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Natural Pain Relief: A Lesson From Our Ancestors

Pain is how a body communicates with the brain about a stressor it perceives. This subjective, emotional, and unpleasant sensation is not new to the human condition. Our ancestors experienced pain long before modern pain medication was available to them. Their ‘pharmacy’ was nature.

What sort of natural pain relievers did they use?

Herbs for Pain

Our ancestors had intimate knowledge of plant medicine and within that, the use of herbs for pain. Herbs have been used for thousands of years to treat ailments;1 proving nature to be both safe and effective as natural pain medication. Today, pharmaceutical companies create synthetic medicinal compounds based on traditional plant remedies. Consequently, these new chemicals have to be proven safe and effective,2 and as in the use of opioid medications, have yet to be proven so.3

A very short list of herbs that our ancestors used as natural pain killers include:4 5 6

  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale): anti-inflammatory and diffusive, warming and drying, commonly used in cooking or freshly juiced for arthritis, migraines, and menstrual cramps7
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): anti-oxidant, circulatory stimulant and nervine, warming and drying, commonly used in cooking, as a topical oil, tincture or tea8
  • Willow (Salix spp.): plant from which salicylic acid (aspirin) is derived, it is inflammation modulating, fever reducing, cooling and drying; the bark, leaves, and catkins are used commonly in decoctions, tinctures, and teas9
  • Cottonwood (Populus spp.): anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, cottonwood is cooling and drying, commonly made into a salve or tincture
  • Arnica (Arnica spp.): anti-inflammatory and stimulating, arnica is warming, cooling, and drying, commonly used as a salve or tincture10

Hot and Cold Exposure

You may be familiar with the power of an ice pack or heating pad to relieve pain. While these devices were unavailable to our ancestors, they experienced pain relieving benefits of hot and cold exposure through cold water immersion and heat as experienced via fire or a healing sweat lodge, for example.11

Functionally, heat and ice work to influence the circulatory network near the site of an injury in opposite ways. Immediate icing of an acute injury reduces swelling and the experience of pain by restricting blood vessels, slowing down tissue metabolism to prevent further damage.12 Given this, warming a fresh injury can exacerbate pain and potentially delay healing.

Thermotherapy (warmer temperatures) can reduce the perception of chronic pain and encourage long-term recovery from an injury. Similarly, cryotherapy (colder temperatures) reduces the sensation of chronic pain quicker than modern anti-inflammatory medication alone.13 From this, we can intuit that experiencing a wider range of temperatures than we are accustomed to is great natural pain medicine.


Ecotherapy, the practice nature immersion for physiologic and psychologic healing, is a modern solution to the problem of nature disconnection. Ecotherapy is understood to reduce the perception of pain,14 15 perhaps by re-introducing one to familiar primal sensory inputs, like sun, earth, or even plant hormones.16 17

Human skin, which plays a large part in sensing our environment, is known to have a complex neuroendocrine system. It is possible that exposure to our ancestral environment mitigates perception of pain via communication within and across our largest organ.18 19 20


‘Earthing’ or ‘grounding’ is the process of touching the ground with your bare skin. Grounding is well known for its application to electrical and plumbing systems that are required to be connected to the earth for safety reasons. The study of ‘grounding’ our bioelectrical bodies is in its infancy, but small scale trials suggest that touching the earth with your bare skin relieves pain in the body.21 22

Mineral-Rich Waters

The pain relieving and health promoting benefits of soaking in mineral-rich waters has a deep ancestral tradition. In addition to the primal inputs of sun, fresh air, and natural movement, soaking in mineral-rich waters can bring transdermal magnesium into your body, a nutrient involved in over 300 cellular processes, including pain management.23 24 25 26 27 28 Magnesium benefits are nearly countless.

Science, typically slow to confirm tradition, may not be asking the right questions with respect to the healing powers of natural waters. The ecosystem within our skin contains microbes that provide immune support to our bodies and can communicate with sensory neurons.29

They also have an intimate relationship with magnesium (and presumably other elements) that keeps pathogenic microbes in check.30 31 32 33

Could it be that our skin microbial communities expect natural inputs to remain in balance and to reduce our perception of pain?


Mindfulness meditation is a free, self-regulated, natural chronic pain relief strategy. Is it also a time-tested approach in changing the experience of pain, with thousands of years of history.  Zeidan and Vago (2016) describe ideas in an ancient Buddhist text Sallatha Sutta (The Arrow) where those who meditate fully experience the ‘first arrow’ or the sensation of pain and are able to release the ‘second arrow’ or the evaluation of pain.

The practice of sitting still and working to keep awareness in the present moment has been demonstrated in clinical practice to shift perception of chronic pain and improve pain symptoms in a broad range of disorders.34

Social Support

The experience of pain is recognized to have a social component.35 While our ancestors lived in community, raised by extended family and friends, people are much more likely to live alone today. Loneliness is correlative to the perception of pain.36

A recent systematic review found social support works to decrease and reappraise pain-related stress and assist one with pain coping mechanisms.37 As ‘pack animals’, it is no surprise that social support, whether perceived or received, is a powerful moderator of chronic pain.

The Bottom Line

The incidence of chronic pain is increased today relative to the time of our distant ancestors due to the rise of largely preventable ‘diseases of civilization’ characterized by chronic inflammation.38 It is reasonable to assume that a return to the natural inputs of our ancestors would reduce incidence of pathologic pain in our society today.39

In other words, the best natural painkiller is a lifestyle change. Try these time-tested methods to discover the best natural pain killer for you.

It is to actively assume your role in the ecosystem by eating nutrient dense foods grown and raised from the soil, by immersing yourself in nature to experience sun, fresh air, movement on microbe-rich natural terrain and in natural waters, a wide range of temperatures, by cultivating supportive relationships and meaningful traditions, and by reconnecting yourself to day and night cycles for quality sleep.

Connecting with nature – and the wisdom of your ancestors – is foundational to coping with pain and healing from its source.


About the Author:

Meredith is a geologist, forager, budding herbalist, writer, and health mentor informed – and healed – by the wisdom of nature. She writes ‘The Monthly‘, a newsletter of observations about life and health, delivered to inboxes every full moon since 2013.