By Dr. Mercola
Nearly half of the world's population suffers from headaches each year, making it the most common "disorder" of the nervous system.1 Only about half of those affected seek medical attention, even though they may take a heavy toll on your ability to work, socialize and be productive each day.
In the U.K., for instance, an estimated 25 million work or school days are lost each year due to migraine headaches alone. Even in the U.S., most of those suffering from migraines were dependent on over-the-counter medications for relief.
There are other options, however, not only for treatment but also for helping to avoid headaches in the first place.
What Are the Most Common Types of Headaches?
Tension-type headaches (TTH) are the most common primary headache disorder, affecting up to 70 percent of some populations. An estimated 3 percent of adults suffer from chronic tension headaches, which often begin in the teenage years and affect women more often than men.2
Tension headaches are often the result of stress or musculoskeletal problems (such as poor posture), and cause pressure that may feel like a tight band around your head. Most cases resolve on their own in a few hours, but for chronic cases the pain can be disabling. Other types of headaches include:3
- Migraine, which are triggered in your brain, and cause the release of pain-producing inflammatory substances around nerves and blood vessels in your head
- Cluster, which describes brief but extremely severe headaches that occur frequently (with pain typically around your eye)
- Medication-overuse headache, which is caused, ironically, by chronic use of headache medication
Drug-Free Approaches to Relieving Headache Pain
Are you searching for a drug-free way to relieve your headaches? Something that's effective but doesn't pose the serious risk of side effects that virtually every pain medication – from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to opioids – does? Try the options that follow:4
A quick workout may be able to stop your headache from progressing, possibly because it triggers the release of pain-reducing neurotransmitters.5
Choose a low-impact activity, like riding a stationary bike, to avoid adding further stress to your pounding head. Regular workouts are also recommended. According to the American Headache Society:6
"Regular exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and migraines. When one exercises, the body releases endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers.
Exercise reduces stress and helps individuals to sleep at night. Stress and inadequate sleep are two migraine triggers."
Gently massaging your temples, neck, and scalp may help you relieve a tension headache.
Court-type traditional Thai massage, which includes five massage points on your face and head, has even been found to relieve chronic tension-type headache pain as well as or better than the drug amitriptyline.7
3. Herbal Remedies
People around the world have used many herbs traditionally to treat headaches.8 For instance, a combination of feverfew and ginger helped to relieve migraine pain according to research published in the journal Headache.9
You can try steeping chopped fresh ginger in water to make a tea (or even chewing directly on a piece of peeled ginger) for a natural headache "medicine." "America's Pharmacist," Suzy Cohen, also suggests Rhodiola for headaches.
"[The Russian herb] Rhodiola is helpful for someone with a tension headache, because it increases levels of serotonin; it makes you feel good. It helps you adapt — it's a plant adaptogen.
It knows what your body needs. It knows how to raise certain hormones. In particular, it can help raise serotonin and reduce cortisol," she says.
Chamomile tea is another option, especially for the relief of tension headaches. Look for pure chamomile tea bags or make your own by steeping dried chamomile flower in hot water (filter before drinking).
If you can find fresh betel leaves, you can try grinding them into a fine paste, and applying it to your forehead and sides of your head (let it sit for 30 minutes or so before rinsing off).
"Boil water. Add a spoonful of coriander seeds. Let it boil for a while, till you are able to smell the coriander strongly. Switch off the stove and add half a spoon of tea leaves to the concoction.
Close the vessel, and let it stand for a few minutes. Filter and drink it as it is without adding any sweeteners. Sleep or sit down and relax for just ten minutes. If you are lucky, your headache will be gone by this time."
4. Essential Oils
Essential oils carry biologically active volatile compounds of flowers and plants in a highly concentrated form. They are, in many ways, the essence of the plant and can provide therapeutic benefits in very small amounts.
You can consult with a professional or use essential oils at home via the following methods:
- Indirect inhalation of essential oils using a room diffuser or placing drops nearby
- Direct inhalation of essential oils using an individual inhaler with drops floated on top of hot water (this is popular for treating sinus headaches)
- Aromatherapy massage, in which essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil and massaged into your skin
- Applying essential oils to your skin by combining them with lotion, bath salts, or dressings
Which essential oils work best for headaches? It depends on the type. Try peppermint for tension headaches (especially rubbing a drop into the area that hurts), peppermint and basil for migraines, and rosemary for general headache pain.14
5. A Cup of Black Coffee
In a pinch, a cup of coffee can give you a quick dose of caffeine that can help constrict the blood vessels leading to your head, helping to relieve pain.15 An icepack held on your forehead or temples may also accomplish this.
Some migraine patients also report that a strong cup of coffee helps to stop an attack (but in some people caffeine can also trigger an attack, so listen to your body).
Several headache medications, such as Excedrin, include caffeine as an active ingredient. The use of caffeine for pain relief is best reserved for only occasional headache pain.
If you use this "trick" too often, it could lead to dependency and even make your headaches worse. If you become dependent on caffeine after daily or near-daily use, then you can experience withdrawal symptoms, including headache, if you go a day without coffee.16
10 Foods That May Trigger a Migraine
Preventing a headache is even better than treating one, and this often involves a nutritional component, especially for migraines. Food triggers vary from person to person, but each of the foods below has the potential to cause a migraine in someone who's sensitive.17
Alcohol, especially red wine Caffeinated beverages (as mentioned, this is a double-edged sword, sometimes helping and sometimes hurting headache pain) Aged cheeses, including Gorgonzola, Camembert, cheddar, and others Cured or processed meats like hot dogs, sausages, and lunch meats Monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is common in processed foods Aspartame, the artificial sweetener Citrus fruits, although this is rare Legumes, such as beans, peas, and lentils (this is a less common trigger) Nuts (reported by some anecdotally but the link isn't well studied) Chocolate, this is another potential trigger that is still being substantiated
If you suffer from migraines, in order to successfully treat the underlying cause you need to "regenerate your cellular batteries," your cells' mitochondria, and one way to do that is by taking coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). The reduced form, ubiquinol, tends to work best for most people. According to Cohen:
"CoQ10 is fantastic … It's an antioxidant that's both lipophilic and hydrophilic, meaning, it loves water and loves fatty parts of the cell. It goes into every single cell all over your body, especially your brain and your heart. You know if you're CoQ10-deficient because you're more prone to headaches. Plus, a prolonged deficiency of CoQ10 can cause significant muscle pain as well as headaches.
Now, here's the thing: people are seriously deficient in CoQ10 because there are so many drugs that deplete this nutrient, including the birth control pill, hormone replacements, antacids, diabetes drugs, and statins. These drugs deplete CoQ10."
Cohen also states that about 50 percent of those with recurrent headaches are deficient in magnesium. So increase your consumption of green leafy vegetables, which are rich in bioavailable magnesium. Spirulina is another good source. As an aside, one study found that the scent significantly relieved migraine pain. This may also work with other scents that you enjoy, so consulting with an aromatherapist might be beneficial.
Are Asthma and Allergies Causing Your Headaches?
Both migraines and asthma are caused by inflammation (of the blood vessels, for migraines, and of the airways, for asthma). Those who have migraines and asthma are at double the risk of developing chronic migraines, according to new research.18 The study, published in Headache, concluded:19
"Asthma is associated with an increased risk of new onset CM [chronic migraine] one year later among individuals with EM [episodic migraine], with the highest risk being among those with the greatest number of respiratory symptoms. The exact mechanisms underlying this association are unknown, but could suggest mast cell degranulation, autonomic dysfunction, or shared genetic or environmental factors."
The underlying connection between asthma and migraines could be allergies. Allergies are more common in people with asthma and people with headaches, and the researchers suggested that treating allergies more aggressively might help. If you have asthma and/or allergies, optimizing your vitamin D levels is absolutely crucial.
In fact, research suggests that vitamin D deficiency may be a primary underlying cause of asthma. Vitamin D deficiency can also play a role in migraines. According to research presented at the 50th Annual Meeting of the American Headache Society, nearly 42 percent of patients with chronic migraine were deficient in vitamin D.20 The study also showed that the longer you suffered from chronic migraines, the more likely you are to be vitamin D deficient.
Other vitamin deficiencies linked to headaches include vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B6, B12, and folic acid. Aside from addressing health basics like diet and vitamin D, Provocation Neutralization (PN) allergy testing and treatment offers many allergy sufferers permanent relief without adverse side effects. The success rate for this approach is about 80 to 90 percent, and you can receive the treatment at home.
Seven Tips to Avoid Holiday Headaches
Stress and other headache triggers can be especially apparent during the holidays. The National Headache Foundation suggests the following tips to avoid headaches during the holidays (and all year long):
- Maintain your sleep schedule. Forgoing sleep for holiday parties can worsen chronic headaches and migraines. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.
- Eat according to your regular meal schedule. While skipping a meal (i.e. intermittent fasting) is beneficial for many, it can trigger a headache in some people. Stick to your regular meal schedule while you're trying to get your headaches under control.
- Avoid "hangover" headaches. If you drink alcohol during the holiday season, be sure to do so only in moderation. And if you suffer from migraines, be aware that red wine is a trigger for many.
- Watch what you eat. Many food-related headache triggers can be found at holiday parties. This includes chocolate, processed meats, aged cheeses, MSG, aspartame, and more.
- Avoid fragrance triggers. Perfume, scented candles, and other odors can trigger headaches in those who are sensitive. Watch out for such fragrances while shopping, visiting friends and relatives, etc.
- Be aware of bright lights. For some, bright Christmas lights, especially those that flicker, may trigger a migraine. If you'll be around such holiday decorations, consider wearing sunglasses to dampen their effects.
- Set aside "me" time. Taking time for yourself is essential during the holidays, when stress is typically at an all-time high.
EFT Reduces Frequency of Tension Headaches by 62 Percent
Another "trick" to keep in your bag for relieving headache pain and frequency is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). Clinical trials have shown that EFT is able to rapidly reduce the emotional impact of memories and incidents that trigger emotional distress. Once the distress is reduced or removed, your body can often rebalance itself and accelerate healing of both emotional and physical problems.
Dramatic results for headaches were demonstrated by Greek researchers, whose study involved 35 people receiving treatment for frequent tension headaches at a headache clinic. After eight weeks, those who had been taught how to do EFT on their own and tapped twice a day reduced the frequency of their headaches by 62 percent, and the intensity of the headaches by 60 percent.21
This was from performing EFT on their own; it's likely if they worked with a skilled EFT practitioner the results may have been even more impressive. If you are currently struggling with headaches, please realize that using EFT and other mind-body tools to relieve the pain can help free you of toxic prescription and over-the-counter painkillers.
There are many other options you can try as well. Acupuncture, hot and cold packs, chiropractic care, and even practicing proper posture can all make a difference in the frequency and severity of headaches. If chronic headaches persist even after you've tried some of the natural options discussed above, seek out a natural health care provider who can help you determine and resolve the underlying issue.