What Your Headache is Trying to Tell You
If someone knocked on your door, saying your house was on fire, would you tell that person to go away? Of course not! But every time you pop a painkiller for a headache, that’s what you’re doing — telling the pain to go away without addressing the cause.
Just about everyone knows what an ordinary headache feels like. (To be clear, today we’re discussing non-migraine headaches, not migraine headaches covered in an earlier newsletter.) For some people, headaches are rare. For others, these painful episodes occur too frequently, often caused by the following:
- Lack of sleep
- Allergies, including food allergies and sensitivities
- Vision problems
- Weather, especially changes in barometric pressure
- Hormone imbalances
- Dependency on pain-relieving drugs
- Congested sinuses
As a doctor, I find it intriguing that so many people prefer to hide headache symptoms with painkillers rather than try to eliminate the source. Maybe that’s because aspirin and other over-the-counter medications are widely available, inexpensive, and they temporarily ease the suffering. But they are not without side effects, including rebound headaches (see below), potentially dangerous stomach irritation, and internal bleeding.
When something hurts, I want to know why it’s hurting and what I can do about it. If you suffer from non-migraine headaches, here are some ideas for determining the source of the problem and treating it without potentially harmful drugs.
Why a Headache Diary Can Help
One of the simplest ways to eliminate headaches is to find the cause. Buy a small notebook to record what you eat and drink, any activities (walking, shopping, a job interview, meeting with friends, etc.), and your emotions. For example, if the evening news upsets you, write something like “Got angry about news report” in your diary. You don’t need details, just a brief idea.
Often, pain is triggered by foods or drinks consumed a day or two before the actual headache, so it may take a few weeks to notice a pattern. A patient named Sylvia discovered that she would often have a headache a day or two after her difficult teenage granddaughter came to visit. “I don’t know why that child wants to argue about everything, but she does, and I guess that upsets me,” Sylvia said. “After she leaves, I have a headache that lasts two or three days.”
Another long-time patient, Edgar, found that red meat triggered his head pain. “In six weeks, I ate ten cheeseburgers and had nine headaches afterward,” he reported. “It’s hard to deny a connection when you see it right there in black and white.”
Edgar found that switching to turkey burgers solved his headache problem, while Sylvia discovered that treating her stress-triggered insomnia prevented post-grandchild-visit headaches.
Be sure to include details in your diary about how the headache feels. Are you experiencing sharp pains on one side of your head? Or is it more of a dull, throbbing sensation? These details can help pinpoint the type of headache, so you’re better able to treat it.
How to Identify the Different Types of Headaches
There are basically five different types of non-migraine headaches, including:
Most common in middle age, a tension headache can feel like you’re wearing a helmet that’s one size too small and getting smaller. The pressure may be mild or intense. Tension headaches may occur daily or rarely and can last a few hours or for days at a time.
Over-the-counter remedies can ease tension headaches, but many of my patients find that relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, as well as certain herbal supplements (discussed below) are very effective at reducing them.
Men are more likely than women to have cluster headaches, which have been linked to alcohol and smoking. The telltale symptom is intense pain centered in or around one eye, making the eye bloodshot and teary. Cluster headaches usually go away after an hour or so, but they may return several times during one day. Over-the-counter pain relievers seldom help, but several types of prescription medication, including indomethacin and ergotamine, can treat cluster headaches.
Anti-inflammatory supplements, such as turmeric, also ease the pain of cluster headaches, but these remedies must be taken regularly, not only during pain. I recommend 500 mg of turmeric up to three times daily. Some patients have success with amino acids, such as L-tyrosine or DL-phenylalanine. I suggest 500 mg up to three times daily of either L-tyrosine or DL-phenylalanine.
Allergies can inflame sinuses and result in a headache. The pain may radiate across the cheekbones, bridge of the nose, and forehead. While drugstores have dozens of allergy remedies, I recommend gentler, nontoxic herbal products detailed in my earlier newsletter on allergies.
These headaches are especially common during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause. I suggest women who experience these painful headaches have their hormone levels tested. A practitioner familiar with alternative health care can prescribe natural hormones, not the notoriously risky synthetic hormones, like Prempro and Premarin, often used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
These headaches are one of the downsides of over-the-counter and prescription drugs for pain. When used for more than a few days each week, these medications can actually trigger rebound headaches, which are actually a symptom of withdrawal, similar to caffeine withdrawal.
Nutritional supplements like the mineral magnesium, extracts of the spice turmeric, and the herb feverfew (which I discuss below) are helpful for treating these headaches.
What Traditional Painkillers Do — and Don’t Do
When your head hurts, you want relief — fast. Conventional pain medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen provide that, but it comes at a price. These remedies can induce potentially serious side effects, including stomach pain and bleeding, nausea, heartburn, ulcers, liver damage, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and more.
The other problem with using over-the-counter pain relievers is that they do nothing to stop the headache from returning. We just have to live with some triggers, such as alterations in weather or barometric pressure. But if food additives like MSG (monosodium glutamate), dehydration, or other factors are causing your headaches, why not try to avoid those triggers? After all, if something makes your head hurt, it may be harming your health in other unseen ways. Meanwhile, you can treat pain with safer natural remedies.
When Alternative Remedies Can Help
Before we take a closer look at solutions for headaches, don’t forget about the power of overall good health:
- A whole-foods diet
- Plenty of fresh, filtered water
- 7 to 8 hours nightly of deep, restful sleep
- Regular, moderate exercise
- Appropriate supplements
I often remind my patients that there’s only so much any remedy can do if you cut corners on essential elements of basic health. In other words, if your car has a flat tire, and all you do is add air to it, you won’t fix the underlying problem.
That said, there are several effective headache remedies in the alternative medicine cabinet that may relieve pain and reduce the intensity or frequency of headaches. If you’re dubious about the power of herbal or nutrient remedies for treating pain, remember that aspirin, like many of today’s medications, is derived from a natural compound — in this case, a substance found in white willow tree bark.
Among my patients, the most effective headache remedies include:
- Curcumin: A member of the ginger family, curcumin is a powerful and widely studied anti-inflammatory. Research indicates that curcumin may help disorders ranging from cancer to arthritis, including the accompanying pain and depression. It has a blood-thinning effect, so if you’re taking medication such as warfarin (also known as Coumadin), consult your physician before adding curcumin to your daily regimen. I recommend 500 mg taken one to three times daily. For your convenience, I have formulated a high-quality curcumin product that is eight times more absorbable than other curcumin extracts, to make certain my readers get the very best this nutrient has to offer.
- Feverfew: This centuries-old headache remedy is derived from a favorite garden flower, bachelor’s buttons. Feverfew is relatively free of side effects, but please be patient. Since this remedy is gentle on the body, it takes time to have an effect, sometimes as long as six weeks. I recommend 100 to 150 mg daily of a product containing at least 0.2 percent parthenolide, the active ingredient.
- Magnesium: This mineral is helpful for muscle relaxation and much more. Good sources of magnesium include almonds, Brazil nuts, artichokes, and spinach. In supplement form, I recommend 250 to 500 mg of magnesium daily. Start with the smaller dose and work your way up, since magnesium can cause loose stools or diarrhea.
- Riboflavin or vitamin B2: An effective treatment for ordinary headaches as well as migraines, riboflavin is found in leafy greens, vegetables like broccoli and asparagus, mushrooms, yogurt, and low-fat milk. Inexpensive supplements are also available. I suggest taking a daily dose of 400 mg.
How Hydration Helps
One of the best and easiest ways to minimize headaches is to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of fresh, filtered water. Dehydration not only triggers headaches in many people, but it also affects your mood and mental performance, while stressing organs throughout the body.
In my practice, I’ve noticed that the majority of patients are chronically dehydrated. Here’s a simple rule for water intake: The number of ounces you need each day is half the number of pounds you weigh. In other words, if you weigh 160 pounds, you should be drinking 80 ounces of water — or ten 8-ounce glasses of water — every day.
Why Less Stress and More Sleep Can Prevent Headaches
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of minimizing stress and maximizing sleep to curtail headaches. We all know how difficult it can be to get to sleep after a stressful day. Who hasn’t tossed and turned reliving an upsetting encounter or unpleasant surprise? Now a new study confirms the link between stress, insomnia, and headaches. Researchers found that after two consecutive days of either high stress or low sleep, headaches were likely. Not surprisingly, the opposite was also true: Two consecutive days of low stress and/or sufficient sleep protected against headaches.
If your headaches could be linked to stress and/or insomnia, please review my earlier newsletters on these subjects for recommendations on how you can safely relieve both conditions.
If you’re a headache sufferer, know that you can find relief beyond the conventional drugstore remedies. Identifying the source of your pain helps. In addition, many of my patients find that lifestyle changes, particularly adding exercise, often eliminate headaches and improve other areas of their health. Please do read Roy’s story to learn more. As he discovered after years of suffering with daily headaches, pain does not have to be an inevitable part of your life.