Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
It can happen in an instant—you fall and twist your back or sprain your ankle getting out of an Uber. Maybe you wake up with a stabbing headache or are suddenly doubled over with sharp menstrual cramps.
Everyone deals with short-time pain at one point or another. While conventional options, including Advil, Tylenol, or Aleve, work in most cases, they also come with potentially serious side effects such as liver damage (Tylenol is notorious for this) and ulcers. Not to mention, most OTC drugs simply mask symptoms—they do nothing to heal underlying issues.
Why not explore natural alternatives? Specific herbs and vitamins are surprisingly effective when it comes to alleviating acute pain. Vitamins B6, B12, and vitamin D, Angelica root extract, acetyl-L-carnitine, L-theanine, caffeine, benfotiamine, corydalis, feverfew, butterbur, and magnesium top our list of remedies for acute pain. Read on to learn more about these standout natural pain relievers.
Vitamin D3 (as cholecalciferol): A deficiency of this essential vitamin is associated with inflammation and chronic pain, and some clinical research indicates taking vitamin D3 may reduce pain. In a study of more than 3,000 men, low vitamin D levels were associated with a 50 percent higher chance of suffering from “chronic widespread pain.” A separate study found that low vitamin D doubled the risk of chronic back pain in women. Meanwhile, a report in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine described six patients who had experienced severe back pain, two of whom who had undergone back surgery. All of the patients improved after taking 1,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily for at least three to six weeks.
Vitamin B6 (as pyridoxyl 5’ phosphate or P5P): This water-soluble vitamin is a cofactor in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, GABA, noradrenaline, and melatonin. “Studies show that lower levels of P5P in the body are associated with higher levels of inflammation,” says Jamie Langston, RN, BSN, CCRP, Chief Research Officer at LifeSeasons. Pyridoxyl 5’ phosphate is the active form of vitamin B6, which makes it easier to absorb.
Vitamin B12 (as methylcobalamin): This essential vitamin that is used to convert carbohydrates into fuel, maintain healthy nerve cells, make red blood cells, maintain the body’s genetic material, utilize iron, and produce compounds that affect the immune system and neurological function. Symptoms of a shortfall can include fatigue, weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, a sore mouth or tongue, neurological symptoms such as poor balance, depression, and poor memory—and pain. “Deficiencies have been known to cause neurological dysfunction and pain,” says Langston. “Vitamin B12 appears to support healthy nerve impulse conduction and the body’s process for repairing and regeneration of nerve tissues.” Methylcobalamin is the preferred active form of B12 (i.e., it’s easier for your body to absorb and utilize).
White Willow Bark Extract: This herb, which is chemically similar to aspirin, is a natural analgesic and anti-inflammatory aid with a low side-effect profile. “The flavonoids and polyphenols contained in white willow inhibit the release of prostaglandins—hormone-like compounds implicated in pain, inflammation, and swelling,” says Langston. “The herb does this by targeting COX (cyclooxygenase) enzymes.”
L-Tetrahydropalmatine: This ingredient is an alkaloid found in Corydalis and other plants. According to Langston, it has been demonstrated to possess analgesic effects.
Angelica Root Extract: The European cousin of dong-quai, angelica root has been shown to enhance the body’s pain threshold and boost the analgesic effect of L-Tetrahydropalmatine.
Acetyl L-Carnitine HCl: A form of the amino acid carnitine, acetyl-L-carnitine helps alleviate pain by helping to improve nerve fiber regeneration, says Langston. This supplement may be of particular benefit to people with fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by musculoskeletal pain. Italian doctors gave patients acetyl-L-carnitine orally (1,000-1,500 mg) daily over a period of 10 weeks, along with a single injection (500 mg). Subjects who received the treatment benefited from significant reductions in pain, compared with patients who were given placebos.
Caffeine (from Coffea arabica): “When used in combination with pain relievers, caffeine increases pain management,” says Langston.
L-Theanine: This naturally occurring amino acid, found in green tea and other foods, helps transmit nerve impulses and promotes a sense of calmness. Studies have found that 200–400 mg daily calms anxiety and other symptoms of stress. Additionally, it enhances the ability to focus, improves sleep, and quickens reaction time without unwanted daytime drowsiness.
Benfotiamine: “An analog of vitamin B1, Benfotiamine can help calm inflammation, and improve circulation,” says Langston.
Feverfew Leaf: A member of the sunflower family, feverfew is a centuries-old herb for headache pain. It’s used in health supplements to support blood vessel tone and nervous system health, says Langston. In some studies, feverfew extract significantly reduced migraine frequency and intensity.
Butterbur: This herb supports healthy blood flow in the head, to soothe respiratory irritation, and to calm the nervous system. A member of the daisy family, butterbur is one of the most effective natural remedies for migraines. In one study, butterbur extract reduced the number and severity of migraines by 50 percent.
Magnesium: This essential mineral promotes muscle and stress management. It’s involved in many enzymatic reactions in the body, and it’s particularly important for the muscles and nerves. Magnesium is a safe, effective muscle relaxant that’s helpful in treating both sports injuries and muscle pain from chronic stress.