The Pain is Killing Me

Image by Carol Coogan

Who isn’t complaining of aches and pains these days? And what is it about our culture that places us at the top of the list for experiencing more pain than anywhere else on the planet? Too much sugar? Not enough sleep? Sixty-hour work weeks?

Americans are consuming approximately 80 percent of the global opioid supply, which totaled more than 300 million pain prescriptions in 2015. A sore back or bad knee joints is not necessarily a lament unique among the aged. Recent research on sleep-deprived, anxious, or depressed adolescents is also raising alarm in the medical community.

Young or old, many of the imbalances—most anything with the suffix “-itis”—can be traced to inflammation in some shape or form. Inflammation is the body’s response to external threats such as infections, toxic chemicals, and unresolved stress. When you’re healthy and your immune system is functioning well, inflammation is not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps these externals threats in check. But when immune cells begin overreacting, inflammation starts to work against you.

Any excessive combination of negative factors like stress, a poor diet, bacterial or viral infections can cause a breakdown in your system, leading to inflammation. And, if not managed at some point, inflammation creates a cascade of ailments responsible for numerous chronic diseases, with cancer topping the list.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to head to the pharmacy at every turn. The herbal pantry offers a range of solutions that can address inflammation issues in a balanced way, and without the side effects of prescription drugs. Think of the solution as one that is found in your own kitchen medicine cabinet.

An array of choices for the kitchen medicine cabinet and pantry alike is readily available in the Honest Weight Food Co-op (HWFC) Wellness Department, Produce Department, or the Bulk Department’s herbs aisle. Peppercorns, garlic, cinnamon, cilantro, rosemary, and parsley offer an excellent starting point. Research also places ginger and sage on this “best of” list, both of which can be found in the Bulk Department. Fresh ginger can be found in the HWFC Produce Department year-round, while fresh rosemary, sage and other herbs are seasonally available in the Plants Department.

It strikes me as no coincidence that when I re-stocked the HWFC Bulk Department’s herb and spice jars each week as a member worker, four of the most beneficial spices for your kitchen medicine cabinet—turmeric, cloves, cayenne, and cinnamon—were consistently the biggest draw among shoppers. While prior articles in this series previously addressed the usefulness of the herbs rosemary and sage, the health benefits of Honest Weight’s most popular spices are summarized below.


Turmeric boasts the reputation as the overall life-enhancing root. It’s a cooking spice that has also been used for centuries to battle arthritis, immune disorders and, more recently, to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. This is an especially intriguing property of turmeric, as reports indicate that extracts of turmeric contain a range of natural agents that block the formation of beta-amyloid, the substance responsible for the plaques that slowly obstruct cerebral function in those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Turmeric’s benefits are largely derived from its curcumin properties, an impressive antioxidant that dramatically reduces inflammation, while also lending the spice its vibrant yellow color. Curcumin also inhibits the growth of tumor cells in a variety of cancers. Dr. Weil’s web pages cite studies by ethnobotanist James Duke on the ways in which turmeric outperforms pharmaceuticals in many instances of debilitating diseases, including cancer.

You can ingest turmeric in any number of ways, including tea or capsule form. Golden milk, especially nourishing during the winter months, can be made in your own kitchen, or purchased in the HWFC Wellness Department.


Cloves contain eugenol, a compound similar to and more potent than cinnamon’s cinnamaldehyde. This spice assumes a special focus on the fight against the types of inflammation connected with heart disease, cancer, and a range of other chronic diseases. Eugenol works in part by blocking the COX-2 enzyme that causes inflammation, the same enzyme that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) address. Cloves also have powerful antioxidant properties, including the flavonoids, kaempferol and rhamnetin.

Cloves are a popular autumnal spice found in mulled wine, ciders, or poached fruit. A previous article on elderberry properties mentioned adding cloves to homemade elderberry syrup.


Capsaicin is the primary compound behind cayenne’s medicinal properties—and its intense, spicy taste. In short, the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. Cayenne contains a range of flavonoids and carotenoids – antioxidants that scavenge free radicals to protect against the cellular damage that leads to inflammation and chronic conditions. Arguably, among the herbs and spices listed in this article, cayenne may boast the broadest range of medicinal applications. It’s a detox agent; it works to fight blood clotting, make it extremely beneficial for the heart; it’s a topical remedy; and cayenne aids in digestion.

You will find cayenne in any dish that calls for extra heat or spice. Cayenne is particularly well known as an antiviral concoction for fighting the common cold, or as a simple detox solution, and may be found in recipes assuming any number of variations—with or without lemon, honey instead of maple syrup, etc…


Including cinnamon in your diet provides another way to control inflammation. Cinnamon’s primary medicinal properties come from cinnamaldehyde. Compared to the other three herbs and spices here, cinnamon probably has the best overall taste appeal. Consider it as a topping for morning toast, oatmeal, or yogurt. Like cayenne, cinnamon appears to address specific issues related to circulation and keeping the blood thin—important considerations when suffering from headaches or arthritis pain. Cinnamon also contains a range of compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can diminish the onset of cellular damage and other chronic conditions.

Unlike some of the herbs and spices mentioned above, adding cinnamon to your diet as a health remedy may require extra reading. Not only does a little cinnamon go a long way, it is not generally recommended in high doses. Additionally, the types of cinnamon to address specific health issues vary.

Ounce per ounce, herbs and spices offer a viable alternative path for healing pain and inflammation. Of course, prescription drugs can address similar health issues. The pain medication industry is a multi-billion dollar global enterprise; however, pharmaceuticals levy a range of side effects beyond the financial punch at purchase, as modern commercials detail ad nauseum. A dash of turmeric in the curry or a teaspoon or two of cinnamon and cloves in the pumpkin pie is the cheaper—and more nourishing—route.

Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.