headaches — consider yourselves very lucky. Headaches can be extremely debilitating, causing missed days at work and even costly trips to the emergency room. Depending on the type of headache, the pain can range from mild to incredibly severe and can come with a whole host of additional symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, vertigo and even delirium.
In 2009, the CDC published data showing that more people suffered from migraines than from neck pain, and that migraines were second only to lower back pain. Interestingly, headaches and other types of pain syndromes are very common, but really hard to treat.
Headaches Remain a MysteryWe don’t actually know what causes migraines, but there are different theories. One theory attributes headaches to irregular constriction and dilation of blood vessels in the brain. This classical theory has gained acceptance for many years, and there is probably some truth to it. Support of this theory comes from brain scans. Doctors have been able to show that when people suffer migraines, for instance, there’s diminished blood flow to the brain.1 But most neurologists believe it’s more complicated than just diminished blood flow and that it might also involve neurotransmitter imbalances.
This neurotransmitter theory is supported by research pointing towards irregular serotonin metabolism as a possible culprit. Drops in brain serotonin levels have been observed during episodes of migraine. In addition, drugs called triptans that stimulate serotonin receptors have been shown to reduce the migraine-related symptoms.2
So, we may not know for sure what causes them, but this we definitely know: most people who suffer chronic headaches have “triggers.”
Headaches Require a TriggerA trigger is anything that precedes the onset of a headache. Although there are common ones, people have reported just about everything as a trigger.
Here are some common triggers:
- Food sensitivities (a.k.a. “slow acting allergies”) can trigger migraine headaches. Food sensitivities are delayed immune reactions caused by the ingestion of certain foods. A double blind study showed how restricting one’s diet based on IgG food sensitivity testing reduced the frequency of migraine attacks.4
Food sensitivities are hard to pinpoint. Physical symptoms often manifest themselves several days after the ingestion of an offending food. One way to determine food sensitivities is through IgG blood testing.
- Tyramine is found in aged cheese, salami, soy sauce, and red wine. If it’s aged, chances are it’s going to contain a good amount of tyramine. Not everyone gets headaches after eating tyramine-rich foods. Only certain people are “sensitive” to it.5
- Hormone imbalances are associated with headaches. Many women can attest to experiencing a crippling headache during menses. Research suggests that it may be due to an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone levels. One study showed that migraines were more severe during the phase of the menstrual cycle when estrogen is dominant, and that women with relatively higher levels of progesterone fared better.6 Comprehensive hormone testing can rule out existing hormone imbalances.
- When we are stressed, we tense the muscles in our head and neck. This muscle tension can then lead to tension headaches. Try yoga. Not only does it alleviate stress, it may even reduce the severity of headaches.7 Yoga relieves tense muscles.
What Type of Headache Do You Have?Knowing the type of headache you’re suffering from can help you in deciding what form of treatment will work for you. There are basically four types of headaches: Tension, migraine, cluster and sinus. Let’s take a look at each one.
- Tension headaches
The majority of headaches are tension headaches. Tension headaches are usually associated with stress. These headaches tend to be mild and felt on both sides of the head. Some people describe it as having a “tight band” around their head.
Migraines are usually felt as throbbing pain on one side of the head. Sensitivity to light and sound may accompany a migraine headache.
- Cluster headaches
Cluster headaches come in patterns — hence the name. These headaches attack repeatedly for certain periods of time (weeks or even months) and then disappear. The pain is intense and usually felt on one side of the head and/or around the eyes. These headaches can wake you up in the middle of the night.
- Sinus headaches
Sinus headaches are characterized by dull throbbing pain felt around the eyes, forehead, or cheeks. The face may be tender to touch. Sinus headaches are often precipitated by sinus infections.
Managing Headaches NaturallyYou probably won’t get rid of your headaches overnight, but if you make certain changes in your lifestyle, over time you may see a decrease in the frequency and severity of your headaches. Some of us are genetically predisposed3 and may never eliminate these dreaded episodes, but the good news is there are many things you can try that have been clinically shown to be helpful.
For starters, try to incorporate these foods and supplements into your daily regimen:
- Chili peppers: An ingredient in chili peppers called capsaicin inhibits substance P, a neuropeptide which triggers pain. If you’re brave, you can try chili pepper spray. This works well for cluster headaches based on a double blind study. But a word of caution: Do not make you own chili pepper spray - buy one from your local supplement store.8
- Ginger: Many researchers believe that inflammation is related to the onset of migraines. Ginger acts through several mechanisms to ease inflammation and pain. A preparation of feverfew and ginger reduced the severity of migraine headaches in a group of study participants.8
- Magnesium: According to one estimate, a whopping 68% of Americans are magnesium deficient.9 Magnesium is important for blood vessel relaxation and circulation. Oral supplementation with magnesium has been shown to reduce the frequency and duration of migraines.10 Consider at least 450 mg daily.
- CoQ10: CoQ10 is a vitamin-like compound found in our cells. Low CoQ10 blood levels have been found in individuals who suffer migraines,11 and clinical trials have demonstrated that 150 mg a day may reduce the frequency of headaches.12
- Butterbur: A plant extract that contains petasin, a phytochemical that inhibits inflammation through a variety of mechanisms and may reduce spasms in smooth muscle which relaxes the constriction of cerebral blood vessels.13
- Kasper DL, Braunwald DE, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 16th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional; 2005.
- J Clin Pharmacol. 2000 Jul;40(7):687–700.
- Curr Opin Neurol. 2004 Jun;17(3):283-8.
- Cephalalgia. 2010 Jul;30(7):829-37. Epub 2010 Mar 10.
- Clin J Pain. 2009 Jun;25(5):446-52.
- Headache. 2005 Oct;45(9):1190–1201.
- Headache. 2007 May;47(5):654-61.
- Cephalalgia. 1993 Apr;13(2):114-6.
- J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Jun 24(3):166-71.
- Headache. 2003 Jun;43(6):601-10.
- Headache. 2007 Jan;47(1):73-80.
- Cephalalgia. 2002 Mar;22(2):137–41.
- Altern Med Rev. 2001 Apr;6(2):207-9.
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