Headaches plague everyone at some point — and they can have an impressive range, running the gamut from mildly uncomfortable to completely debilitating.
When dealing with the discomfort of a headache, it’s easy to reach for your standard pain-relieving medicine, but there are many holistic ways to alleviate — or even prevent — a headache.
Read on for our expert-backed tips. But first, let’s talk types of headaches and why they crop up in the first place.
Types of Headaches
Generally speaking, headaches fall into two categories: primary and secondary. “Secondary headaches are those caused by underlying medical conditions, such as endocrine or metabolic disorders, or neurologic conditions (e.g. brain tumors, aneurysms),” says Sara Crystal, MD, neurologist, migraine expert and Medical Director of Cove. Secondary headaches are serious and require more specialized medical support, but they aren’t as common as primary headaches, which affect the larger general population.
“Primary headache disorders (like migraine and tension-type) are not caused by another underlying condition,” says Dr. Crystal. Think of tension headaches as your standard, run-of-the-mill headache — the one “that virtually everyone experiences at some point in their lives,” she says. And while they’re certainly not pleasant, tension headaches are generally not disabling, explains Dr. Crystal.
Migraines, on the other hand, are “severe, throbbing headaches often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound and typically occur on one side of the head,” says Dr. Crystal, adding that “about 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men in the US have migraines.”
Causes of Headaches
“Just like any other symptoms in the body, you can think of headaches like a car engine light coming on to let us know that something is off in the body,” says Jordan Crofton, FNP, Director of Patient Care at THE WELL.
“There are countless causes of headaches — hormonal imbalances, micronutrient deficiencies, dehydration, stress, food sensitivities or intolerances, lack of sleep, inflammation, toxic exposures — but in order to effectively be able to treat a headache, we have to understand why it's happening in the first place,” says Crofton. That requires a closer look at what's happening in the body — something that functional medicine allows you to do.
When it comes to the root cause of migraine disorder, genetics play the biggest role. Researchers have found roughly 40 different genes associated with the condition. “About 50 percent of people have a family member with the same condition,” adds Dr. Crystal.
“Many people think that migraine [disorder], in particular, is caused by certain foods, hormonal changes, stress, lack of sleep and other lifestyle factors, and while these factors can all trigger attacks, the underlying cause of migraine disorder is genetic. People without migraine [disorder] can tolerate these triggers without any issues,” says Dr. Crystal.
Holistic Ways to Treat Headaches
Since migraine headaches are more intense than tension headaches, they often require more care; however, the treatments below can help alleviate pain from both migraine and tension headaches.
1. Use Aromatherapy
Essential oils are an easy, natural treatment for headaches, whether at-home or on-the-go. They “can be placed on the forehead, temples and massaged into the neck and shoulders,” explains Daniela Freda, licensed acupuncturist in San Francisco. Freda recommends peppermint oils “since they provide a cooling sensation for headaches." Dr. Crystal agrees, suggesting lavender as well: “Those containing peppermint and lavender have been shown to be helpful at reducing pain during migraine attacks.”
If applying directly to your skin, make sure to buy oils that have already been diluted or dilute the oils yourself, notes Freda. “Be careful not to apply the oils too close to your eyes [or] rub the oils into your eyes (it will sting!)."
Freda recommends using Dr. Bronner's Arnica Menthol Magic Balm, “which is a peppermint balm with arnica oil that can be used directly on the skin.”
2. Try Acupuncture
Research continues to demonstrate that acupuncture is helpful in treating and preventing headaches, including migraines.
“In East Asian Medicine, we approach headaches by first doing a full assessment of the person, including reviewing their health history and symptoms, and examining their tongue and pulse. Each diagnosis will determine the acupuncture points chosen, the herbal formulas and other recommendations,” explains Freda, emphasizing the power in such individualized treatments.
For the “occasional tension headache, the diagnoses that I typically see are often Qi stagnation or blood deficiency. The headaches are often brought on by stress and can include neck, shoulder and jaw tension,” says Freda. “For tension headaches, we often treat the musculoskeletal tension and reduce stress with acupuncture and herbal medicine.”
3. Take Magnesium
Magnesium deficiency is quite common and has been shown to trigger headaches. “Supplementing with magnesium is a safe and reasonable place to start when dealing with headaches,” advises Crofton. Plus, research suggests that magnesium may even prevent migraines. The recommended dose is between 400-500 miligrams a day as a preventative measure, however, it's important to double check with your doctor before adding any supplement to your routine.
4. Drink Herbal Tea
“According to Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine, peppermint tea is cooling and can clear the head and the eyes," thereby making it great for headaches caused by eye strain, explains Freda. Ginger tea, on the other hand, is "warming and can soothe nausea that can sometimes accompany headaches,” she adds. "[It also can] act as a natural anti-inflammatory."
5. Apply Ice or Heat
When suffering from a migraine, “applying ice or heat (whichever is preferred) can be helpful,” says Dr. Crystal. Research shows that applying a cold compress to your forehead or temples can help reduce inflammation and “[cool] the blood passing through intracranial vessels.” Putting a heating pad around your neck or shoulders can help relax those tense muscles, which may be contributing to some of the pain.
Holistic Ways to Prevent Headaches
1. Find the Root Cause
“Dealing with frequent headaches is not normal and working with a functional medicine practitioner can help you get to the root of it,” explains Crofton. “We can get a lot of information about what type of headache someone is dealing with based on a thorough history, and lab work and diagnostic testing can help clue us into what might be causing it.”
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2. Avoid Food Triggers
“The [full list of] causes of migraine headaches vary greatly from person to person, but certain foods have been shown to trigger migraines in some people,” says Dr. Crystal. “Some common examples include alcohol, chocolate, aged cheeses and foods containing MSG and other additives, such as artificial sweeteners. A low tyramine diet may be helpful.”
3. Don't Skip Meals
“It’s important to avoid skipping meals and to stay hydrated," says Dr. Crystal. "Skipping meals can cause dips in your blood sugar, which can trigger a migraine. Hunger and thirst also add to the body’s stress levels, which is another common trigger."
4. Move Your Body
“Regular moderate exercise moves Qi and has been shown to prevent headaches,” says Freda. Dr. Crystal agrees: “Aerobic exercise can be very helpful at preventing a migraine — aim for 30 to 40 minutes three times per week.”
However, it’s important to listen to your body. “Some people find that certain types of movements (e.g. inversion poses in yoga) can worsen or bring on headaches,” says Freda. “Practice movement that feels great for your body. This can include gentle yoga and stretching, walking, tai chi, Qi Gong and any other joyful forms of movement.”
5. Take Screen Breaks
Ever felt a headache come on after staring at your computer screen for too long? You’re not alone: Eye strain can actually lead to headaches. And while we can’t always escape technology, we can take breaks to give our eyes a rest.
“In East Asian Medicine we recommend taking a midday break by laying down and resting your eyes,” says Freda. Level up by “[adding] a lavender eye pillow to soothe the tension in your eyes as you lay down for 10 minutes,” she adds. You can also use this time to calm your nervous system — listen to music or even a guided meditation. And on that note...
6. Reduce Stress
We all can benefit from reducing stress — and this is especially the case if you suffer from migraines, as calming your nervous system can prevent these primary headaches from occuring in the first place. “Whether through meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback or other forms, stress reduction is very important,” says Dr. Crystal.
One way to do that is with acupuncture which “relieves stress by calming the nervous system and reducing stress hormones,” says Freda. Find a mindfulness practice that resonates with you — whether that’s breathwork, meditation, yoga, spending time in nature or “any practice that allows you to experience calm,” says Freda.
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7. Sleep More
According to the American Migraine Foundation, “The same brain regions and chemical messengers impact sleep, headache and mood, so inadequate or poor quality sleep increases the odds for headache and mood change.”
“Work on your sleep — not only getting enough sleep, but maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help reduce migraine frequency,” says Dr. Crystal.
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