By Dr. Holcomb Johnston
Biking, hiking, riding, paddling, skiing, climbing, fishing – there is no shortage of ways to use our bodies here in Montana. And chances are, whether you’re a weekend warrior or a professional athlete, pain and inflammation are part of your routine. Many people manage these symptoms with anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, but prolonged use of these medicines can have serious consequences, such as causing digestive tract ulcers.
Fortunately, alternatives do exist to help ease the pain, including some from our own backyard. Thankfully, our world is filled with natural and relatively safe substances that promote wellbeing without causing unwanted side effects. Begin using these common treatments in your daily routine, rather than simply suppressing pain, you’ll prevent it.
While out in the mountains, look for Arnica Montana, a beautiful yellow daisy-like flower that grows in meadows and woodlands up to 9800 feet. Used for centuries by Native Americans, medicine from the flowers can help ease bruising and trauma. Applied topically in the form of gels, creams, poultices, or oils, arnica is a great first-line therapy. Internally, arnica is best used homeopathically, acting both acutely and as prophylactic before surgery or a long, hard day. In a pinch, pick some arnica flowers, apply to a bruised area and wrap in place, until more refined options are available.
Hypericum perforatum, aka St. John’s Wort, is another plant found locally with a long history of medicinal use, most notably documented during the Roman Empire. Popularized for its efficacy with mild to moderate depression, Hypericum is also an excellent remedy for nerve pain such as sciatica, tailbone injuries and burns. Like arnica, this plant can be applied topically or taken internally. Studies show Hypericum aids in tissue healing by decreasing wound closure time, increases wound contraction, and promotes better tensile strength of damaged tissues. Look for this bright yellow plant in areas where livestock graze.
One final non-local plant, Curcuma longa, commonly known as the spice tumeric, has endless research showing its benefits for everything from cancer to simple aches and pains. Tumeric decreases inflammatory compounds in the body, while increasing beneficial anti-inflammatory messengers. Studies also show it helps generate our major intracellular antioxidant, glutathione, which aids in the body’s cellular adaptation to stress. This bright orange spice can be used in cooking, blended into a smoothie, eaten straight or taken as a capsule. It’s classically used in Indian cooking and has a mild but distinct taste.
Pineapple contains a compound know as bromelain, which is useful to alleviate bruising, swelling, sprains, strains and general inflammation. It is in a class of anti-inflammatories known as ‘proteolytic enzymes’ – substances that, when taken away from food, help to stop the inflammation cascade. Incredibly, bromelain also changes the migration of white blood cells and deters them from further complicating an injured area. Most people use supplemental bromelain, as it comes from the woody and less palatable core of the pineapple.
A list of natural anti-inflammatories is not complete without mentioning omega-3 rich fish oil. Benefits include faster recovery time, improved circulation, increased lean muscle tissue, decreased chance of joint and connective tissue injury, and prevention of inflammatory compound formation. Fish oil is fantastic in high doses for acute injury and is also beneficial as a daily preventative supplement. While eating fish is helpful, the beneficial omega-3 oils are concentrated in the liver, which is rarely eaten. Therefore, a high quality supplement is recommended.
Dr. Holcomb Johnston owns Sweetgrass Natural Medicine in Bozeman. When not in the office, enjoys playing outdoors, growing her own food, and watching the light on the mountains with her husband and dog. sweetgrassmedicine.com