Don’t know about you, but we have had a fair share of days off from pain – back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain, period pain. The worst though, has to be when it draws on and on and your mind starts to imagine no relief or release from the ongoing relentless agony. Chronic pain conditions manifest in the body in many different ways, and root causes, presentations and experiences of chronic pain are even more diverse. Living with chronic pain is exhausting, but you can get pain relief from herbal helpers to ease the extreme discomfort.
Chronic pain conditions present alongside common comorbidities that are equally debilitating, these can include, but are not limited to: fatigue, low mood or depression, eating disorders and ‘brain fog’; a decrease in usual cognitive functioning, for example, issues with concentration and processing information.
Even though most of us have noticed the impact a physical health issue can have on our mental health, and vice versa, it is still all too easy to forget that the two are not just closely linked, but actually exist inextricably and fully part of each other.
Managing the additional issues that living with chronic pain brings is essential in transforming the relationship we have to the pain. Suffering is considered to have two aspects, primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial pain for example, and secondary suffering is our response to that pain. Whilst there is a conscious retort, there are many other ways our body responds to the stimulus of chronic pain that we are not complicit in. It is the secondary sufferings on top of the pain that overwhelms our capacity to cope. Treating these additional experiences is essential and teaches us to engage intentionally in self-care.
Spending time in the company of plants is self-care and a healing modality all of its own. Cultivating simple relationships of acknowledgement and appreciation with the plants growing around you will connect you so deeply to the natural world that it will change the way you move through and experience it. Noticing plants that you feel drawn to, taking time to get to know them and to understand the reasons they called out to you will bring medicine specific to your own needs into your life.
Nettles are a powerful and potent ally for those of us living with chronic pain, and other associated conditions. Rich in bioavailable nutrients and minerals, nettles are nourishing to the body and mind. Empowering and strengthening, alterative and restorative; they are able to alleviate fatigue.
A simple infusion imparts many of Nettle’s virtues and the impact on mood, energy and motivation is impressive.
It is most commonly recommended to harvest nettles whilst wearing gloves, and often advised to use scissors to snip the tops off. But if you experience significant pain in your hands, or wrists; we suggest that you harvest Nettles barehanded, pinching off the tops, and allowing the nettles to sting you as much as possible.
This advice is informed by the practice of urtication, intentionally stinging ones-self for the benefit of increasing circulation and relieving pain and stiffness from muscles and joints. Nettle’s sting contains a chemical cocktail that is an effective analgesia as well as being uplifting of mood and energy.
Let Nettles ‘kiss you better’, we dare you!
Rosemary is warm and stimulating, rejuvenating and enlightening. Rosemary shifts stagnation in our digestive processes, whether the matter be food or thought. Able to find the necessary path in a foggy brain, rosemary reveals the clarity we associate with ‘strength of mind’. An aid to memory, a balm for tension and anxiety, rosemary meets you where you are and nurses with competency and compassion. At the times you require rosemary’s support, you could carry an infusion out with you on your travels and also thread or tuck a sprig through your jumper or hat, the smell alone able to captivate and transfigure a troubled or tested mind. This circulatory stimulant is one of the ingredients of our Ache Ease herbal balm, alongside the comfrey (knitbone), horseradish, heather and peppermint – a warming connective tissue restorative blend created and applied to soothe painful joints and sore muscles.
Finding Your Joy
Before discussing nutrition, we would like to acknowledge that such conversations can be especially triggering to those living with or recovering from eating disorders. Care must be taken when approaching this topic to ensure people are seen and kept safe.
Chronic pain affects how we engage with eating. It can tamper with our appetite and desire for food, with our ability to properly digest food; leading to nausea and gastrointestinal distresses, as well as with beliefs around our self-image, self worth and our chosen or prescribed diets.
Paying close attention to how anything we ingest affects us is a necessary skill to develop. There are foods that can cause or increase inflammation in the body, but there is no rule here. Not everyone will have the same reaction to everything. Developing our sense of interoception allows us to notice any changes that have occurred due to our food or medicinal intake. Elimination diets rely on both overtly noticeable changes as well as our more finely tuned internal monitors and these diets are safest to approach with careful and considered guidance.
A healthy, varied and balanced diet will not look, taste or smell, the same across every plate or palate. Allowing our senses to guide our approach to food invites joy to the table. Joy is transformative and finding it through the food we eat can truly open us to the healing available in this particular practice of self-care. For those living with disordered eating and depression, joy is more an elusive concept than a potential dinner date and not often associated with food at all. Interoception is one of the steps in intuitive eating, an intervention developed to help people recover from disordered eating and heal their relationship to food.
Foods that entice and inspire you, whether by beauty, colour, smell, or specific cuisine, will involve you wholeheartedly in the process. And the process is where the magic happens; in the intentions that go into every chop and every stir.
Fresh herbs bring vibrancy, vitality and the many virtues they possess to any dish they grace, as well as being a joyful stimulant of all the senses (we love the sound of a sharp knife slicing through or mincing herbs).
When considering nutrition from a chronic pain perspective, it is crucial to use the lens of fatigue as well. Summoning the energy required to prepare meals can be somewhat of a dark art.
Having food at hand that can be enjoyed with minimal preparation is key.
The blender is a most valued part of our kitchen, allowing us to prepare and consume fresh foods with relative ease. We use it for fresh herb pestos, hummus and other dips, smoothies, soups and sauces.
Smoothies are one of the simplest ways of getting lots of goodness (and our kids!) without having to spend time and energy preparing and cooking.
They also enable us to sneakily include omega rich foods like seeds, as well as nuts and herbal powders (Rosie’s Superherbs) into our diets.
There is one particular food and smell that truly brings us comfort and joy, and that is homemade bread. Some of our Grandma’s, born in central Europe, baked bread with a pinch of fennel or caraway seeds or some orange and lemon rinds – and some chopped fresh aromatic herbs like rosemary or thyme. We think that particular olfactory memory is why fresh baked bread means so much to us. Homemade bread holds the acts of love, care and service in which it is prepared – and now we have a plethora of different flours to choose from – our favourite being rye sourdough.
Pain and energy levels do not always allow for the kneading of dough, and on those days, all that is required, is to combine all the ingredients, cover and leave the yeast to do all the hard work overnight (or 12+ hrs) and then shape and bake in a preheated Dutch oven.
This very special bread has become a staple in our home, and we are so grateful for the simple pleasure of fresh homemade bread.
Foods that can be eaten without preparation, or that can be prepared when there is energy available to do so will provide you the opportunity to honour your capacity and boundaries, taking the medicine of rest when and where it is required, whilst still tending to this fundamental element of living. Similarly, herbs that can minister to conditions such as; fatigue, low mood and ‘brain fog,’ that you can turn to in your hour of need, will allow you access to parts of yourself that may at times be totally locked out. Lighting the path and lightening the load, is the purpose.
Chronic conditions create vulnerability and need, it is easy for that to translate into feeling burdensome, but that narrative does not need to be part of our stories. Plants do not discriminate, they are unconditionally merciful and generous. Herbal medicine is synonymous with autonomy, returning power to our own hands, to plant seeds of hope and to harvest harmony in relationship to our whole selves.