Three Herbs for Powerful Pain Relief

Herbs offer effective treatments for pain of all kinds, often as effective as Western pharmaceuticals, with dramatically fewer side-effects and risks. These are three of my favourites, but there are literally hundreds of herbs and combinations with pain relieving abilities. As always, I’m sharing information, not providing medical advice. Email me if you’d like help finding a qualified practitioner in your area.


It’s a food, it’s a spice, it’s a healer. Ginger is effective internally and externally for a wide variety of problems, including pain. Stomach pain, discomfort, indigestion and nausea respond rapidly. Sip ginger tea, chew candied ginger or try a topical application on your tummy. I created a topical ginger based treatment for just this type of problem, Ginger Belly Soother Oil with infused ginger and fennel oil and essential oils of patchouli and sweet orange, all of which act to relax the digestive system and relieve gas and bloating, common causes of stomach pain. Ginger oil + massage = relief.

Muscular pain, acute or chronic, also responds well to ginger, (Source). I use straight infused ginger oil with pure menthol and ginger essential oil in Ginger Menthol Balm, and ginger with cinnamon and mugwort with menthol in Warming Menthol Balm for pain that responds especially well to heat (read Should You Apply Ice or Heat for Pain by Lynn Palmgren L.Ac) 

Ginger also relieves menstrual pain - better than ibuprofen with added anti-nausea benefits (Source). Make a tasty and gentle menstrual cramp relieving tea by mixing chamomile and dried ginger half and half and steeping in boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Use about a tablespoon per cup of water. Externally, both Tranquil Palace Oil and Warm the Palace Oil use ginger’s pain relieving and warming power to relieve menstrual and abdominal pain.


Turmeric has gotten lots of attention as an anti-inflammatory superpower. In Chinese medicine it ‘moves the blood’ ‘moves the qi’ and ‘cools the blood’ indicating its effectiveness for pain related to constraint like digestive and menstrual pain and to chronic internal inflammation and bacterial and viral infections. Here’s a massive overview of research into the abilities of turmeric for stomach pain, arthritis pain, post surgical pain, dental pain, hemorrhoid pain and more!

A meta analysis of research on the zingiberaceae family, ginger, turmeric and galangal, for chronic pain treatment finds them to be effective and safer than NSAIDs (Source)

Turmeric can be taken daily as a capsule for joint health, but check in with your health practitioner before launching into it - it has some contraindications and you don’t want it to interact with an existing health condition or medications you may be taking.

You can get the benefits of turmeric in food form without the worry that comes with large doses or extracts. Add a teaspoon to lentils while they cook, sprinkle a tablespoon onto sauteed veggies for a soup or pilaf base, or make chai or golden milk, the traditional combination with black pepper which modern research has shown increases the bioavailability of active components in turmeric

Here's a golden milk recipe I like.


I use a special moxa box to hold sticks of burning herb over painful areas

I use a special moxa box to hold sticks of burning herb over painful areas

I love mugwort! Called Ai Ye in Chinese, the latin name is artemisiae argyi (although western mugwort, artemisiae vulgaris, is sometimes substituted). Mugwort is the herb used to make moxa - a phenomenal pain relieving technique from traditional chinese medicine, where a cigar or cigarette of packed herbs is lit and held over the painful area or acupuncture points. Moxa powers up all Angelica & Peony’s Healing oils when used together with them, (here’s Denise Cicuto L.Ac explaining how to use moxa at home especially for menstrual cramps

A device called a tiger warmer or lion warmer is another safe and easy way to get the power of moxa at home. We did a TCMTalk about that as well! 

Mugwort makes a great warming and pain relieving bath if you have achey joints in cold, damp weather. It’s also a beneficial addition to a ‘v-steam’ blend for vaginal steaming, especially for pain and heavy bleeding. I infuse mugwort into sesame oil along with ginger and cinnamon to make my Warming Blend, the base of both Warming Menthol Balm and Warm the Palace Oil

There are safety and health considerations with using moxa, so be sure to speak with your acupuncturist or health practitioner before folding it in to your pain management routine. Email me if you’d like help finding a qualified practitioner in your area.

You can get ginger and turmeric at most grocery stores, and certainly healthfood stores. You can ask your acupuncturist about bulk mugwort, moxa sticks and tiger warmers. This is the type of moxa stick I especially like.

Tune in to TCMTalk on Thursday August 4th and 18th at 4 pm PST on Periscope for more discussion about natural pain relief and management, ask your questions while we're live, or email them to us at!

Kirsten Cowan L.Ac is a Physician of Traditional Chinese Medicine and CEO and Chief Alchemist at Angelica & Peony, Radiant Natural Health and Beauty. She lives and works in Oakland California.



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Friday Roundup - March 18, 2016

What I've been reading, writing, thinking about and indulging in this week

Measuring toxic cosmetics: This new study showed a large drop in detectable chemicals in the bodies of teenage girls just three days after they quit conventional personal care products. This study is also notable because the teenage subjects helped scientists to design it!

More teenage health issues: growing numbers of teenagers are using the Pill and other hormonal contraceptives, for birth control and for issues like menstrual regularity, cramps and acne. This article by naturopath Dr. Lara Briden gives some of the reasons why that's not great news.

Technology Pick-me-up: I probably look at my phone between 1 and 2 gajillion times a day. While I work on keeping technology in its place, I also tricked out my phone with some thoughtful and pretty wallpapers I found here.

Organs at Play: The Awkward Yeti is a favorite comic of mine, following the adventures of impulsive Heart and sensible Brain. This strip called 'overindulgence' features a guest appearance by Liver and made me laugh out loud.

I'll be gone on a ten day meditation retreat starting next week, so no Friday Roundups for a bit. I'll be back to rounding up on April 8!


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Kitchen wisdom for PMS symptoms

Traditional Chinese Medicine sees medicine as a continuum. Herbs are not only things you'll take as teas or pills when you're ill. They begin with food, and travel all the way to toxic substances (most modern drugs would fall into the latter category). We like to begin treatment with the most gentle, non-toxic approach, and only move into more possibly damaging substances and interventions if necessary. This philosophy of always beginning at the simplest, least interventionist solution is a big part of why I chose to become a holistic health practitioner and is my guiding philosophy. It's spelled out very beautifully by Western herbalist Susun Weed in Spirit and Practice of the Wise Woman Tradition

In that spirit, I'd like to share some simple solutions for a common source of misery: premenstrual symptoms such as bloating, headaches, moodiness and irritability. In Chinese Medicine, these are generally understood as imbalances in energy flow. If lifestyle changes like movement, dietary tweaks and rest don't shift your symptoms, level up to working with a practitioner and you'll likely find relief with acupuncture and herbs. But let's begin at the beginning - with some kitchen remedies by symptom. Enjoy (and feel better!)

Learn more with my previous article on easing PMS symptoms, and for more on food and healing in Chinese Medicine, check out Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford, Recipes for Self-Healing by Daverick Leggett and Real Food All Year by Nishanga Bliss

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Solving your Period Problems with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine

Solving your Period Problems with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine - talking with TCM gynecologist Denise Cicuto.

Photo by  Marie Halloran

Denise Cicuto is an acupuncturist and herbalist with two busy practices in San Francisco and Alameda. She’s a family physician with a special focus on gynecology and immune system issues. We’ve been friends and colleagues (and given each other lots of healing) since we met in acupuncture school almost 15 years ago. I talked with Denise last week about ‘Women’s Health’ and Chinese medicine.

Before we got to my questions about Denise’s practice and treatments, we talked a bit (and the recorder malfunctioned, hence this recap) about the gender spectrum, health care for transgender people, and how our feminism shapes our work as healers. The area of healthcare that Denise and I are talking about is usually called ‘Women’s Health’ - but in fact, not every woman has a period, or even a uterus - and not everyone who has a period or uterus is a woman. There’s not a great inclusive umbrella term yet to describe the connected areas of menstrual health, hormone health, fertility, infertility, childbearing, breastfeeding, breast health. As holistic physicians, Denise and I don’t compartmentalize these things anyway, but in our conversation we focused on ‘menstrual health’ and here, as in our work, we did our best to be inclusive and thoughtful in our use of language.

Kirsten: Denise, can you tell me about how you developed this interest and eventually specialization?

Denise: I first was introduced to acupuncture and Chinese medicine because I was diagnosed with endometriosis (a very painful condition of the uterine lining). I was either in tremendous pain or I was completely spaced out from pain killing drugs. It was taking a huge toll on my work and my life! I had a friend who was an acupuncturist who encourage me to try it. I was able to reduce and eventually eliminate the pain and the drugs for the pain. I was hooked and enrolled in acupuncture school myself.

K. What’s the most rewarding part of doing the kind of work for you?

Photo by  Chloe Jackman

Photo by Chloe Jackman

D: When a patient that I’ve been treating for severe menstrual pain comes in for an appointment, and can’t remember when their last period was, because it was painless! I also love getting ‘I’m pregnant’ emails and calls. And the only time I don’t mind a last minute cancellation is when my patients go into labor! You’re off the hook for my cancellation policy if you’re in your third trimester!

(Denise and I laughed constantly through the whole interview but I’m going to spare you the transcription of that dear readers!)

K: Well, on the other side of the coin, what do you find the most challenging part of this work?

D: The most challenging thing is definitely when folks expect miracles - dramatic changes in just a few treatments. Often, people come in to try ‘alternative’ medicine after they’ve exhausted all the treatments that western medicine has to offer. That means they’ve often had the condition for a long time and it’s deeply rooted. They could also be experiencing complications or other symptoms related to the Western treatments they’ve tried. The other thing that’s really challenging for us as practitioners is when our patients experience pregnancy loss. I’ve written an article about helping patients, and ourselves, when it happens - which it will. I’m also part of the community that created Spirit Babies , an annual ritual space for people who’ve been touched by pregnancy loss.

K: What is the most unexpected thing? Or something that surprises patients?

D: What surprises me is more like being amazed - I’m constantly amazed at how well our medicine works. I KNOW it works, but it still amazes me - to hear ‘my hot flashes are gone’ ‘my periods don’t hurt’

K: I know that feeling - it never gets old!

D: My patients are surprised by the results as well.

K: I sometimes have that feeling that the surprise has something to do with the fact that the culture around us doesn’t see it. Is that part of why we’re surprised? Because we don’t live in a culture that knows how well this works. Especially with menstrual health. The fact that most people don’t have to have irregular periods for example, if they got acupuncture and herbs, is news to most people.

D: Yes! I’m surprised more people don’t try it!

K: What do wish that everyone knew about TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) gynecology?

D: We don’t talk about our periods a lot. I would like people to know that if they got acupuncture - they’d have even LESS reason to talk about their period!

K: That’s your slogan! “don’t like talking about your periods? Get acupuncture and you won’t have anything to talk about because they’ll be no problem!”

(we paused here to laugh at our acupuncture joke)

K: How do you use A&P oils in your clinic?

D: I love using Swimming Dragon and moxa before the period, and Tranquil Palace and moxa during. And if patients aren’t coming in at that time, I send them home with A&P oils and a kit that is a belly bowl and moxa and they can put them on at home, I tell my patients where on the belly to put them. For regulating the period, moods, cramps, they can apply the oils to acupressure points. Under the breasts and the rib area under the breasts (Liver 14 area) is good for qi stagnation in the chest, with symptoms like breast distention and sighing, and for emotional issues - and I remind patients to take their hands and inhale the oil when they are done with massage - which will lift and calm your shen, your spirit.

K: So typically you’re doing treatments in the treatment room with the oils, but that protocol is one that folks can do at home as well? Oil and then moxa on top?

D: Yes. this is the best part about Chinese medicine for me - we involve our patients in the medicine. It’s not ‘come to acupuncture, get acupuncture, take pills, go home’. It’s your health journey - I’m just your guide!

K: So true! Especially the way that you practice, and that’s my motivation as well. You can literally be doing things for yourself and be creating a loving relationship with your body, through the healing practices you’re offering, like moxa, oils, acupuncture.

D: Yes, nutrition and exercise as well. Even if I don’t prescribe specific exercises, I’ll tell folks, talk to your yoga teacher about specific asanas. The best thing you can do for yourself - if you’re experiencing pain during any part of your menstrual cycle - is MOVE! One of my mentors, Daoshing Ni, always says that. The best thing to do is move. You’re moving your qi, moving your blood - even if it’s walking your dog, walking around the room - that’s the best thing you can do for yourself!

You can experience Denise’s healing touch yourself at either of her two clinics in San Francisco and Alameda, and mention Angelica & Peony to get 10% off your first visit!

Denise and I will be live on Periscope on Tuesday, September 22 at 4 pm PST to show you how you can use Angelica & Peony oils and her belly moxa kit to give yourself an at-home treatment.


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Friday Roundup - September 4

What I've been reading, writing, thinking about and indulging in this week.

Cinnamon bark getting ready for oil infusion

Cinnamon bark getting ready for oil infusion

Warm it up! I enjoyed (and shared) this article about 'womb-warming' herbs. 'Cold uterus' is a condition in Chinese medicine linked to a variety of health issues, like menstrual cramps, issues with fertility, ovarian cysts etc. Tranquil Palace Oil has ginger and some other warming herbs in it - part of the effect is has on pain. I've been refining a 'Warming Oil', infusing many of these herbs like cinnamon, ginger, mugwort into oil and adding essential oils - it's almost ready - just as we're coming in to fall!

Loving yourself is transformative:  My Body Belongs To Me: Navigating Racial Body Politics as a Fat Black Girl Anitra Winder writes from a tender, first person place about coming to love and appreciate your body as a black woman in a white supremacist world.

Lovingkindness: There's a lot of horrible stuff happening in the world right now. That's always true I guess. My friend and acupuncturist Prajna introduced me to this  LovingKindness Meditation as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh many years ago, and I'll be adding it to my practice this week.

"May all living beings live in security and peace - beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, visible or not visible, near or far away, already born or yet to be born. May all of them dwell in perfect tranquility."

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What Western Studies Say about Painful Periods Will Surprise You!

Image courtesy of stockimages at

Image courtesy of stockimages at

Painful periods are known in Western medicine as 'primary dysmenorrhea'. 'Primary' means there's no clear underlying cause (such as endometriosis, fibroids or cysts), and dysmenorrhea means 'bad monthly flow' which is pretty accurate! Painful periods affect almost all people who menstruate at some point in their lives, and at least 1 in 4 have pain severe enough to result in missing school or work. (source)

As an acupuncturist and herbalist, I know what to do for painful periods, and that most sufferers can experience tremendous relief using acupuncture, topical treatments, dietary and lifestyle changes, and herbal medicine. But I'm always curious about what Western style studies have to say. So I put on my adventuring hat and took a tour through PubMed, the archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine. Here's a few studies that you might find as interesting as I did!

1. A hot water bottle works better than acetaminophen. A randomized, single-blind (meaning the investigator asking the questions didn't know which treatment the women had received) study of 344 women found that a heat wrap not only relieved pain more effectively and for longer than acetaminophen, but also reduced fatigue and moodiness - probably because a hot water bottle is a lot nicer than a pill that can damage your liver! (source) Numerous other studies support this conclusion, finding heat therapy as effective or more effective than over the counter painkillers and NSAIDs.

2. Your kitchen cupboard works better than your medicine cabinet. Numerous studies conducted in Iran (where traditional Persian medicine uses these herbs medicinally) found that common spices are more effective than ibuprofen - with no risks of side-effects. Researchers studied ginger, fenugreek and cinnamon. Ginger stopped nausea as well as pain (source), fenugreek reduced pain, as well as other symptoms such as fatigue, headache, nausea, and fainting, better than ibuprofen (source), and cinnamon reduced both pain and heaviness of bleeding better than the drug (source). Wow!

3. Acupuncture works better than anything else! Well, I could have told you that without inflicting any scientific jargon on either of us! Acupuncture is very hard to study in a typical Western way (here's a long article about it), but the overall consensus is that it works (source, source, sourcesource)

You can learn even more about what really works to stop period pain at my upcoming class with Denise Cicuto of Cicuto Acupuncture, Sunday, July 19 at 4 pm, at Back to Life Wellness in Alameda. Get more info and RSVP on facebook


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