Sweet Relief – How The Sweet Taste Reduces Pain

Did you know that pain can be reduced by tasting something sweet? A recent podcast (sorry, I forget which one it was) by a taste scientist spoke of when she had been suffering from excruciating tooth pain and couldn’t see her dentist for 48 hours. Knowing that the sweet taste relieved pain, she decided to sit quietly and lick on a candy all day long. She had to remain quite focussed, as the slightest distraction would cause her to lose the effect.

A news article about the effects of eating something sweet as a pain reliever corroborates this idea that the sweet taste is a painkiller:

Babies should be given something sugary before a jab to reduce pain, Canadian researchers say.

Experts at the University of Toronto say new-borns are less likely to cry if given a few drops of a sugar solution before immunisation.

Data based on 1,000 injections suggests infants given a glucose solution are 20% less likely to cry following a jab.

The research, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, is based on clinical data from 14 studies.

As well as the findings related to glucose, the researchers found that between a few drops and half a teaspoon of sucrose and glucose also led to a small reduction in the amount of time a baby spent crying.

From ‘Sugar drops ease baby jab pain’ (BBC News Article)

In ayurveda, the effect of taste is well understood. Ayurveda teaches that we experience 6 tastes:

  • Sweet
  • Sour (like lemons or vinegar)
  • Salty
  • Pungent (spicy)
  • Bitter (like green tea)
  • Astringent (drying, makes your mouth pucker)

Each taste has its own particular action, physical and mental, including an effect on the doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. Of the three doshas, vata is the one that is mainly responsible for pain. Pain manifests thanks to vata dosha. In ayurveda, pain means you have an excess state of vata dosha, and excess vata can be reduced by using these three tastes:

  • Sweet
  • Sour
  • Salty

But in particular, pain is reduced by the sweet taste. According to the ayurvedic texts:

Madhura rasa (sweet taste) is understood by its adhering to the inside of the mouth when put into it, providing a feeling of contentment or pleasure to the body and comfort to the sense organs. Madhura (sweet taste) being accustomed since birth, produces greater strength in the dhatus (tissues), is very valuable for children and the aged, the wounded, the emaciated, is good for the colour (complexion), hairs, sense organs, and ojas (essence of the tissues), causes stoutness of the body, good for the throat, increases breast milk, unites broken things (fracture of bones etc.), not easily digestible (hard to digest), prolongs life, helps life activities; is unctuous, mitigates pitta, vata – and visha (poison). By excess use it produces diseases arising from fat and kapha, obesity, dyspepsia, unconsciousness, diabetes, enlargements of glands of the neck etc., malignant tumour (cancer) and such others. [Ashtanga Hridayam, Sutrasthana, Chapter 5, Sutras 2 and 7-9]

In fact, ayurveda goes further by stating that vata is reduced whenever we eat something. For the hour or so following a meal, our body produces more kapha (cohesion, saliva, mucus), particularly in the stomach, where it helps liquefy and mix foods. During this part of the digestive cycle, vata is pacified; hence, in general, pain is reduced. This is one reason why people turn to food in general when they are in pain, physical or emotional. Boredom is also helped when we eat; as boredom is a state of excess vata.

So it would seem that the idea of giving a child a sweetie to comfort them after they have hurt themselves is not such a bad idea after all. I don’t know who, but someone once said to me that that was a bad idea as it might create a psycho-somatic link in the child’s subconscious that makes them turn to candy and chocolate whenever they are feeling emotionally hurt. I disagree with this concern. Children need to be taught not to eat junk sweets all day long as part of their diet. But if my kid falls off his bike, I am more than happy to offer them piece of candy, or a spoonful of honey as well as a reassuring hug of course.

Even sweet smelling things can reduce pain according to recent research (1). Love is also sweet, so is the reassurance of embrace, so when pain knocks at your door, try these simple non-drug treatments:

#1 Taste: Taste something sweet, like sucking on a piece of candy or a liquorice stick

#2 Touch: Find someone to hug you, or better still, treat yourself to a soothing body massage (using sweet smelling fragrant oils)

#3 Talk: Call your mum or a loved one and listen to their soothing words*

So, remember – for pain relief, the three ‘Ts’:

Taste Touch Talk

*This has been shown to have the same effect as a loving hug – check out this recent news story:

Mother’s phone call ‘can be as soothing as a hug’

US researchers put more than 60 girls in a stressful situation and monitored their hormonal responses when they were either phoned or hugged afterwards. Their mother’s voice produced virtually the same amount of the stress-quelling hormone oxytocin as physical comfort. The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The girls, aged between seven and 12, were asked to make an impromptu speech and then solve a series of sums in front of a panel of strangers – experiences which sent their hearts racing and levels of the stress hormone cortisol soaring. Full BBC Article

Actually, ayurveda uses all 5 senses to reduce pain through applying sweetness via each sense faculty. Sweetness, being composed of ‘water’ and ‘earth’ elements (states of matter) means nourishing, loving, stable, safe and soft and so on. Using all 5 sense, we could prescribe the following formula to ensure a maximum dose of sweetness in times when urgent pain relief is needed:

  1. Sweet sounding music and loving words.
  2. Sweet therapeutic touch through a hug, gentle massage, stroking of hair. Get a cat and stroke it!
  3. Sweet sights – like seeing soft landscapes, cute animals, babies, that sort of thing
  4. Sweet tasting foods.
  5. Sweet smelling odours – use an essential oil diffuser and put some geranium or ylang-ylang in it for example.

Alex Duncan, France.

(1) John Prescott and Jenell Wilkie, ‘Pain Tolerance Selectively Increased by a Sweet-Smelling Odor’ Psychological Science April 2007 18:308-311. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/18/4/308.abstract

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