The ‘ache’ part of a headache is not derived from the brain, which feels no pain itself, but from highly sensitive nerve endings within the walls of the arteries (blood vessels) that supply blood to the brain. Pain registers when these arteries constrict or dilate.
Whatever causes this change to the arteries, causes the headache. Headaches are rarely life threatening, but can make your life miserable. The odd painkiller is fine for the odd headache, but if you suffer headaches every week or more often, the cause should be sought and remedied.
What causes it?
Headaches are very much a symptom rather than a disease. Nutting out the cause is fundamental to determining a cure. Headaches can be due to a number of factors or triggers listed below, and very often are multifactorial. One or maybe two triggers may not be enough to cause a headache, however, the third trigger may be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. If your headache doesn’t neatly fit into any of the following categories, and if pain persists, as they say on TV, see your doctor.
Stress and Tension Headache
This very common type of headache occurs from emotional or physical stress. Either way, if the muscles of your shoulders and neck tense up, the thin layer of muscle over the scalp can be tense too. Tension headaches are often felt from the neck up and over the back of the head.
What to do
- Have a back and shoulder massage every week. In addition, learn some stretches to relax your neck and shoulders when stress occurs – don’t wait for the tension to build up. One simple method is to sit or stand with your back straight. Tuck your chin in and look down to your left foot, while dropping your right shoulder. Increase the stretch by gentle pressure of your left hand pulling down. Reverse sides.
- A glass of alcohol may relieve a tension headache temporarily as it dilates blood vessels, but don’t depend on this as your regular treatment.
- Magnesium, 200 mg taken 3 times daily (less for children) can relieve muscle spasm or try a tablet of magnesia (sp)? phosphate (mag. phos.) and potassium phosphate (kali. phos.) tissue salts each hour for the duration of the headache.
- Add 2 handfuls of Epsom salts and 7 drops of lavender oil to a bathtub full of warm water and soak your tension away.
- Rub a couple of drops of lavender or rosemary oil into your temples.
- Put your feet in a tub of hot-as-you-can-stand water with a few drops of lavender oil. On your forehead and back of your neck place a cool, damp facecloth. Keep still for 15 minutes.
- Press the acupuncture point He-Gu, or ‘Joining of the Valleys’, which is situated at the vortex between thumb and first finger. Dig deep into this spot with the opposite thumb, and massage in a tight circle for about a minute. Then, for another minute, massage the scalp deeply as a good hairdresser does when shampooing you. Do another minute of He-Gu on the other hand and finish off with a final minute on the scalp. Your headache should disappear within 4 minutes.
- Herbs to help with stress and tension headaches include valerian, vervain, St. John’s wort, passionflower, skullcap and lavender. Take in tea, tablet or tincture form. A tea will work the quickest.
- Buteyko breathing will help a stress headache as it helps to relax smooth muscle. Smooth muscle lines blood vessels, including in the head.
- See Stress Stress
Low Blood Sugar Headache
This type of headache disappears a few minutes after eating. Often felt as a dull throb at the temples, if you have a headache, feel dizzy or become irritable when you miss meals, it is likely that your blood sugar levels are low.
What to do
- Eat small meals every 2–3 hours. Make sure there is some protein with each meal.
- Avoid caffeine and sugar; they cause havoc to blood sugar levels.
- With each meal, take a supplement containing a combination of chromium, zinc, magnesium, manganese and B vitamins to restore blood sugar balance.
Yes, it can be this simple. Is your mouth dry? Have you been drinking coffee all day and not enough water? Try the skin pinch test. Pull the skin on top of your hand so it is all bunched up. If it takes longer than a couple of seconds to go back into place, you probably are a little dehydrated.
What to do
- To quickly rehydrate, drink some water with a little apple or pear juice added.
- Drink at least 2 litres of fluid a day, more on hot days and when you exercise.
Food Chemical Sensitivities Headache
Certain food chemicals, natural and artificial, can cause headaches. These headaches can be a little tricky to diagnose, as they can occur up to 72 hours after consuming the suspect substance.
What to do
- Try avoiding the suspected allergen for a couple of weeks. The following is a list of likely suspects. – Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, is a combination of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. There have been reported instances of migraine after consuming products containing aspartame. Check the nutritional information on anything containing artificial sweeteners. – Nitrates in food can cause the ‘hot-dog headache’. Nitrates are used to preserve meat and maintain its rosy hue, even though the animal last drew breath years ago. Nitrates are common in salami, sausages, devon, hot dogs, pastrami and smoked salmon. – Vasoactive amines are derived from amino acids and though most people have the enzyme that breaks them down, those who have less of the enzyme seem more likely to react to foods containing them. Vasoactive amines include histamine and tyramine and are found in aged cheese, chicken liver, pickled herring, deli meats such as salami, sour cream and red wine. – MSG, occurring naturally in some foods but added to others such as takeaway, can also be a common headache trigger.
Hangover headaches are a common side effect of drinking too much alcohol. We get hangovers for various reasons. The first is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes us to wee prolifically. As urine is mostly water, the water has to come from somewhere in the body, including the bloodstream and the brain. The second cause of hangovers is a build-up of acetaldehyde, a substance released as alcohol is broken down. Ipso facto, the more alcohol you have swimming around, the more hangover-causing acetaldehyde there will be. The third cause of hangovers is due to a group of chemicals called congeners. Congeners are added to certain kinds of alcohol to enhance flavour and colour. In general, the darker the colour and the less expensive the alcohol is, the more congeners there will be. Vodka and gin have less congeners than dark rum, brandy, bourbon and scotch. Top-shelf liquors have less congeners than house brands. Sometimes it pays to be a snob.
What to do
- Try to match each alcoholic drink with a glass of water to avoid dehydration and the worst of the hangover symptoms.
- Avoid fizzy and sweet alcoholic drinks. The fizz increases the rate of alcohol absorption and the sweetness masks the taste of the alcohol so you are likely to drink more than normal. Fruit daiquiris are prime offenders.
- When you get home, drink a diluted sports drink to top up your electrolyte levels.
- The hair of the dog is not recommended unless you are a masochist or obsessive pet fancier.
- If you know you will drink more than perhaps you should, take the following supplements the day before and the day after: St. Mary’s thistle, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium. including 50 mg each of B1, B2, B3, 400 mcg of folic acid and 100 mcg of B12, 15–30 mg of zinc and 300–500 mg of magnesium. (maybe too much info on dosages?)
‘Your Neck Is Out’ Headache
Very commonly, headaches occur when there is a misalignment of the neck or back.
What to do
- Seek advice from your osteopath, massage therapist, chiropractor or physiotherapist.
- Be aware of your posture throughout the day, in the car, at work, watching the telly.
- Natural anti-inflammatories including turmeric, quercetin and ginger can work well. Take every second hour when pain is severe and make that appointment with your body worker.
Caffeine Withdrawal Headache
Caffeine withdrawal headaches (CWHs) are throbbers. While drinking more than 4 cups of coffee each day increases your risk of headaches by 20–30 per cent, it’s when you decide to quit that the real humdinger of a headache hits. But it’s only temporary. In general the CWH only lasts 24 hours, but some can extend for days.
What to do
- If you want to quit caffeine (coffee, cola and tea), don’t go cold turkey. Reduce gradually.
- Drink plenty of water and if necessary, take a pharmaceutical pain killer, as this headache is a once off.
- The tissue salt iron phosphate (ferrum. phos.) is good for a throbbing headache.
- The homeopathic remedy coffea is also good for this type of headache.
Occurring most often in the days leading up to menstruation, these headaches can be brutal. Some women notice headaches when taking the oral contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy. If you are not sure whether your headache is due to hormones or not, put a note in your diary every time you get a headache. After 3 months a cyclic pattern will emerge if your headache ‘qualifies’ as hormonal. The following can also be helpful. – Vitex agnus castus tincture or tablet each morning. – Black cohosh is good for headaches during menopause. – Take 3 g evening primrose oil a day throughout the month. – In addition to a women’s multivitamin, take B6 and magnesium. – Try the homeopathic remedy, pulsatilla.
The problem with high-blood pressure is that very often you don’t know you have it. However, one of the few symptoms that people notice is a headache, sometimes described as ‘fullness in the head’.
What to do
- Decrease salt in your diet.
- Lose weight if necessary.
- Increase exercise.
- See High Blood Pressure .
- Buteyko breathing may help reduce blood pressure and hypertension headaches.
Sinus headaches are felt above and behind the eyes and become worse if you bend forward. Press firmly on the eyebrows and cheekbones. If this feels painful, inflamed or infected sinuses may be the problem.
What to do
- Use a neti pot each morning.
- Take a tablet containing garlic, horseradish, eyebright, golden seal, golden rod and/or vitamin C.
- Drink lots of clear, hot fluids, including 2 cups of fenugreek tea a day.
- Avoid milk products if they add to your sinus congestion.
- If you are a chronic sinus sufferer, Buteyko breathing will help.
- See Sinusitis
The bowel is a major organ of elimination. If elimination is slow, as happens with constipation, toxic substances can be released into the bloodstream, resulting in, on this occasion, a headache. These are dull headaches and are often associated with a bad taste in the mouth, bad breath and coated tongue.
What to do
- Drink at least 2 litres of fluid a day.
- Eat fibre-rich food (fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains) and take a soluble fibre supplement such as psyllium husks.
- Exercise daily.
- Take magnesium if your constipation is due to stress. - See Constipation
Lack Of Sleep Headache
Most of us need a good e8ight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
What to do
- Californian poppy, valerian, passionflower and kava are all good for insomnia.
- Pray that your infant starts sleeping through the night.
- See Insomnia
Eyestrain is an often-overlooked cause of headache. If you have blurred vision and light sensitivity, it is more than likely that your headache is eyestrain related.
- Supplements helpful for eyesight include betacarotene, lycopene, vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthon.
- Foods good for eyesight include dark green leafy vegetables, Asian greens, kale, spinach, sweet corn, egg yolk, mandarins, tangerines, oranges, persimmons, orange capsicum, carrots, rockmelon, broccoli, processed tomato products (eg tomato sauce, sun-dried tomatoes), watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya and guava.
- Have your eyes checked by an optometrist.
- Make sure you take regular ‘screen breaks’ away from your computer and increase your font size and screen resolution to reduce the strain.
- Try the He-Gu, or ‘Joining of the Valleys’, pressure-point method (see above).
- Practise eye exercises daily. Focus on your finger when it is a couple of inches away from your face, keep your sights on the finger as you take it to arm’s distance. Bring the finger in again, then follow with your eyes as you take the finger left and right as far as your field of vision. Then up and down. Try to do this exercise twice a day.
Migraine is a different animal altogether than a headache. In the grip of a migraine, all you want to do is lie in a dark and quiet room. Migraines can throb (sometimes on only one side of head) and may occur with nausea or vomiting. Visual disturbances and ultra-sensitivity to light are other common symptoms.
Although more dramatic than the humble headache, once you have identified the various triggers, migraines can be well managed, or at least minimised.
What to do
- Hormones often play a role in migraine headaches. Vitex and black cohosh are a good place to start.
- A migraine may be triggered by certain foods such as aspartame, cheese, oranges, chocolate and red wine.
- For a small percentage of sufferers, feverfew may help to prevent migraines. Take a tablet, or small leaf, every day for a month. Feverfew, taken at this preventative dose, is safe to use for the rest of your life.
- Acupuncture can help some migraine sufferers.
- Buteyko breathing will help if the blood vessels are constricted
At a glance
The remedies you choose should relate to the triggers you consider likely causes of your headache. Following are some general recommendations.
- Eat small meals every 2–3 hours to keep blood-sugar levels steady.
- Avoid possible trigger foods including nitrates found in deli meats, aspartame found in some artificial sweeteners, aged chees, oranges, chocolate and red wine.
- Drink at least 2 litres of fluid daily to avoid getting dehydrated.
- Eat fibre-rich food including legumes, seeds, nuts and vegetables to avoid constipation.
- Reduce salt to decrease risk of high blood pressure.
- Magnesium is excellent for any muscle tension – the cause of many headaches.
- Vitex agnus castus and black cohosh will help any hormonal headache.
- Kava, valerian, passionflower, skullcap, vervain, lavender and St. Johns wort will help if your headache is due to stress.
- Make a beeline for your body worker. Very often headaches are due to muscular skeletal imbalance. Chiro, physio, massage – whichever modality and practitioner you prefer.
- Rub lavender oil into each temple.
- The acupuncture point He-Gu, or ‘Joining of the Valleys’, can help reduce the pain of most headaches.