If you are one of the millions of Americans dealing with excruciating back pain every day, you have probably tried over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers, perhaps along with chiropractic adjustments, physical therapy, or steroid injections, or maybe you have even considered risky back surgery in an attempt to get rid of the pain. There is a better, safer way.
In this Terry Talks Nutrition®, we’re going to look at the nutrients that can reduce inflammation, rebuild cushioning cartilage, and give you lasting relief from low back pain.
The Lower Back—Complex and Easily Damaged
When we think of the back, we normally think of the spine – the centerpiece of the entire structure. But of course, there’s much more to it than that. The back comprises all of the muscles, ribs, nerve endings, cartilage and blood vessels that work in unison to carry us through the day.
The spine is a stack of 30 vertebrae—round bones with a central opening for the spinal cord—that extend from the base of the skull. The spinal cord contains a bundle of nerves that run from the brain to nearly all other parts of the body. Between the vertebrae are discs made of cushioning cartilage that keep us flexible and absorb shocks. The ligaments and tendons along the spinal column attach muscles to the spine and hold the vertebrae in their proper positions. When these cushioning disks rupture or move out of place due to lower back injury or strain, pain—sometimes extreme—is the result.
The resulting scar tissue from torn or injured muscles or discs is never quite as strong or mobile as the original healthy tissue, and that can set up more back injuries to follow.
The problem with conventional treatments for lower back pain (outside of the obvious complications of surgery for severe cases) is that over-the-counter and prescription pain medications cause a number of risky side effects, including severe damage to your stomach lining, liver, kidneys, and heart. Fortunately, there are safe and effective ingredients that stop pain and inflammatory damage, and help rebuild the cushioning cartilage of your spine.
White willow (Salix alba) bark extract has long been recognized as a pain-relieving natural medicine for back pain. Compounds in the botanical, especially salicin, reduce the action of TNF-α and NFkB, two inflammatory markers in the body. It can be very effective—researchers have found that white willow is equal to the prescription anti-inflammatory drug rofecoxib (one brand name is Vioxx®) in reducing back pain.
Other reviews have found that white willow bark is a safe anti-inflammatory for chronic lower back pain, joint problems, and osteoarthritis compared to other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), including aspirin, to which it is often compared.
And a recent clinical study with white willow bark as part of a complex of other ingredients found that it was effective for reducing joint pain (often seen in tandem with lower back pain) in older individuals. Look for a white willow bark extract standardized for at least 30% salicin, its primary pain-fighting compound.
Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens, Harpagophytum zeyheri) has powerful anti-inflammatory benefits for relieving back pain. Aside from stopping pain and strengthening your lower back, it can help stop the deterioration of the joints seen in those with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. In one study, devil’s claw relieved the pain of osteoarthritis by 35% by the end of the 8-week trial.
Other research shows that devil’s claw, like white willow, is equal in pain-relieving ability to rofecoxib, often known to pain sufferers as Vioxx®, a prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that has since been pulled from the market because of its side effects.
Devil’s claw reduces inflammation by inhibiting the cyclooxygenase-2 (better known as “COX-2”) pathway. A scientific study measuring COX-2 inhibition found it was reduced by 31%! By affecting this enzyme specifically, devil’s claw provides a much more targeted approach to inflammation compared to many over-the-counter and prescription pain medicines. Many devil’s claw extracts are only standardized to 2% harpagosides, the plant’s key compound. I prefer more potent devil’s claw extracts, standardized to a minimum of 20% harpagosides.
For the best results, I suggest combining white willow and devil’s claw with some of my favorite anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving ingredients: DLPA, curcumin and boswellia.
DLPA (also known as d,l-phenylalanine) is an amino acid combination that improves mood-elevating chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, and blocks a nervous system enzyme that intensifies pain signals.
Curcumin from turmeric excels at relieving pain and inflammation. One of the challenges though, is that even as a purified 95% extract, curcumin can be difficult for the body to absorb. It generally needs some help.
The curcumin I recommend is blended with turmeric oils (which have their own anti-inflammatory abilities) for enhanced absorption. The oils mimic the way you’d get curcumin in food, except that the levels of curcumin are much higher in this extract. The compounds in the turmeric oil—especially turmerones—enhance curcumin’s medicinal power. I hear from people around the world what a difference this curcumin has made in their lives, and no wonder—this botanical works.
Boswellia (Boswellia serrata) is a specific inhibitor of 5-LOX, an enzyme that activates inflammation-inducing leukotrienes—an ability that can’t be matched by synthetic drugs. The most active and beneficial of the boswellic acids in the extract is known as AKBA (Acetyl-11-keto-B-boswellic acid).
While boswellia is relatively popular in health food stores, not all boswellia extracts are equally beneficial. For example, in unstandardized boswellia products, the AKBA levels can be very low—sometimes as little as 1%. To make sure you get the best, look for boswellia standardized to at least 10% AKBA. Conversely, products with extremely high levels of AKBA are almost certainly spiked to the point where they bear very little resemblance to any naturally occurring ratio of compounds.
Plus, while boswellia is generally a very helpful herbal ingredient, it can contain a compound that can actually cause inflammation, called “beta-boswellic acid.” I believe boswellia is most effective when the beta-boswellic acid is screened out—rendering any remaining amount harmless. That’s a big difference compared to unstandardized boswellia, which can be all over the board in terms of content.
A study comparing a combination of the curcumin and boswellia I recommend to the generic celecoxib (one brand name is Celebrex®) found that they relieved osteoarthritis pain for 64% of participants versus only 29% in the drug group.
Additionally, more people in the herb group could walk without pain compared to the drug group! While this study focused primarily on the function of the knees, the real message here is that curcumin and boswellia reduce pain and the tissue-damaging inflammation that causes pain. When you use them, you’re not just “covering up” the pain signals your body sends out; you’re helping your body to heal.
You CAN Stop Back Pain, and Feel Good Again!
Back pain is extremely difficult to live with. It can color everything you do, keeping you from enjoying walks, working in the garden, and even getting a good night’s sleep. The ingredients I recommend will stop the pain and help build the strength of your back to prevent future injuries. Best of all, they are an option without the risks of over-the-counter and prescription medications. If you want to feel good again and enjoy being active, these are the ingredients you’ve been looking for.
To stop the pain and help build the strength of your back, I recommend curcumin, boswellia, DLPA, white willow, and devil’s claw taken daily.