Everyone has experienced a headache at some point. Yet for some, chronic headaches or migraines are a fact of life. In Canada alone it is estimated that over 5 million people suffer from chronic headaches.
Instead of struggling through your day with a headache or feeling foggy due to medication side effects, identifying your headache triggers and implementing natural approaches can provide great relief.
There are three major categories of headaches:
1. Tension headaches
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Symptoms typically include a dull, nonthrobbing pain in the back of the neck or in a "headband" distribution.
Migraine headaches, which can be quite debilitating, often begin on one side of the head and can worsen due to exposure to bright lights, sounds or smell. Symptoms may also include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting or changes in vision.
3. Cluster headaches
Cluster headaches are extremely painful one-sided headaches that occur in small clusters of several headaches in a short period of time, followed by a period of remission where headaches do not occur for weeks or months.
Common headache triggers include:
• High levels of stress
• Poor eating and sleeping patterns
• Dietary triggers such as food additives or preservatives
• Environmental factors
There is a variety of chemicals and preservatives found in food that have been shown to be headache triggers. These include:
• Foods that contain a member of the amine group of organic chemical compounds, called tyramine. These foods include chocolate, aged cheese, vinegar, alcohol, sour cream and soy sauce.
• Meat products that contain nitrates. Nitrates are put into meats to keep their color pink. However, in addition to being carcinogenic (potentially cancer causing), one of the other possible side effects of meats containing nitrates is headaches. Meat products that commonly contain nitrates include hot dogs, bacon, corned beef, bologna and pastrami. Nitrate-free meats are now available in most stores wherever meat is sold.
• The flavour-enhancing chemical monosodium glutamate (MSG) has also been documented to be a headache trigger for some people.
• Ingestion of the artificial sweetener aspartame has been shown to trigger migraines in a small proportion of people.
Page 1 of 2 -- Explore natural headache and migraine treatments on page 2.
Natural approaches to headaches
The conventional medical approach to treating headaches often involves a variety of medications. However, there are numerous natural approaches that have been shown to be extremely effective and without side effects. These approaches include:
Research has demonstrated acupuncture to have significant benefits on all types of headaches. In a preliminary trial, 18 of 26 people suffering from migraine headaches demonstrated an improvement in symptoms following therapy with acupuncture; they also had a 50 per cent reduction in the use of pain medication.
Massage, yoga and meditation
Emotional stress and muscle tension can be the underlying cause of a number of health problems, including headaches. Practising muscle-relaxing and stress-relieving therapies such as massage, yoga and meditation can have an enormous positive effect.
Avoiding triggers with an elimination diet
Eliminate potential food triggers from the diet on a one-by-one basis for a two- to three-week period and monitor the frequency and intensity of headaches. Start a daily headache journal to be able to properly monitor any improvement.
Vitamin and mineral therapies
Various mineral and vitamin therapies that have been shown to be beneficial for headaches include supplementing with magnesium, calcium or fish oils.
For example, preliminary research in a group of women showed that supplementing with magnesium (usually 200 mg per day) reduced the frequency of migraines in approximately 80 per cent of those treated.
Instead of letting your next headache take the fun out of your day, start by doing a little investigation into your potential underlying triggers. In addition, take active, natural steps to ensure you keep muscular tension and emotional stress at bay.
Page 2 of 2 -- Learn about different types of headaches and their triggers on page 1.
Dr. Joey Shulman is the author of national bestseller The Natural Makeover Diet (Wiley, 2006). For more information, visit www.drjoey.com.