My goal as a Naturopathic Doctor is not to simply replace pharmaceutical medications with “natural” alternatives because of some notion that one is inherently better than another. Modern drugs are incredibly useful when used judiciously, and I am grateful for the availability of many of them. That being said, I do want people to be well-educated about alternatives that may serve them better, especially with common over-the-counter drugs. Aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin are brand names) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) are just such regular occupants of household medicine cabinets. I chose this trio because they are so common, sometimes overused and because there are simple and great alternatives.
Let’s start with aspirin. Aspirin is commonly used to treat minor aches pain; it is also used to reduce fever and inflammation. Many people have started taking baby aspirin daily for cardiovascular health; it has blood-thinning effects and can therefore help treat and prevent strokes. You may already be aware that aspirin can be hard on the health of your digestive tract, particularly the lining of your stomach. What you might not know is how small a dose can damage your digestive tract. Drugs.com states “Endoscopically identifiable gastric mucosal lesions occur in most patients who receive a single dose of aspirin.” In plain words, imaging has shown that the lining of the stomach becomes damaged from even one dose of aspirin. Heartburn, nausea, and stomach upset are some of the most common side effects. Side effects of aspirin can occur in most organ systems in your body, including your kidneys, cardiovascular system, liver, nervous system, and endocrine system. Is there an aspirin alternative for heart health, relief of minor pains, fever reduction, and inflammation? Yes!
Heart health is a great place to start and fish oil is the answer for many people. Fish oil is a powerful blood thinner and, additionally, it helps reduce the type of chronic inflammation that contributes to high cholesterol as well as other common diseases. Fish oil provides a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. A proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 oils is important to a healthy inflammatory response. The modern diet often has many sources of omega-6 oils as well as trans fats and rancid fats while being slim in sources of omega-3 oils. This sets the body up for inflammation that often becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation is a component of many major illnesses, not just musculoskeletal aches and pains. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in flax, chia and hemp seeds. However, fish oil is a more potent and direct source. The body has to take extra steps to convert the healthy fats found in seeds into the anti-inflammatory compounds the body finds useful. Not everyone’s body is great at making this conversion and some evidence shows that there are people who cannot convert them at all, so a more direct source such as fish oil is useful in many cases.
The brand of fish oil you select is very important. Unfortunately, our oceans are polluted and fish accumulate the toxins found there. Choose a quality brand of fish oil: Genestra, Pharmax, Nordic Natural and Carlson’s are my favorites. These brands are well tested to ensure you are getting a toxin-free product. Genestra makes one called Super EFA from sardines and anchovies. Smaller fish means less opportunity to concentrate toxins and are a more environmentally sustainable source. Fish oil can also be made from cod liver, salmon, and krill. These are all good sources. I do sometimes alternate sources by season or for certain disease conditions in order to give my patients a more individualized prescription. Dosage also varies per individual but 3 grams of omega-3 oil is often a good starting point for most people. Note that this is 3 grams, or 3,000 mg, of omega-3 oil, not total fish oil. Liquid fish oil is more cost-effective than capsules and is usually flavored pleasantly with lemon or berry. Sally Fallon Morell, President of the Weston Price Foundation, a health researcher and gourmet enthusiast, recommends Green Pasture’s Arctic Mint Fermented Cod Liver Oil because of the added health benefits attributed to the fermentation process; I have heard mixed results about the palatability of mint-flavored fish oil but have high respect of Mrs. Fallon Morell’s well-researched recommendations. For optimal absorption, fish oil is best taken in the middle or at the end of a meal. While fish oil is safe and healthy for the majority of people, it should be used with caution in combination with certain medications and some health conditions; check with a trained expert for a recommendation appropriate for you.
What about minor pain and fevers? Before I discuss options for these, let’s look at ibuprofen and Tylenol since these two drugs are often used to address pain and fever. Prescription and nonprescription ibuprofen are used to reduce fever and to relieve mild pain from headaches, muscle aches, arthritis, menstrual periods, the common cold, toothaches, and backaches. Ibuprofen can cause dizziness, ringing in the ears, diarrhea, constipation, and nervousness. These are just the most common side effects. Like aspirin, there can be many more. Tylenol, acetaminophen, is most commonly used as a fever reducer but has many of the same uses as ibuprofen. Like aspirin, acetaminophen is a bad combination with alcohol because of its effects on the liver. I find that cleansing, nourishing, and restoring liver function is an important part of treatment in almost every single patient I see, regardless of his/her main complaint. Given this, I think it is best to avoid any drug that compromises liver function, if possible. According to Drugs.com, a 15-gram dose of acetaminophen will deplete liver glutathione stores by 70% in a 70 kg person. Now 15 grams is a huge and unreasonable dose as one Tylenol is 325 mg. Nonetheless, this smaller dose is still adversely affecting stores of glutathione in your liver. Glutathione is a major component of your body’s detoxification system. Tylenol actually has few other commonly reported side effects (although, of course, there are less common serious side effects). However, I would like you to consider the idea that fever reduction, although it might be a person’s primary reason for using Tylenol, can actually result in unintended consequences or “side effects.” More on this later on, first let’s talk about ibuprofen and Tylenol alternatives for reducing inflammation and minor pain.
Enzymes are a fantastic option here. Your body produces its own enzymes. What ever is not used up in digestion is available for fighting inflammation and cleaning up debris in your body. Unfortunately, again because of modern eating habits and stress, many people have low enzyme output which not only compromises their digestion and absorption of nutrients, it leaves none left for other tasks in the body. Wobenzyme is a very effective brand that combines pancreatic and plant enzymes. It can be used for joint health and inflammation as part of the treatment plan for chronic conditions such as arthritis. Enzymes are also useful to keep in your medicine cabinet for those times when you overuse your body in sports or with lifting activities such as moving and lifting boxes. It is a must for weekend warriors! In fact, I was inspired to write this article the day after taking a yoga class that focused on abs for nearly the whole class—an hour of abdominal work! My body is just not used to that and enzymes are so helpful for situations such as that. Enzymes should be taken away from food, either an hour before or 2-3 hours after meals. In addition to helping with aches and pains, Wobenzyme research claims that it supports the cardiovascular system through improvement of vein health, that it improves sinus and respiratory health, and also supports healthy aging. Enzymes may have some blood-thinning effect and, if used long term, should be done so under the care of a qualified health practitioner.
And lastly, a few quick words on fever reduction. This is a whole other blog topic and one that is so important! At this point, I hope it will suffice to say that fevers are a natural part of the body’s immune response and can be beneficial rather than dangerous. We all too often shut down the body’s innate, perfect response because of discomfort or lack of information. This is especially true in children. With the upcoming cold and flu season, expect to hear more from me on this important topic.