If you’ve ever had a headache, you know it can make even the smallest daily tasks monumental. You’re not alone — nearly two out of three children will have a headache by 15, and over nine in 10 adults experience a headache sometime in their life.
Headaches are the most common form of pain and a major reason for doctor visits and missed work days. Overall, about 13 percent of Americans suffer from headaches, and the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that almost half of all adults worldwide will experience a headache during any given year.
The good news is there are plenty of natural headache relief strategies. More than ever before, North Americans are shying away from more invasive measures like nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin. NSAIDs can cause side effects including stomach ulcers and kidney problems, and other invasive measures.
What Causes Headaches?
Among the symptoms that characterize headaches include pressure and achiness. Pain can range from mild to severe, usually on both sides of the head but especially the forehead, temples, and back of the neck. A headache can last from 30 minutes up to a week, varying in duration. Episodic headaches last a few hours whereas chronic headaches can last for days.
Even though some feel like they come out of nowhere, numerous culprits can trigger or exacerbate a headache.
“Headaches occur when pain-sensitive nerve endings called nociceptors react to headache triggers (such as stress, certain foods or odors, or use of medicines) and send messages [to] the brain’s ‘relay station’ for pain sensation from all over the body,” says the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, trouble concentrating, and other neurological symptoms can occur with headaches.
Researchers divide headaches into two classes:
- Primary headaches occur independently (rather than by another medical condition).
- Secondary headaches are symptoms of another problem including fever, infection, medication overuse, stress, high blood pressure, and head injury or trauma.
You don’t always need to see your doctor with headaches, but sometimes they can indicate underlying disorders and supervision by a healthcare professional is absolutely necessary. If you have any doubt, please discuss any issues with your doctor. At their worst, those underlying problems that create headaches can be life-threatening.
Types of Headaches
Depending on your condition, a doctor will diagnose you with a specific type of headache. Migraines, cluster headaches, and tension headaches are all types of primary headaches. Sometimes these overlap — someone who has migraines might also suffer tension headaches.
While they sometimes get classified separately, migraines are a type of headache. Migraine symptoms include nausea, temporary vision loss, and sensitivity to things like light and sound. Whereas many types of headaches including tension headaches don’t often present warning signs, migraines do. That can actually benefit you —feeling the warning signs of a migraine can help you find a calmer environment to minimize symptoms.
Preventing migraines is the best way to keep them from occurring. This includes managing stress and anxiety levels as well as eliminating trigger foods including sugar, alcohol, and caffeine.
Cluster headaches are the most severe form of a primary headache and typically occur at the same time of the day and night for several weeks. Alcohol and smoking can trigger them. So can seasons — they often occur in the spring and fall, potentially leading you to mistake them for seasonal allergies. Attacks are usually less frequent and shorter than migraines.
Treatment options for cluster headaches — published by the National Institute of Health — include non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation, medication, and oxygen therapy (where you breathe pure oxygen through a mask to reduce blood flow to the brain).
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They impact over 70 percent of some populations (one population-based study in Denmark found lifetime prevalence of tension headaches was 78 percent). In contrast, migraines affect about 15 percent (or one in seven people). Many things can trigger or exacerbate tension headaches including stress, anxiety, fatigue, hunger, dehydration, and even poor posture.
To relieve tension headaches, you need to find out what causes them. Underlying causes may be numerous but can include chronic disease, obesity, and sleep disturbances.
9 Ways to Relieve Headaches Naturally
Treating headaches depends on type, frequency, and duration. Work with a healthcare professional to find triggers and incorporate appropriate remedies to address your specific concerns. There are also ways to prevent migraines and other headaches and if they do occur, these natural remedies can reduce their duration and pain levels. Here are nine natural headache relief strategies.
1. Focus on a whole foods diet
Many studies discuss trigger foods for migraines and other headaches, but equally important are the right foods. Eating real food provides your body with the nutrients it needs while steadying your blood sugar and leaving you feeling more focused. Rich sources of the mineral magnesium, which researchers argue benefit migraines and other headaches, include leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds. A food-first philosophy means changing your diet and seeing if your headaches decrease or disappear.
2. Cut sugar
Processed foods and drinks high in sugar can raise and crash blood sugar, contributing to migraines and other headaches. In his book Happy Gut, Vincent Pedre, MD, says that high-sugar or sugar-equivalent foods also feeds yeast in the gut, creating neurotoxins that trigger headaches and other problems. Sugar can hide in tricky places like almond milk — aim to minimize or eliminate common and not-so-common sources.
3. Address food sensitivities
One study looked at 266 foods and their potential to trigger migraines. Eliminating food sensitivities and allergies — triggers include dairy, gluten, and sugar — can reduce migraine-attack frequency. “Delayed allergies (or IgG allergies) are sneaky,” says Mark Hyman, MD, in The UltraMind Solution. “You may eat a piece of bread on Monday and be depressed on Wednesday, or have a piece of cheese today and get a migraine tomorrow. You never make the connection, because you don’t even realize food can have this kind of impact on you.” Elimination diets typically involve trial and error to pinpoint what creates headaches. A food journal helps, but a chiropractor or other healthcare professional can develop a customized eating plan that works specifically for your condition.
4. Supplement with magnesium
Talk with your healthcare professional, chiropractor, or nutritionist about how particular nutrients like magnesium can benefit your type of headache. One study found 75 percent of women consumed less than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of this undervalued mineral. One review, entitled “Why all migraine patients should be treated with magnesium,” argues that up to half of migraine patients have magnesium deficiencies. Other research shows people with cluster headaches and migraines (especially menstrual migraine) have low levels of magnesium. Effective doses range from 400 milligrams or more a day. Discuss the appropriate dose and form of magnesium with your healthcare professional.
5. Find an exercise that works for you (and do it)
Exercise is a double-edged sword. Studies show up to 50 percent of athletes report regular headaches due to physical performance, yet exercise can also relieve headaches. Focusing on rest and recovery, eating the right foods, and practicing good sleep and stress management can all help reduce exercise-induced headaches. But don’t give up exercise — research shows cardiovascular exercise especially can relieve migraine pain. One trial showed yoga could also significantly decrease headache intensity and frequency. Find what works for you and do it consistently.
6. Practice good sleep habits
According to Mark R. LaFlamme, MD, poor sleeping habits can trigger or exacerbate migraines. In one study, rats deprived of deep sleep showed changes in expression of key proteins that suppress and trigger chronic pain. Conversely, people with frequent headaches have trouble sleeping, creating a vicious cycle. Work with a chiropractor or other healthcare professional to find out what might impede your sleep levels so you can get eight hours of quality, consistent sleep.
7. Manage stress levels
Stress and headaches also become a vicious cycle: Feeling chronically stressed can trigger or exacerbate a headache, which makes stress worse. Manage stress with deep breathing or other techniques that work for you. One randomized controlled trial found that emotional freedom technique (EFT), a simple tapping method, could alleviate symptoms in tension headache sufferers.
8. Keep a journal
Distinguishing migraines from other types of headaches can be difficult. A journal can help you, your doctor, and your chiropractor pinpoint the cause and take appropriate action. Some things to note include:
- The time of day when it occurs
- Intensity and duration
- Any sensitivity to light, odors, or sound
- Activity before the headache started
- Potential causes including medications, sleep patterns, diet, familial history, and menstrual cycles
9. Visit a chiropractor
Evidence-based research shows that chiropractic care can help relieve migraines and other types of headaches. During your visit, discuss things like headache type, frequency, dosage, and how long any other doctor has treated you. That journal will come in handy!
A migraine or headache can make your day miserable, but you don’t need to accept them as simply part of life. Working with your healthcare practitioner and chiropractor who can design a customized dietary and lifestyle protocol can help you find relief from chronic headaches and migraines.