiet pain.

When you feel anxious and depressed, St Johns Wort is a good herb to incorporate into your herbal pain remedies.  Take this herb internally as a tincture for muscle and nerve pain. You can also massage the area gently with a blend of Saint John's Wort oil, arnica, and lavender essential oil. 

Note: Saint John's Wort increases sun sensitivity and interacts with MAO inhibitors and other medications. Limit your sun exposure and ask your medical provider if this herb is safe for you if you are on medication. 

Skullcap

herbs for pain relief

Skullcap (Scutellaria) tincture or tea soothes chronic and acute pain of muscle spasms, tension headaches and fibromyalgia by relaxing your nervous system.  It is thought to work by stimulating GABA,  a neurotransmitter that inhibits impulses between the brain and nerve cells. 

Try skullcap when experiencing anxious feelings and sleeplessness because of pain.

When you are troubled with painful tense muscles, take anti inflammatory herbs along with relaxing herbs such as hops, passionflower, chamomile, valerian, kava kava, green tea, and/or catnip.

Scutellaria baicalensis (Chinese skullcap) modulates multiple cytokine pathways including IL-6, CCL2, and TNF-a. Concerns have been raised that Chinese skullcap may cause liver toxicity.  Whether skullcap caused these rare instances of liver injury or they were caused by the significant addition of adulterants (germander) and mislabeling of the product is unclear. 

Devil's Claw, Boswellia, and Willowbark

Devils's claw root (Harpagophytum procumbens) is one nature's analgesic anti-inflammatory herbs. Its dual action as an herbal pain reliever and inflammation fighter eases muscle pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulder, and back and arthritis pain in the hips and knees. Allow a few weeks at doses up to 250 mg, three times a day, to experience significant results.

Boswellia (Boswellia serrata) and Willow Bark (Salix spp.) are two anti inflammatory herbs shown to work as well as NSAIDS. They are often found in herbal pain remedies.

Willow Bark naturally supplies salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Australian researchers rated it just as effective as Vioxx, minus the side effects.

Boswellia, commonly known as frankincense, is an ancient Ayurevedic herb that is shown to turn off pro-inflammatory cytokines and mediators. It helps with sports injuries, arthritis, irritable bowel, rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune conditions. Bioavailability tends to be poor, but is improved when taken with a high fat meal.

Black Cohosh and Feverfew

Black Cohosh provides herbal pain relief for ovarian or menstrual cramps while balancing a woman's reproductive system. It is also quite valuable for muscle aches and the pains of rheumatism, arthritis, sciatica and neuralgia.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) reduces how often you get headaches and how severe they are. Feverfew helps prevent migraines when taken regularly. I find it works beautifully with Kava kava as a tea when you drink it at the first signs of headache.


Anti-inflammatory herbs and natural pain supplements can be a helpful part of your holistic approach to pain relief. They can make symptoms of acute inflammation easier to bear. Used alone, or better yet, in combination with techniques such as targeted exercise and stress relief, herbal pain remedies help you significantly reduce pain.

When you control chronic inflammation through healthy living habits and anti inflammatory herbs and spices, you lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, auto-immune disease and more. 

Related Pages

Sources: 

Anti-inflammatory herbs page updated 10/2019

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