Welcome back to our More Than Healthy Full Year of Resolutions. This week we are talking about one of the very most important health tips, and one that has been absolutely life-changing on my own health journey. Tip #36 is about the negative health effects of taking NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). If you’ve read our book, you know that for many years, I took a lot of these drugs in order to cope with the chronic pain I was experiencing from many of my health problems.
What are NSAIDs?
NSAIDs include drugs with names like Ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, celecoxib, mefenamic acid, etoricoxib, indomethacin, and high-dose aspirin. You might recognize them more by their branded names, such as Advil, Motrin, Bayer, Aleve, Buffrin, Celebrex, etc. Most of these are over-the-counter and easy to get. Over 30 million of us reach for them every day without a second thought at the first twinges of headache pain, when our joints hurt, or if we have a toothache. For many of us, these medications are our go-to and almost a default reflex when we’re hurting.
However, these drugs are not the innocuous, “wonder drugs” for curing pain that many of us think they are. The truth is, there are very negative effects of taking NSAIDs. They may be exacerbating or even causing some of your health issues.
My experience with the negative health effects of taking NSAIDs
This is a hot topic for many people, and I get it. At one time in my life I was taking up to 2400 mg of Advil a day to help manage my pain. I was completely dependent on NSAIDs. I still clearly remember the shock I felt when the pain specialist told me that if I wanted to do stem cell therapy for the chronic pain in my right knee, I needed to get off all NSAIDs for 30 days before he could do the procedure. Stunned, I was truly unsure if I could do that. But NSAIDs were a deal-breaker, because those precious stem cells wouldn’t survive if I was taking them.
That made me ponder… if stem cells are the building block of our systems, and they can’t survive with the drugs I’m currently taking, then what else are they doing to my body? Once I really started digging into NSAIDs, I learned some pretty frightening things. I discovered that my frequent use of these drugs was the main reason that I was in such pain and why my immune system was so compromised. The NSAIDs I’d been so faithful to had caused chronic inflammation throughout my body. They were a big reason that I was such a mess.
The history of NSAIDs
I know that taking an NSAID like ibuprofen is about as common as chewing gum. But we’ve learned that they are much more harmful to our health than gum is! Let’s look at the history of these drugs, and why they are so threatening to our health. Aspirin was the first NSAID produced, back in 1897. At the time, no one really knew how these medications worked. It wasn’t until later that doctors discovered that they inhibited the production of prostaglandins, which promote inflammation and pain. After that, the pharmaceutical industry was able to produce similar agents, like ibuprofen and naproxen.
Back then, gastroscopes couldn’t reach far enough into the small intestine and colon, so doctors had no way to see the damage being caused until camera pills were invented. Once it was possible to swallow a camera, the damage being caused by NSAIDs was traceable and clear. But by that time, these medications had become a daily go-to and a constant part of life for many.
The NSAIDs–pain cycle
It’s a vicious cycle between chronic pain and NSAIDs, and no one is more familiar with the ramifications of it than I am. Here’s the pattern: You feel pain, and wish to feel less pain, or not feel it at all. So you take an over-the-counter pain medication, like Advil, Aleve, or Motrin. For a couple of hours you feel less pain, but those pills you swallowed are causing unwanted side effects in your system – and those side effects cause even more pain.
NSAIDs cause damage to your gut lining, and they wreak havoc in your gut. Specifically, NSAIDs cause severe damage to the mucosal barrier of the gut. They loosen the tight junctions meant to protect and guard what passes into the bloodstream, allowing these medications and all sorts of other harmful toxins to get in. Once they do, they cause the immune system to attack our own cells, which results in irritation, inflammation, and pain as well as a whole host of other ailments, from allergies to autoimmune diseases. NSAID use causes leaky gut syndrome.
There are multiple scientific studies that confirm the correlation between NSAIDs and leaky gut syndrome. A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that conventional NSAIDS were equally associated with intestinal inflammation. Another study said that NSAIDs disrupt intestinal integrity and lead to inflammation of the small intestine. These studies confirm that even short-term NSAID use in regular doses can lead to gut damage and other negative health consequences.
Inflammation: One of the major side effects of taking NSAIDs
It’s pretty ironic that they are highly touted as an anti-inflammatory, because NSAIDs actually severely increase inflammation (which you eventually feel as pain) in your body. Then the vicious cycle starts over, because the more pain you feel, the more NSAIDs you take. This is exactly why I was suffering with such severe chronic inflammation.
The pharmaceutical industry actually recognizes NSAIDs as “gateway drugs” because the damage they cause will eventually be the catalyst for many customers to move on to more potent prescription opioid painkillers. Consider this quote by Dr. Gundry, one of the two original doctors who strongly urged me to stop using NSAIDs:
“The more pain, the more you use NSAIDs–until you graduate to the big boys, the prescription painkillers. NSAIDs are both the number-one pharmaceutical seller and the number-one health menace. So remember this: swallowing one Advil or Aleve is like swallowing a hand grenade. Also remember: the precursors of Advil and Aleve, ibuprofen and Naprosyn, were recognized as so dangerous when they were introduced in the 1970s that they were available only as prescription drugs.”
The effects of taking NSAIDs are dangerous
In addition, NSAIDs and their side effects cause approximately 103,000 hospitalizations and 16,500 deaths each year. More people die in the U.S. from NSAID-related complications than from AIDS or asthma or cervical cancer.
All that Advil and Naproxen that I took over the years never did anything to treat the root of my pain. Instead, that ‘bandage’ made everything much worse and created intense problems in my gut. It’s the reason my food sensitivities list is so long, and it’s the underlying cause of so many of my additional health problems.
Safe alternatives to NSAIDs
You might be thinking, “But I can’t live without my pain medications!” Boy, can I relate to that! I tell this part of my story in detail in our book. Even if you don’t take them nearly as much as I did, how do you get through a bad headache day or the pain from tweaking your back at the gym this morning, without your Advil or Motrin? Thankfully there are some good alternatives to popping ibuprofen with far fewer unwanted side effects of taking NSAIDs. Here are some safe alternatives:
1. Eliminate stress/employ relaxation techniques.
There are many trusted techniques that help decrease stress and encourage the body to relax. These techniques can also help the body to release pain. One way that we encourage is meditation. Studies prove that meditation helps relieve stress. When we are stressed, we have elevated levels of cortisol in our bodies. Cortisol releases inflammatory chemicals that disrupt sleep, increase blood pressure, and contribute to fatigue, mental fog, depression, and anxiety. Research shows that consistent meditation reduces the harmful, inflammatory effects of stress.
Acupuncture is another alternative therapy that many people find very helpful for pain relief. It works through physical stimulation at certain sites on the body which affect pain processing in the central nervous system and increase blood flow. Research confirms this, especially when it comes to lower back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis or knee pain, or tension and migraine headaches. Over 13,000 studies have been conducted on the efficacy of acupuncture. Results say that it is an effective treatment in over 100 varying health problems and conditions.
Here at More Than Healthy, we are big fans of utilizing breathing techniques for stress relief and healthy relaxation. Even a few minutes of focused breathwork a day increases the oxygen supply to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. Breathwork lowers your heartbeat, relaxes muscles, decreases blood pressure, and increases levels of nitric oxide in your body. For more on specific ways to employ breathwork, see our previous post here.
2. Clean up your diet.
A poor diet contributes to chronic pain. Food is one of the biggest culprits and causes of chronic inflammation. What you eat really matters! For me, I had to eliminate all gluten and sugar, two of the most notorious inflammation culprits. Added sugars are probably the number one culprit in increasing inflammation. Processed foods also typically exacerbate inflammation, so I cut those out of my diet as well.
But I also had to figure out which other foods I was sensitive to before I could heal my gut and significantly reduce inflammation throughout my body. When my wife Carla, a Certified Functional Nutrition Counselor, advises clients, she tells them that determining exactly which foods cause inflammation is a highly individual matter. That’s why an elimination diet is key– as you eliminate common food culprits and track results through food journaling, you are able to determine which foods you need to avoid to begin the healing process.
Many experts recommend a plant-based diet. There is a lot of research on the benefits of plant-based foods for reducing inflammation. They nourish our healthy gut bacteria and help reduce inflammation throughout the entire body. They also provide antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols that support the many body systems that are involved in either increasing or reducing inflammation. In addition to leafy greens, healthy oils, berries, cruciferous vegetables, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, and gut-health promoters, like bone broth and kombucha can also help fight inflammation.
We have several yummy recipes posted on our website that help with gut healing and curbing the inflammation cycle. My favorite is smoothies. I find that if I incorporate a smoothie into my daily routine I have no joint pain, which is my first indication of inflammation in my body.
3. Use herbs with anti-inflammatory properties.
Ginger is known as a natural pain reliever. One study found that 2 grams of ginger per day reduced muscle pain. Ginger may also accelerate recovery and reduce exercise-related inflammation. You can add ginger to smoothies or tea. There are also ginger supplements available.
Turmeric is another herb with anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities. It has been used for many years as an herbal medicine for rheumatoid arthritis, conjunctivitis, skin cancer, wound healing, urinary tract infections, and liver ailments. One study found that it is as effective as ibuprofen for pain management when taken consistently. You can add turmeric to curries, smoothies, and juices.
Cloves have been used for many years as a home remedy for pain relief. Studies now show that clove gel is as effective as benzocaine gel, the topical that dentists often use to reduce needle pain. Cloves have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antiviral properties.
Feverfew is a medicinal plant that has been used to treat fever, migraine headaches, toothaches, stomach aches, and arthritis. It contains compounds that reduce inflammation and muscle spasms. Studies concluded that feverfew has analgesic or pain-relieving properties. It is usually taken as a supplement.
4. Use essential oils.
Essential oils have been used as alternative therapies and natural pain relievers for hundreds of years. Lavender oil is known to induce calm and is used for sleep. But it is also used for pain relief. One study found that inhaling lavender oil relieves pain associated with migraine headaches. Additional research shows that lavender oil has pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects. Lavender oil is not typically ingested. You can inhale the scent or apply it topically.
Peppermint oil also has anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, and antimicrobial effects. One study showed it to be effective in relieving the painful spasms associated with arthritis. It is also effective at relieving headache pain when applied to the temples. Peppermint oil is most commonly used as a topical treatment and rubbed into the achy or painful area.
Another essential oil that is known for pain relief is rosemary. It’s known for treating headaches, sprains, arthritis, and muscle and bone pain. It reduces inflammation, relaxes sore muscles, and even boosts memory. Research says that rosemary acts on the receptors in the brain that are involved with the sensation of pain.
One good way to get the benefits of these and other essential oils is by using them in ointments or salves and rubbing them on the painful area.
5. Employ self-care techniques for pain relief.
You may be envisioning restful relaxation or a spa day when I say the words self-care, but it’s really about much more than that. Self-care is about being proactive in sustaining and maintaining the best health you can, even (or especially) if you have a health condition. Practicing self-care gives you a sense of control over your circumstances. Even if you cannot completely fix what is wrong, there is a lot you can do. Let’s break down some of the best self-care practices for pain management.
Your body is designed for movement. The irony is that if you’re not moving because you’re in pain, that inactivity will probably make the pain worse. Gentle stretches help maintain mobility and range of motion. They also help keep pain in check. Research shows that consistent stretching is as effective as strengthening exercises or manual therapy in patients with chronic neck pain. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor or physical therapist for stretches and exercises that you can do at home that are safe for your situation.
Yoga is a great way to move and stretch, and it’s been shown to help people with chronic pain. Studies show that yoga helps reduce pain perception, decrease inflammation, and improve mobility among people with a wide variety of chronic pain conditions.
Getting a massage is no longer an indulgence. It can be an important part of your wellness regimen, particularly for pain relief. Massage has been studied for the positive effects it provides on back, hand, neck, back, and knee pain, and is considered legitimate therapy. It is also scientifically proven to help reduce stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure levels, improve circulation, and help immune function. For me, frequent use of our massage chair has been an important part of proactively preventing pain and maintaining a healthy body in order to avoid pain. You can read much more about the benefits of massage in our post available here.
Applying heat to painful spots can ease discomfort. Heat also increases blood flow to sore muscles, loosens stiff joints, and can simply distract the brain from pain. You can try heat therapy by using an electric heating pad, heating a wet towel in the microwave, or taking a hot bath.
Many types of pain need cold therapy instead of heat. Cold helps when it comes to inflammation. Often if you have a back injury, your doctor will tell you to avoid heating it, but to lay on an ice pack instead. Applying a cold compress over the affected area reduces painful inflammation. It also slows nerve impulses, which can interrupt the pain signals. It lowers skin temperature and reduces pain and swelling. This is why athletes and performers who are very physical on stage will take ice baths after a game or a show.
Cold therapy is used for pain relief for:
- Knee problems
- Arthritis pain
- Pain and swelling after a hip or knee replacement
- Lower back pain
- To treat swelling under a cast or splint
Carla watched me suffer with debilitating, chronic pain for years. She would tell you that one of the best ways I dealt with it was through distraction. I tried to keep busy, despite the pain. We’d have something planned, and knowing the level of pain I was in, she’d ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And I’d respond, “I can be in pain here, or at the event, and I’d rather try to distract myself from the pain by doing something.” And off we’d go. It helped a lot. Being proactive and choosing to be as active as possible despite the pain made a difference. I also tried to use humor a lot when dealing with pain – we’ll talk about that more in a future post.
No NSAIDs and no pain
Since I have eliminated NSAIDs and cleaned up what I’m putting into my body, I no longer struggle with chronic pain. Not only do I not deal with the painful peripheral neuropathy pain, back pain, or the arthritis pain that was so devastating for me for so many years, it’s been about three years since I’ve even had a headache. Living pain-free is amazing!!
Be aware it will take time for your body to begin to heal from the long-term damage that’s been created. For me, it took between 3-6 months for the pain levels to drop dramatically. It’s not a quick fix! But it’s one with long-term benefits. It is so worth the effort to live without chronic pain!
One of the most important things I’ve done for my health
I get asked all the time, “What are the most important things you’ve done to take back your health?” If you’ve followed us at all, you know we’ve done a lot, but I can honestly say that getting off NSAIDs was one of the most important things I did. My leaky gut couldn’t begin to heal until I stopped taking NSAIDs. Even after eliminating gluten, sugar, dairy, and the long list of foods I’m sensitive to, had I continued taking NSAIDs, the damage would have continued. I’ve started sleeping better, I’ve added so many healthy foods to my diet; I consistently exercise and I’m managing my stress. But none of those lifestyle changes could have overcome the negative effects of taking NSAIDs.
Giving up NSAIDs wasn’t easy. But eliminating the negative health effects of taking NSAIDs has been key to my journey back to optimal health.
Let us help you overcome the negative health effects of taking NSAIDs
We know this is a lot to take in, and that this topic in particular might feel overwhelming. We would love to answer any questions you might have about the effects of taking NSAIDs. Carla and I would love to assist you in your journey to optimal health and offer you additional help and support, especially when it comes to giving up NSAIDs for the sake of better health. Please reach out!
For those of you interested in our free More Than Healthy coaching calls, we do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us! Just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to join our email list, or you can watch our social media pages and we will have the link there.