Talking About Pain: Natural Treatment Options

Oct 21, 2018 by

You can have me read this article to you instead of reading it yourself…



Or you can read it the old-fashioned way below…



If you read my previous article, then you’re all caught up on the OTC and prescription medications that can be used to help treat GI pain.

Now it’s time to talk about the natural products that people might consider using to treat pain.

Natural Products

First, just to clarify, when I talk about natural products, that covers a pretty large range. It includes vitamins, supplements, herbs, essential oils, and more.

One thing to always be aware of when discussing natural products is that we just don’t know as much about them as we should. We aren’t certain how well they work, and we also aren’t certain how safe they are. So natural products should always be used cautiously and carefully. I have an entire series on natural products if you are interested in learning more about the topic.

Another consideration is that most natural products have not been studied to treat “GI pain”. Some of them have been studied to treat the general symptoms of different GI disorders, but many of those studies don’t focus on pain. So we have limited information to work with on this topic.

Also, most natural products that are used to treat pain are either used topically (to treat local pain from injury, such as on the back or ankle), or used to treat osteoarthritis pain in the knee, shoulder, or hip joints. Although many of those products may be marketed for pain in general, we will ignore them all in this article because those claims don’t apply to GI pain.

Willow Bark

I am starting with Willow bark because it is an old classic. In fact, it is directly related to one of our mainstay OTC products – aspirin. The chemical in Willow bark that has been traditionally used for pain relief is the same as the chemical in aspirin. But aspirin has been purified and synthesized to be more effective for managing pain than willow bark. And unfortunately, willow bark comes with the same bleeding risks as aspirin.

There is really never a reason to choose willow bark over using an OTC or prescription medication. It works in a similar way and is actually less effective than your other options.

St. John’s wort

This supplement gained a lot of popularity many years ago because it was shown to have some natural antidepressant effects. In fact, it works in a similar way to many of our prescription antidepressant products, such as SSRIs (including Prozac and Zoloft). It alters the way that the brain handles serotonin, which is an important chemical for mood and psychological state.

Unfortunately, there are some real concerns with this product. It interacts with a LOT of prescription medications and other natural products. It can increase the metabolism of those products, which causes them to leave the body so quickly that they hardly work at all. This can become a very big problem for people that are using medications to treat other conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, seizures, and more.

There is never a very good reason to use St. John’s wort in place of a prescription antidepressant due to these interaction concerns. Also, if you are interested in using an antidepressant specifically to treat GI pain, some prescription products have been studied for this purpose. St. John’s wort, on the other hand, has rarely been studied for treating abdominal symptoms. In the one study that evaluated it for treating IBS, it didn’t work any better than placebo.


Alright, enough with the bad news. Let’s move on to a natural product that actually has some very good evidence behind it! Peppermint seems to work similarly to some of the prescription medications that we already discussed – anticholinergics (dicyclomine and hyoscamine).

Peppermint has really only been studied for irritable bowel syndrome, but it has shown some promising benefits for many symptoms, including pain. I have an entire article dedicated to peppermint here. You will see that it is generally considered safe, so trying it to treat other forms of GI pain may not be a bad idea.


This has become one of the most popular supplements in the world in the last couple of years. People have begun touting turmeric as a natural product that can treat almost anything. The truth is, turmeric seems to have anti-inflammatory activity. So it might provide some benefit to people with different types of inflammatory conditions.

The best research on this product has been in people with arthritis. But it is also being studied for a whole range of conditions, including IBS and IBD.  Research in IBS is limited but taking turmeric every day might help healthy people with IBS to relieve their symptoms.

Research in IBD is limited to people with ulcerative colitis. Taking turmeric along with prescription medications for ulcerative colitis seems to help reduce symptoms for some people. But there is not a lot of evidence showing that it specifically decreases pain, or that it would help with other chronic GI conditions.

There is no research on using turmeric in gastroparesis. There’s also no reason to think that it would work very well, since gastroparesis doesn’t involve inflammation.

Also, while turmeric seems to be generally safe, it should not be used in pregnancy since it may stimulate the uterus and jeopardize the baby.


This is a natural product that many view as an alternative to prescription opioid medications. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. Take a look at my full article on kratom and what you should know if you are considering using it to treat chronic GI pain (or any pain, for that matter).

Essential Oils

There are many types of essential oils on the market, all with different intended uses, different scents, and different marketing strategies.


Before I discuss the possible benefits of essential oils, I think it is best to start off with the risks (or rather, the unknowns) of using these products.

First, it is important to clarify that essential oils are not regulated by any government agency. Because of this, we have no idea what kind of quality we are getting with an essential oil. Thus, as a general rule, it is not considered safe, or a good idea, to drink essential oils. Besides causing general stomach upset (which could worsen GI symptoms), they may be contaminated with unwanted chemicals that can cause a whole range of other side effects.

Second, we have no long-term studies regarding the effects of inhaling essential oils infused into the air. We don’t have any reason to believe that they are unsafe, but we don’t know for sure that they are safe. In addition, not knowing the quality of the oils raises the questions of what other chemicals may be breathed in from these products.

And finally, applying essential oils to the skin seems to be generally safe for most people. But you should be watchful for unexpected allergic reactions or certain oils that may be abrasive to the skin. For instance, tea tree oil and garlic oil can cause chemical burns in small amounts, and should not be applied to the skin at all.


Unfortunately, for all of the claims that are made online and on product packaging, we don’t actually know very much about how well essential oils work for treating different conditions.

The most evidence that we have is for lavender. Inhaling lavender scent appears to reduce anxiety, stress, and short-term pain from surgeries or procedures in SOME people. But we don’t have any studies evaluating the use of lavender for GI pain. However, treating stress and anxiety can have many beneficial effects for chronic GI conditions, including pain reduction.

Other essential oils that have been studied in humans include lemon balm, lemon eucalyptus oil, bergamot oil, and chamomile. Unfortunately, most of these studies have either shown little benefit, or they have used multiple oils in combination, making it difficult to understand which specific oil might be most helpful.

Although essential oils have become incredibly popular and are promoted for a number of purposes, we don’t actually know very much about how or if they work. Be cautious about using essential oils for the safety reasons that I already discussed. If you would like to use an aromatherapy to help to manage your pain, perhaps the best approach would be to find a scent that you find soothing, so that you can reduce stress and anxiety and potentially improve your pain in the process.

Now What?

We’ve already talked about medications that can be used to treat GI pain, and now we’ve reviewed some of the natural products that people might consider trying.

Let’s move on to discuss the alternative therapies that might also be worth considering. These include yoga, meditation, and acupuncture.

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