Q: I get frequent headaches. Tylenol and over-the-counter pain meds don’t work. I definitely don’t want to get constipated and addicted to opiates, but I can’t function at all on my headache days. Can you help?
—Joy E., Honolulu
A: First, it’s important to note that if you have a new, sudden, intense, non-resolving headache, this could be a medical emergency and you need an MRI as soon as possible. In most cases, however, headaches are an ongoing issue that can plague people throughout their lives. And they’re tricky for health care providers to sort out. To find the most effective treatment, it’s critical to examine any patterns to your headaches and try to determine what’s triggering them.
Causes and Treatment of Chronic Headaches
One common cause of headaches or migraines in women is hormonal shifts. These happen in a major way at puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, but hormones also change dramatically as part of the monthly cycle during your fertile years.
If your headaches occur before menstruation, this is because of high levels of estrogen and progesterone precipitously dropping off. A tincture of Vitex (chaste berry)—one dropperful daily throughout the month—can lessen the steep drop-off of progesterone and help provide relief.
You can also employ a seed rotation diet to help smooth out hormonal shifts, but be aware that this will increase your fertility! So if you are sexually active and do not want to get pregnant, be sure to have a birth control method in place if you try this headache remedy. I favor condoms since those protect against STDs as well, and don’t mess with hormones. You can also try a non-hormone IUD (ParaGard).
The seed rotation plan involves Day 1 of your cycle (first day of menstrual bleeding) to mid-cycle (usually day 13–15). Take 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds and 3 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds—stirred into a salad, soup, or applesauce—daily during this time. Then, in the days between ovulation (mid-cycle) and the end of your cycle, switch to 1 tablespoon sesame seeds and 3 tablespoons sunflower seeds daily.
If your headache occurs mid-cycle, when only estrogen is high, try an anti-estrogenic diet for three months. This basically means cutting back on animal foods—cheese, beef, pork, and chicken—or avoiding them altogether.
Other Potential Causes
If your headaches are not related to hormonal changes, heat, ice, or pressure will often alleviate the symptoms, and these treatments can give clues as to the origin of the headache as well. For example, if you put a wrung-out hot towel over your shoulders and that relieves the headache, you likely have a tension headache from tight upper-back muscles.
If you have a more classic migraine (too much blood pushing into the skull and putting pressure on the brain), then ice at the base of your neck and lying flat in a dark room will help. Sometimes the ice pack works better over the eyes.
Sometimes pressure, like tying a bandana around your temples rather tightly will relieve headache pain. If that is true, the homeopathic remedy Bryonia may also help, especially if you tend to have dry mouth and lips. If the headache is always on the right side, homeopathic Sanguinaria may help. If left-sided, try Lachesis. If you have a dull, hammering headache at the base of your skull, your scalp is sore to touch, and it feels like there’s a band around your head, try Gelsemium.
Homeopathic remedies tend to work quickly—within 20 minutes—and are widely available over-the-counter in 30C potencies. Just one tiny tablet placed under your tongue is sufficient to assess whether the remedy will help. If it does help, continue with 1 tablet daily for 10 days. If it helps a bit, try taking 1 tablet three times daily for 7–10 days.
Research has also shown that hand temperature drops 2 or more degrees before a migraine begins. Warming your hands will reduce the severity of the headache, and may even abort it. So try placing your hands in warm water at the first hint of headache and assess if this method is helpful for you. Stanford Medical School has developed a device that warms the hands in a type of vacuum chamber that increases blood flow, which will, of course, warm the hands.
Possible Food Triggers
Folks who get frequent headaches tend to have a higher level of circulating histamine than others. Foods that you are allergic or sensitive to will cause your mast cells to dump histamine into the bloodstream, and this often results in a headache. The top food triggers for migraines include:
- Added sugar or artificial sweeteners
- Cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products
- Aged or processed meats (hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, bacon, ham)
- MSG (sometimes called hydrolyzed vegetable protein or even natural flavoring)
- Alcoholic beverages
- Any liquid other than water
- Any food you are known to be allergic to
- Any food you note triggers a migraine
Determining the exact cause can be tricky, so you have to be your own best detective. One approach is to commit to a hypoallergenic diet for a minimum of 2 weeks. Avoid the “big 9” of wheat, dairy, corn, soy, peanuts, shellfish, tomatoes, eggs, and caffeine. The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook by Alissa Segersten and Tom Malterre offers a collection of delicious recipes made without these problem ingredients.
Sticking to a diet this strict isn’t easy, but it’s essential to determine whether your headaches are caused by food choices. If 2–6 weeks on a hypoallergenic diet doesn’t help your headaches, work with a naturopathic physician or well-trained nutritional therapist to look for less-common food allergens. These could be literally anything: garlic, chocolate, apples, strawberries, nuts. It takes some sleuthing to figure out, but it’s well worth the effort because irritating foods don’t just cause headaches. They can chronically irritate other parts of your system, such as blood vessels and the brain, as well.
Other Ways to Stop the Pain
Your built-in pain medication is endorphins, which reliably increase with exercise. Endorphins are similar to narcotics—they relieve and prevent pain—without the side effects. Aerobic exercise causes a rapid increase in endorphin levels. Build 15–30 minutes of cardio exercise into your schedule, 3–5 times per week. Studies have documented a 50 percent or more decrease in headache frequency after 6 weeks of exercise. So stick with it!
Drink lots of water, and only water if possible. Kombucha is a wonderful drink, but like alcohol it may trigger a migraine. If you smoke, quit. If you use a rescue medicine more than twice a week you have definitely set yourself up for rebound headaches. I strongly advise that you work with a qualified natural health care provider to wean to a minimum use of rescue pharmaceuticals. Of course, I don’t want you to suffer, but long term, migraine medicine will jerk your blood pressure around and actually cause you to have more frequent headaches.
The natural cellular enhancer CoQ10 may help, especially if you trend toward high blood pressure. Try taking 200 mg daily. Some folks also find that 400 mg daily of vitamin B (riboflavin) helped their headaches. An herbal preparation of butterbur called Petadolex has also been shown to significantly reduce headaches. One study published in the journal Neurology showed a 55 percent reduction in the use of rescue medication when Petadolex was added.
Sometimes headaches are exacerbated by “thick blood,” which can be caused by high platelet or high fat levels in the blood. If your platelets or triglycerides are elevated, these can be modified. Both findings can improve with fish oil (I prefer wild Alaskan salmon-based actual fish, but capsules are okay, too: 2,000–3,000 mg daily). Stay hydrated (2 liters of water daily for a woman and 3 for a man, on average) and eliminate processed carbs (crackers, chips, cookies, bagels) from your diet.
For more information on natural remedies for chronic headaches, visit DrEmilyKane.com.