As a long-term sufferer of a wide variety of types of headaches, I have oceans worth of sympathy for people who haven’t quite hacked their own yet. They’re horrible and debilitating. On the other hand, I say yet, because a bit of knowledge of headaches can take us a really long way. I almost never get headaches anymore, and when I do, I know precisely what needs to happen in order to make them go away. This comes from several decades of experimentation, and a few hours worth of reading.
What follows is a brief description of different types and sources of headaches, and how to overcome them via natural methods.
The four broad categories of headaches:
Cluster headaches are incredibly intense and occur localized in a space on someone’s head, usually with a regularly-occurring pattern. They can show up for weeks at a time, and then disappear again for years. During these weeks, they normally occur at the same time every day. This, along with the persistent pounding they cause in localized areas on the head, is why they are called cluster headaches.
Medical professionals are not quite sure why cluster headaches occur, though they believe it may have to do with hippocampal dysregulation, which would explain the link these headaches have with circadian rhythms. (The center of the biological clock is in the hippocampus). It has been shown definitively that smoking and alcohol are related to incidence of cluster headaches, and stress is often questioned as well. For this reason, substance abuse mitigation is the first step toward alleviating cluster headaches.
Secondary headaches are headaches caused by other problems in the body. These include, most commonly, disease or illness, dehydration, hypothyroidism, renal dialysis or kidney problems, or high blood pressure. Concussions, head and neck injuries, and brain and cardiovascular abnormalities also fall under this category. For this reason, this is the potentially most dangerous category, and if the headaches cannot be alleviated as cluster, tension, or migraine headaches, and are persistent and severe, neurological testing may be required.
The majority of headaches Americans suffer are related to dehydration. Most secondary headaches are not due to neurological or cardiovascular abnormalities, but are in fact due to relatively benign environmental changes that can be hacked with diet and lifestyle changes.
The way to solve a secondary headache is to be aware of what might be causing it, and then to test it’s alleviation. Are you thirsty? Even if not, try drinking more water and seeing if it helps alleviate the pain.
The question of thirst may be a particularly powerful one for people on paleo diets who happen to eat higher percentages of protein than others, or who may eat less salt. A low- or no-salt diet has the ability to dehydrate. And a higher protein diet requires significantly increased water needs, due to up-regulated kidney function in response to protein metabolism, even if the person does not feel thirsty. Very often in the case of high protein diets athletes do not feel thirsty. These two factors — the salt and the protein — are sneaky and should be considered by all people who struggle with dehydration and headaches.
Do you have high blood pressure? Has it been checked? Do certain stressful situations elevate your blood pressure and give you head pain? How can you decrease your blood pressure? Might stress reduction and/or an anti-inflammatory diet such as the paleo diet help?
Or do you feel a cold coming on? In this case you may just have to deal with it.
Migraine headaches affect approximately 12 percent of Americans at some point throughout their lives. They usually occur localized to one side of the head, throb, cause changes in color patterns (auras) to be perceived before and during the migraine, may be accompanied by intense nausea or stomach distress, and can be debilitating. Experts believe migraines may be related to mutations in genes that affect certain areas of the brain. Migraines are three times as likely to occur in women than in men, also more common among people who have epilepsy, depression, asthma, anxiety, stroke, and some other neurologic and hereditary disorders.
Bucketloads of causes have been linked to migraine headaches. Stress, lack of food or sleep, certain foods, particularly those that contain tannins such as red wine or tyramine such as all aged foods, MSG, bright lights, loud sounds, and caffeine have all been linked to migraines.
So far as I can tell, levels of certain neurotransmitters and dilatory action of blood vessels are the primary means by which migraine headaches manifest.
The reason tyramine containing foods have been linked to migraines, and why they may cause problems, is that tyramine may cause blood vessels to constrict and expand. Tyramine containing foods include many aged foods, since tyramine is a byproduct of tyrosine, an amino acid, break down. Wine, aged cheeses, smoked meats, and many fermented foods fall under this category.
The same blood vessel effect underlies problems with caffeine, which causes blood vessels to expand and contract. Additionally, caffeine up-regulates sympathetic and adrenal stress activity and prevents parasympathetic relaxation responses.
The reason MSG has been linked to migraines may be because it increases levels of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, in the brain, and may increase glutamate levels into a somewhat toxic range. Glutamate levels can be decreased by eating a ketogenic diet. Paul Jaminet has discussed this at length over at PHD. I also suspect that glutamate levels can be decreased via exercise, since glutamate metabolism is up-regulated in exercise.
Loud sounds, bright lights, poor sleep and stress also put significant stress on the brain and it’s interface with the environment.
Loud sounds may contribute to migraines because they perpetrate the eardrums. This causes vibrations that are sent to the brain to cause severe discomfort to the frontal lobes.
The mechanism by which light affects migraines in particular is now currently being unearthed. Light sensitivity with migraines occurs in patients who also have light sensitivity in general. This is called photophobia, and it worsens in the case of blue-tinted and flourescent lighting. What happens in photophobic people is that these bright lights, when travelling along the optic nerve, send a second signal down a pathway containing melanopsin that leads to a cluster of neurons associated with migraine pain. These neurons, once activated, stay activated for at least 20-30 minutes, which is why many photophobic people, including myself, often experience alleviation of some of the migraine pain after a half hour of complete darkness.
Poor sleep overly stresses the brain, along with psychological stress. This may be due to a wide variety of factors, none of which have been conclusively studied. Too much stimulation, high levels of stress hormones, and fluctuating blood vessel status may all play roles.
A final cause of migraine headaches is hormonal fluctuations. Many women report head pain as a part of PMS. So far as medical professionals can tell, hormone headaches occur in women when their estrogen levels are elevated, particularly when estrogen levels are elevated relative to the other crucial female sex hormone, progesterone. This imbalance is also the underlying cause of other pre-menstrual symptoms, so it makes sense that elevated estrogen causes the whole host of PMS problems. It creates an inflammatory environment, among other things.
For some women, however, the problem is not just monthly but consistent because their estrogen is always high or their progesterone is always low. This can cause significant discomfort, and dietary and lifestyle changes such as eliminating soy from the diet, losing weight, and adopting a proper but not stressful exercise routine are enormously helpful. Birth control pills are an option, but for many other women, going on birth control itself causes headaches because it pushes estrogen and progesterone levels out of whack.
And still for others, menopause at first plays with their hormone levels, and they may experience initial migraines. However, with time, estrogen levels almost always decrease significantly, so most women who experience this kind of pain experience alleviation after a few years of menopause.
Tension headaches are headaches caused by muscle tension surrounding the skull. This can originate in the skull, say, from perhaps squinting, or it can originate much further away, such as down the line of the spine, in the shoulders, or in the shoulder blades. Most people acquire tension headaches because they are stressed out and subconsciously tensing their muscles in some fashion or another. Improper posture can also be a significant contributor to tension headaches, and indeed it is one of the most important factors in my own life for keeping tension headaches at bay. Slouching in chairs is a common cause of tension headaches, as is looking down (for example, at a computer screen or a book!) for too long. Stretching these muscles, using a massage pillow, getting a real massage, massaging your own face with your hands, finding appropriate postures and positions, heat, and hot showers are all excellent ways to alleviate tension headaches.
Combination headaches are a type of headache I didn’t mention. Unfortunately, all of these types of headaches can, and do, beget each other. Most headaches do not occur in isolation, but instead at least have some influences from different types of headaches. For example, pain from a burgeoning migraine headache can cause a person to tense up, or to squint more, which in turn gives her a tension headache. Or pain from a tension headache causes a woman to feel stressed, or for her brain to panic, which may trigger migraine-type feelings and causes as well. Dehydration may also play a role in exacerbating all of those symptoms.
A proper lifestyle and diet for dealing with headaches
Hormone-balancing, substance and MSG free, inflammation-reducing diets such as the paleo diet are the most appropriate for maintaining a healthy brain and skull. Lower carbohydrate or ketogenic diets may be useful for people who suffer extreme or intractable migraines, and they may also serve as great interventions once anyone begins feeling pain. Most of all, plenty of water should be ingested, sleep should be maximized, and stress should be reduced to as low a level as possible. Stress and sleep are the only factors that span all of the headache types.
Getting a headache, figuring it out, and making it go away
When a headache begins arising in you, you might be able to ignore it and use positive thinking to make it go away. But if that’s not the case for you, your best bet is probably to pay attention to it immediately. Headaches really can be forestalled and/or overcome. All it takes is the bit of knowledge I’ve provided here, as well as experience of and understanding in your own body.
Drugs– at least the legal sort, in my experience, have had very little effect on my headaches. A good massage works far more effectively than aspirin. I would argue, though this is entirely speculative, that this is possibly broadly the case, and also because the cures that I propose both get at the root causes of the headache, as well as actively prevent the headaches from coming on or from getting worse. That is the best solution, in my opinion. It also comes without all of the health complications that drugs do.
When a headache crops up, ask yourself about your immediate situation. What’s going on? Are you stressed? Hunched over? Have you recently drunk wine? Are you hormonal? All of these things can help you understand what has happened to you, but it’s also impossible to guess your way towards an answer.
A more practical approach is to try simple solutions first to rule out obvious answers. Once you start figuring out the kinds of things that give you headaches, the faster and faster this process becomes. Important things to try include
- Drinking water, about 8 oz every fifteen minutes, at least, and seeing if conditions improve.
- Plugging your ears and covering your eyes and seeing if conditions improve. (If so, the only cure is to remove yourself to darkness and silence; I recommend carrying ear plugs and an eye mask.)
- Rubbing your forehead with a fair bit of pressure for around 30 seconds and seeing if conditions improve. The same goes for other locations that may be holding muscle tension.
These couple of steps can tell you if you are dehydrated, right away, if you have a migraine-type headache, and/or if you have a tension headache. Don’t forget they can occur in conjunction.
And in conclusion, a list of things to do if your head hurts and you have no idea why. (Or, you might know why but not be able to go back and fix what caused it, such as with a glass of red wine.) I’ve written this article as though headaches are well-known and navigable here, and to a great degree, they are. But there is also mystery in them, even when best known and hacked. Sometimes we don’t know why, and that’s totally fine. Maybe symptom reduction over time, and classifying our headaches over time, will help us figure out why and the exact treatments we need each time. Perhaps our conclusions will lead us to discover we have underlying health issues that need to be addressed. In the meantime, however, attacking headaches immediately with the following tips may serve you well.
- Drink water to rehydrate.
- Avoid dense carbohydrates.
- Lie in a dark, silent room.
- Use warm / orange colored lighting rather than blue.
- Move: walk briskly or even do sprint-based exercises to burn blood sugar, get blood flowing and open up blood vessels.
- Take a hot shower.
- Massage yourself.
- Stretch your back and neck in every way imaginable.
- Do yoga.
- Work in combination: much as I hate it, my own, single, bulletproof cure for my headaches is hydrating excessively, getting on my stationary bike, and sprinting while wearing an eye mask and ear plugs. Sexy, I know.
Do you have tips? Experiences? Rebuttals? As awkward and attractive ways for mediating headaches as I do? Herbal, supplemental, or dietary recommendations? Share away!