- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can do you more harm than good.
- NSAIDs can damage your gut lining, wreck your gut bacteria, and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
- There are better ways to hack pain and inflammation. Some of your best natural pain relief options are cryotherapy, compresses, herbal remedies like curcumin and Boswellia, PEMF therapy, and TENS.
- NSAIDs are not the best way to deal with pain or inflammation. You have a lot of other natural options. Try them and see what works for you.
My road to discovering natural pain relief was a long one. Years ago, when I was inflamed and weighed 300 pounds, my doctors said I should take NSAIDs (think aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen) every day. A lot of mainstream doctors suggest ibuprofen or aspirin for managing chronic pain and inflammation.
I didn’t know any better at the time, so I followed their advice and took ibuprofen daily. It wrecked my gut, stressed my liver, and destroyed my sleep.
I’m not saying NSAIDs are useless. They have their place. If you’re recovering from surgery or a major injury, traditional over-the-counter pain relievers are good for controlling inflammation, swelling, and pain, but NSAIDs are far too powerful for over-the-counter, everyday use. Unlike a lot of natural pain relievers, NSAIDs also don’t address the cause of inflammation or pain; they just mask the symptoms.
If your doctor suggests you take an NSAID long-term, I would look for a functional medicine doctor and get a second opinion. There are safer, natural pain relief options to deal with chronic inflammation and pain.
Ahead, I discuss the downsides to NSAIDs, and offer my go-to natural pain relievers for inflammation that you can use instead of popping ibuprofen or aspirin.
Why natural pain relievers are better for you
1. Ibuprofen, aspirin, and other NSAIDs damage your gut lining
When I was taking NSAIDs for pain management every day, my gut was the first place I felt them. After a little research, I figured out why. It turns out NSAIDs damage your gut in two ways.
The first is that inflammation-lowering NSAIDs destroy your gut lining. Check the bottle of ibuprofen or aspirin in your medicine cabinet. You’ll see it right on the label: “NSAIDs such as ibuprofen may cause ulcers, bleeding, or holes in the stomach and/or intestine.” Long-term low-dose aspirin use is particularly likely to cause ulcers and tear holes in your intestine.
NSAIDs work by blocking prostaglandins, hormone-like compounds that stimulate inflammation. But prostaglandins do a lot more than control inflammation, and one of their most important roles is protecting your gut and stomach lining.
When NSAIDs block prostaglandins, they also rob your gut of much-needed protection and the lining starts to break down, which can give you leaky gut syndrome. Your intestines become permeable, letting food and other molecules slip into your bloodstream and cause massive inflammation. Leaky gut can also lead to autoimmune issues.
Traditional wisdom says that NSAID pain relievers only damage your gut lining if you take them every day for a long time, but recent research disagrees. High-level athletes with stress-related intestinal damage tried taking ibuprofen to improve muscle soreness and recovery. Ibuprofen ended up damaging their gut lining even further after just a couple weeks; it increased inflammation and made their original pain issues worse. In fact, a single dose of aspirin can significantly increase your intestinal permeability.
This is one of the big reasons I avoid NSAIDs altogether. Using them even once can cause problems. If you’re coming out of surgery or have a major injury, it may be worth the risk, but they’re way too strong for chronic pain management or everyday aches and pains.
If you’re worried that you have leaky gut or intestinal damage (from NSAIDs or anything else), you can use this guide to repair your gut and boost your beneficial gut bacteria.
2. NSAIDs feed bad gut bacteria
NSAIDs don’t just damage your gut lining. They affect your gut bacteria, too. A study of regular users found that different NSAIDs caused different changes in gut bacteria. Ibuprofen and arthritis drug celecoxib (Celebrex), for example, increased pathogenic Enterobacteriaceae, a family of bacteria that includes E. coli, Salmonella, and a number of lesser-known bacteria that contribute to eye, skin, respiratory, and urinary tract infections.
NSAIDs damage your gut lining and feed bad bacteria at the same time. That’s not good.
3. NSAIDs put you at high risk for heart attack and stroke
NSAID pain relievers can also damage your heart — so much so that the FDA issued a long warning back in 2005, and strengthened the warning in 2015.
Researchers estimate that COX-2 NSAIDs (a specific type that is no longer legal) caused 140,000 heart attacks during their five years on the market, which led to a deeper study of ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, and other longer-standing NSAIDs used for pain and inflammation.
The FDA specifically warns that risk of heart attack and stroke increases significantly within the first week of taking an NSAID, and it gets worse the longer you take it, even if you have no heart problems to begin with.
Why this stuff is still available over-the-counter puzzles me. It’s very rare that the FDA issues warnings about drugs, then strengthens those warnings, but doesn’t change their legality.
Regardless, NSAIDs are bad news, and you shouldn’t take them to manage pain. Here’s the natural pain relief biohacks I recommend instead.
5 best natural pain relief hacks to use instead of NSAIDs
Instead of ibuprofen or aspirin, I use these natural pain relief biohacks to keep my inflammation low. Give them a try. You will be surprised by how good you feel.
Sudden and intense cold exposure makes you release cold-shock proteins, a special class of proteins that decrease inflammation and speed up recovery. To get the benefits of cold therapy, you can take an ice bath or use a cryotherapy chamber, like the one at Bulletproof Labs. Cryotherapy’s benefits go far beyond inflammation, too. Get a full breakdown of how cryotherapy upgrades your biology.
Related: 4 Minutes to Perfect Posture and Less Pain
When it comes to natural pain relief, sometimes the basics are the best. The temperature change from hot to cold and back again triggers anti-inflammatory heat-shock and cold-shock proteins (yeah, there’s a heat version, too), and the compression decreases blood flow to injuries, which keeps inflammation and swelling down.
Curcumin and other herbal painkillers
Curcumin is the bioactive compound in turmeric that gives the herb its healing properties. It’s one of the safest anti-inflammatories you can take, and is an effective natural pain reliever too — even for severe pain. In fact, curcumin matches or outperforms ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and other over-the-counter painkillers without any side effects.
Turmeric root contains just 2% to 5% curcumin, so when reaching for a supplement, be sure you’re buying curcumin, not powered turmeric root. Curcumin is not easily absorbed by the digestive tract, so choose high-potency curcuminoids and combine with oil, since curcumin is fat-soluble. Black pepper extract (piperine), though not Bulletproof, has also been shown to increase curcumin’s bioavailability by 2000%. However, some newer, high-tech curcuminoid formulas have been shown to offer the same potency levels without the use of piperine.
Combine curcumin with other anti-inflammatory compounds for an even stronger effect. The best-researched ones are ginger, Boswellia, and Stephania tetranda.
Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF)
Physical therapists use PEMF to heal fractures and torn cartilage faster, and surgeons recommend it as a post-op way to minimize soft tissue inflammation. I use it to recover from workouts faster and keep inflammation low. PEMF machines send electromagnetic pulses through your tissue, gently stimulating anti-inflammatory and repair compounds.
You can get PEMF therapy at a physical therapist’s or chiropractor’s office. It costs between $30 to $60 per session. Or, you can get PEMF equipment to use at home, but be prepared to pay. The cheapest PEMF mats go for $1,300 or more.
Related: The Science Behind PEMF Therapy and How It Can Fix Your Pain Naturally
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
TENS is another powerful biohack for pain and inflammation. It’s similar to PEMF, but uses electricity. TENS sends a mild electrical current through muscle and soft tissue, stimulating repair compounds and pain-relieving endorphins. Bonus hack: you can also use TENS on your brain to make you more mentally resilient to stress.
Do you have any go-to biohacks for pain or inflammation? Any bad experiences with NSAIDs? I want to hear about your natural pain remedies in the comments. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe below for more biohacking advice.