Headaches. We all get them, and when we do, all we want to do is get rid of them, as quickly as possible. While there’s no shortage of prescription and over-the-counter meds on the market designed to kill the pain, as most people with a headache will tell you, few if any really work – nor do they get to the root causes. Worse, the more you try to ‘treat’ them with drugs, the more likely you’ll get sucker-punched with rebound headaches, a common side-effect. What else do headache meds do? They make you sick in other places, wreaking havoc on your liver and kidneys as well as your belly, triggering leaky gut, gastrointestinal problems and system-wide inflammation.
So what’s a headache sufferer to do? Here’s what’s going on in your head, plus a few healthy strategies to help you fight off headaches – and win:
Oh, my aching head!
Although it may be labeled as a migraine, tension, sinus or cluster headache, whatever the type, headaches are complicated. Generally, there are multiple causal factors at work and, in my experience, there’s usually a tension component involved, so that should be a factor in treatment. It’s also helpful to be conscious of how lifestyle habits and behaviors can trigger headaches to help you figure out the best strategy to fight back. Among the more common culprits:
1. Unrelieved stress and tension which also leads to poor quality sleep.
2. The modern office: where so many are slumped over in poorly designed desk spaces and office chairs for hours each day, with eyes being strained by computer screen glare and florescent lighting.
3. Not moving enough, or overdoing it at the weight room or spin class, which can cause blood vessels to swell and exertion headaches to follow.
4. Processed foods and foods containing gluten and sugar lead the headache parade, with chocolate, caffeine, cheese, and alcohol not far behind. Another headache-maker? Not eating enough good fats as well as several other nutritional shortfalls.
5. Prescription drugs such as antibiotics, allergy meds, blood pressure meds, anti-anxiety meds, diabetes meds, migraine meds, pain killers, sleep aids, you name it – just about any prescription drug can trigger headaches.
Do a little detective work.
If you’re feeling less than well for a prolonged period of time, and are experiencing frequent digestive distress as well as headaches, it’s probably time to try a Cleanse or an elimination diet for a few weeks. I recommend them because some food sensitivities trigger headaches and a Cleanse or an elimination diet removes the common foods that can trigger them, enabling you to figure out the food sources of your troubles (and rebalance your gut).
Bring on the healing hands.
No matter what type of headache you’ve got, to address the almost universal tension component, put your own hands, or someone else’s, to work for you, to massage the head and neck and release the tension. If you’re not sure how to perform a headache self-care massage, try a YouTube tutorial, or book a professional deep-tissue massage session – and don’t forget to release tension in the jaw which is essential. The placing heat packs on neck and shoulders, and CDB oil, can offer additional relief. To relieve pain, try placing an ice pack or cubes at the temples.
Think outside the pill box.
Acupuncture is another safe and highly effective way to relieve the frequency and severity of headaches and migraines. When pressed for time, drop into salons that offer seated chair massage and ask for a 15-30 minute neck and shoulder treatment. If you like a more hands-off approach, book a session or two at a spa with a ‘salt cave’ or infrared sauna to help relieve and prevent headaches. Another option to consider is biofeedback, which can lower blood pressure and help with pain relief.
Please, make it stop…now!
When you feel a headache coming on, instead of heading to the drug store, head to the natural health store to pick up a healthy quick fixer: essential oils like peppermint, eucalyptus and lavender. All offer headache-pain-taming effects and can reduce headache-related nausea. You can either inhale the scent, or massage the oils onto the temples and forehead as directed. Many of my on-the-go patients like the roll-ons for their go-anywhere convenience, though bottled oils work equally well.
Push Pain Off Your Plate
Since pain and inflammation tend to go hand in hand, you can side-step a lot of headache pain by laying off inflammatory foods. Topping the list of pain ‘flamers: sugar, gluten, refined flours, processed foods, and sugary beverages. When it comes to alcohol, the occasional glass of (preferably organic) wine at dinner shouldn’t cause instant agony, but the less alcohol you drink, the better – the last thing a headache sufferer needs is a hangover.
Eat a pain-tamer.
For many headache sufferers, a diet lacking in magnesium and/or omega-3 fatty acids may be part of the problem. When you fall short on omega-3s, you short-change your body’s ability to curb inflammation, which can also contribute to headache pain. So add omega-3-rich oily fish like mackerel, sardines or salmon to your diet to cut headaches down to size – and possibly even avoid them altogether. Ditto magnesium-rich leafy greens and sulfur-rich veggies like garlic, onions, scallions and chives, as well as cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower.
Take edible and drinkable pain relief with you.
For those on-the-go, add portable green drink powders to your daily routine. Add water and these green drinks, made from leafy greens and spinach, are great sources of headache-fighting magnesium. At the office, keep a few feverfew tea bags in your desk drawer so you can brew up cups of headache-relieving tea as needed.
Drink your way out of the headache hole.
A lot of us walk this earth dehydrated, and we don’t have a clue. Too much coffee, overheated homes and offices, sweaty workouts, frequent airplane trips, certain meds, alcohol use – any and all can leave you significantly under-watered, which reduces the amount of oxygen available to the brain and impacts pain receptors in ways that can make your head hurt. So, as if you needed one more reason, drink up!
Give yourself an edge.
In addition to covering your nutritional and behavioral bases with whole foods, relaxation techniques, quality sleep and gentle movement, I also recommend the following supplements to cover any pain-promoting nutritional shortfalls: magnesium glycinate, fish oil (especially if fish is not your dish), vitamin D and B-Complex.
Keep it moving.
Move more, hurt less. And stretch your upper body as often as possible to keep tension from collecting in your head and neck, ground zero for tension headaches. Doing a few yoga stretches in the morning, and whenever possible throughout the day, will also keep muscles from bunching up. An end-of-day relaxing yoga class or a few restorative yoga poses just before bed will help keep headaches at bay.
Get your office act together.
To reduce daily eyestrain and some of the common work-day headache triggers, switch to a desk lamp and kill the overhead lights whenever possible. Reduce the brightness on your computer screen and be sure that your screen is always at eye-level (even if you have to work on a laptop). Make sure to take frequent screen breaks, and get up from your chair at least once an hour (and hopefully more!). Be sure that your desk set-up is ergonomically correct — get the boss to spring for a sit-to-stand riser for your monitor and an under-the-desk keyboard tray. All of these desk tweaks will help cut eye, neck and shoulder strain while reducing your weekly headache tally.
Last but not least.
You might change “Not tonight, honey, I have a headache” to “Yes tonight, honey, I have a headache.” The hormone oxytocin is secreted in your body through sexual arousal and orgasm which in turn causes the release of endorphins that act as a powerful analgesic. So, get busy – and feel better!