headaches

Here’s how to naturally and effectively prevent and treat headaches

If you suffer from headaches, it’s likely you’ve had to rely on painkillers on numerous occasions. Very occasional use of acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) to treat a bad headache will likely have no lasting consequences. However, there are some important concerns to be aware of with these medications, even with typical use. The side effects can range from gastrointestinal bleeding (even in healthy individuals) to inhibition of ovulation. This is needed for regular periods and fertility. 

So, when it comes to headaches the best way to treat them, is to stop them from happening in the first place. And the first thing to do is to find the triggers. Common triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Food sensitivities
  • Timing of meals/poor blood sugar management
  • PMS
  • Sub-optimal sleep
  • Poor posture
  • Inappropriate pillow height – can strain neck muscles and shoulders
  • TMJ or clenching the jaw
  • Muscle tension

I recommend keeping a headache diary to track your headaches so that you can start understanding any correlations with your daily habits. You may even want to start with some trial and error, like an elimination diet. This is where you remove certain foods from the diet and then re-introduce them to see which foods you react to. Some of the most likely triggers include:

  • Non-celiac gluten intolerance
  • Preservatives / additives / aspartame
  • Sulfites / tannins
  • Monosodium glutamate
  • Aged cheeses
  • Cold foods
  • Peanuts / other nuts
  • Organ meats / Cured meats / Nitrites
  • Smoked fish
  • Sourdough bread
  • Cultured dairy products
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus
  • Onions

If you think an elimination diet may be too challenging for you, you can also consider a food sensitivity test. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about this! I also strongly encourage you to prioritize sleep and stress reduction strategies to see if they help in reducing your headaches too. Worst case scenario: you have tons more energy and less stress in your life! While you determine the root cause of your headaches, there are many natural options that can be used to prevent headaches.

Natural ways to PREVENT headaches:

  • Magnesium – In one study, taking 600mg magnesium citrate for 12 weeks lessened migraine attacks by 40%. It also reduced the severity and duration of migraines. Those taking the magnesium also required less painkillers. It was also found to be just as effective. Beware: this is a relatively high dose of magnesium and can cause loose stools!
  • Butterbur: A study found that 50mg twice daily, over 12 weeks, reduced the frequency of migraines by 60%. No side effects have been shown, so far.
  • Vitamin B2 At levels of roughly 400mg, this vitamin has been shown to lessen headache frequency with very minimal side effects.

Aside from these, one can also consider taking the following:

  • Melatonin – Known to improve sleep, melatonin has other uses. Taking melatonin has been effective in pain syndromes, fertility, depression and many other conditions. This is a safe and effective treatment option that may help to reduce the frequency of migraines, and also impact deep sleep. This can benefit so many other health concerns.
  • Chaste Tree – Adding this to your period routine could be effective if your migraines only come premenstrually, or the week before your period. It can also improve other symptoms of PMS if taken 3 cycles, every day, at a dose of 20mg.
  • Acupuncture: Research shows that regular acupuncture, once weekly for 2 months and then once monthly for 4 months, can reduce the amount of headaches you get. It may even be more effective than meds! 

Natural ways to TREAT a headache:

  • Peppermint oil: If you don’t mind smelling like peppermint, this is an easy, inexpensive, and effective treatment to reduce pain during a tension-type headache. When applied to the forehead and temples at the onset of a headache, and repeated 15 and 30 minutes later, it can significantly reduce the intensity of a headache.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is a wonderful nutrient that isn’t getting enough credit. It has been useful in the acute treatment of migraines, tension-type headaches, and cluster headaches, reducing the intensity and duration of an attack. 
  • Ginger: Taking ginger capsules at the onset of a headache can be quite effective. In one study, ginger capsules had a similar effect to sumatriptan, one of the prescription medications used during a migraine attack. But! Ginger also posed a better side-effect profile and was safer to take.

Going to treatment sessions can also help such as:

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture, which is popular in Asian countries, can also be used to treat severe headaches. Studies have even shown that it reduces the need for pain killers. 
  • Meditation: Learning how to be mindful and to relax during a headache can help to reduce pain scores. Whether you prefer stretching, yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation or journalling, learning how to stay calm during a headache can have profound benefits.

To natural ways of treating headaches,

Dr. Bronwyn

For more stress management, learn about adaptogens here.

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WRITTEN BY:

Dr. Bronwyn is a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, Ontario with a clinical focus in Women's Health. She works with women transitioning off the oral contraceptive pill and those with specific fertility concerns, to reach a state of hormonal balance or in preparation for a healthy pregnancy. Dr. Bronwyn is passionate about empowering women to reclaim their hormonal health, to enable a full and vibrant life.

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