PAIN AND PROSTAGLANDINSMar 20, 2023
Did you know that a whopping 18%-35% of Americans are dealing with chronic pain?
That percentage varies, depending on which study you reference.
The worldwide average is around 20%.
I am the first one to acknowledge how fortunate we are to have western medicine, doctors and drugs to help us manage pain.
As you well know, most people we know probably have several over-the-counter analgesics at the ready in their medicine cabinets.
The word analgesic has Greek origins: an~ (“without”) + álgos~ (“pain”)
You can read more about common analgesics (like aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, Motrin and Naproxen Sodium) in my recent article, “The Best Drugstore Pain Relievers”.
When reading up on over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers you quickly learn that most of these drugs work "by blocking prostaglandins". But what the heck does that even mean?
IF you want to have more control over managing your pain, then it's important to understand the role that prostaglandins play in your body with regards to pain and inflammation.
Once we get a grasp on how prostaglandins affect pain, it’s just a short mental hop to want to know “how else can I mediate prostaglandin activity in my body?” (at least for me!)
This style of deep thought and research in service of helping you to effectively self-manage is precisely what differentiates the work I'm doing in Retrain Back Pain.
Our current system of sick care (also known as "healthcare") is, for the most part, focused entirely on a western medical paradigm (a.k.a. allopathic medicine).
Yet there exists a whole other world of holistic/natural/multidisciplinary solutions which have profound effects on your long-term healing and pain relief.
Understanding the mechanism of pain relief is the first step.
You ready? Here we go…
WHAT ARE PROSTAGLANDINS?
It’s kind of unbelievable that these prostaglandin things, which are present in all our tissues, are so elusive to understand!
The easiest way to describe them is that prostaglandins are lipids (fats) classified as eicosanoids. These special eicosanoids are derived from essential fatty acids, specifically arachidonic acid, and they secrete chemical substances that signal to your cells exactly how they should function.
They’re often referred to as hormone-like, but unlike hormones, which are released by your endocrine glands, prostaglandins are produced right in your cells on an as-needed basis. Isn't that cool?
WHAT DO PROSTAGLANDINS DO?
Prostaglandins play a major role in your body’s natural physiology for defense and repair, stimulating contractions and regulating pain and inflammation.
When you suffer an injury or infection your body produces prostaglandins which promote inflammation, increasing blood flow and bringing immune cells to the site of injury or infection. This type of corrective inflammation helps protect and heal your body. If this goes on too long, or if too many prostaglandins are produced, these same prostaglandins may also be serving to sustain chronic pain.
Given the opposing effects described above, you might be wondering then if prostaglandins are good or bad?
It's kind of weird because some of the effects of prostaglandins produce the exact opposite action, depending on the specific type of prostaglandin.
- Promoting inflammation and pain, while also reducing inflammation and pain
- Vasodilation and vasoconstriction of blood vessels
- Blood clotting to heal a wound and breaking up the same clot when healing is complete
- Bronchoconstriction (the narrowing of air passageways) or bronchodilation (widening of air passageways)
- Contracting and relaxing smooth muscle in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
- Uterine contractions in pregnancy and also for menstruation when not pregnant
- Increasing or decreasing pressure in the eyes (glaucoma)
- Erectile function and dysfunction
I’M IN PAIN: CAN'T I JUST TAKE ADVIL AND NOT WORRY ABOUT PROSTAGLANDINS?
Or… maybe you can take some advil AND be more proactive in other ways too so that you need less of it.
OR... you can get to a place where you need less analgesic for a shorter duration of time.
Maybe....If your bodily systems are better supported, you can get to a place where you can incorporate OTC analgesics as an occasional crutch rather than as central pillar of your pain relief plan
To be clear, I am not poo-pooing the use of analgesics for pain management. If you're in pain and pain killers are helping they are an invaluable tool, BUT but but
a). OTC analgesics are only ONE tool in the toolkit. For a lot of people that I work with it's their only tool (they don't know what else is available to them so they keep using them at every turn)
b). All pharmaceuticals have adverse side effects, especially when taken in large quantities over long periods of time, which is what happens with chronic pain sufferers
c). Pharmaceuticals are expensive
d). In addition to pain meds, you deserve to have a wide variety of tools at your disposal (including a bunch of free, natural, easy-to-do at home tools)
This is precisely where we tend to get tripped up by traditional pain management protocols: The traditional, western model of allopathic medicine assumes a mechanistic cause of pain (i.e., you have a disc herniation so let’s focus on that) and it either defaults to a purely exercise-based physical therapy solution, or else a pharmaceutical then surgical protocol if the first two aren’t working.
That leaves a whole lot of self-treatment assistance opportunities on the table. This is where my expertise comes in.
HOW DOES NUTRITION AFFECT PROSTAGLANDINS?
Nutrition definitely plays an important role in prostaglandin production and pain.
Remember when I said that prostaglandins are derived from essential fatty acids?
Well, essential fatty acids can’t be made by your body, you’ve got to consume them through your diet.
Nutrition and essential fatty acids are such a big, fat, juicy topic, that we're going to do a deep dive on all that in my next email/article, so stay tuned!
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?
Besides upping your intake of essential fatty acids, there are other ways to help your body maintain a healthy balance of proactive prostaglandins. One other way is incorporating vitamins and minerals that relate to prostaglandin production:
- Vitamin C and zinc are needed for the synthesis of prostaglandins
- Vitamin E can help to reduce inflammation by inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins
Overall, the balance of different types of prostaglandins in the body is important for maintaining health and regulating pain and inflammation. If your body is producing an excessive amount of prostaglandins, this may be contributing to your pain. Traditional medical approaches to pain management rarely offer thorough enough explanations on the mechanisms for pain nor do they specialize in creative, holistic solutions that you can do at home to optimize your bodies’ natural processes for healing and pain management.
If you're ready to diversify your pain management game and you'd like to know more about how you can optimize your body's innate healing mechanisms, send me an email so we can discuss what that might look like for you.
Yours in health,
p.s. Remember to check out the sister article to this one: "Nutrition for Pain Relief: Essential Fatty Acids"