By Dr. Mark Wiley
Front, back, inside, outside–not all headaches are the same. Of the 45 million Americans who suffer from chronic, recurring headaches, each have a unique set of symptoms and headache triggers. The most common headaches are tension-type, a catchall term for diffuse, mild-to-moderate pain over the head. Next come splitting migraines, afflicting 13% of Americans with symptoms such as nausea, pain around the eye and throbbing in the temple area. Makers of ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), among others, love headaches, as these non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are generally the first line defense in the multi-billion dollar headache market. However, as we all now know, NSAIDs come with significant risk when used regularly. What are better, safer options?
Despite what your doctor tells you, it is not so much the particular label you put on a headache that is important, so much as taking a multi-pronged approach to returning your body to its natural, balanced state in which headaches are less likely to occur. After personally suffering from painful migraines for 27 years, I devised the following “integrated mind/body approach” to preventing headaches of all kinds.
Identify and Avoid Headache Triggers
It is not normal — and is even harmful — to have headache after headache. You need to take action to break this destructive pattern. The key to ending headache pain is proactive avoidance of its causes rather than reactive treatment of its symptoms.
Major headache triggers include chemicals in food and beverages and even toxins in the body and air, as well as the stress you harbor and the sleep you miss. In order to reestablish cellular balance, one must remove the toxins and stressors that tax the body, or learn to deal with them in new ways. For most people, this means a major lifestyle change.
Start by looking at your diet. Eat more fresh and fewer processed foods. Also, try eliminating suspected food triggers one by one from your diet for two to three weeks, and monitor what happens with your headaches. Common culprits include cheeses such as Brie, feta and Gorgonzola, pickles, chocolate, dairy products (goat as well as cow), alcohol (beware the notorious red wine headache), processed meats (bologna, pepperoni, salami, hot dogs, etc.), raw onions, peanuts, raisins and products that contain MSG.
Stay Hydrated with Plenty of Water
When we become dehydrated, the digestive system, lungs, liver and Kidneys can no longer do their jobs as effectively, and this can lead to headache.
Drink plenty of water every day to help your body clear hazardous chemical residues and toxic build-up. Water cleanses the colon, flushes the liver and kidneys and empties the bowels. I recommend two quarts of bottled or filtered water daily. Please note: caffeinated coffees and teas, carbonated sodas and sugar-filled fruit drinks don’t count toward that total!
Break the Patterns of Stress
Stress, in its many forms, is a leading cause of headaches. So, to control headaches, you must break the pattern of stress. Fortunately, there are many ways to go about doing this.
To reduce tension and tightness in the shoulders, neck and back, which can lead to headache, see a massage therapist or do daily gentle stretches. A chiropractor can work with misalignments that can occur as a result of constantly tensed muscles. I also recommend meditation and deep breathing to quiet the mind and relax the body’s nervous systems.
Others benefit from tai chi, yoga, qigong or other gentle exercises that stretch the body and soothe the soul. Find whatever stress releases work for you — it could be walking, biking, ice skating or whatever. Taking a multiple B vitamin, at least twice daily, also helps fight the stress reflex. For many, a magnesium supplement may be useful as well.
Take Deep Breaths
In addition to stress relief, deep breathing ensures a continuous flow of fresh oxygen into the body. Many people breathe shallowly, which means they don¹t take in enough oxygen. To get more oxygen into your system, I recommend progressive relaxation. Lie down comfortably with your arms at your sides, and inhale as you tense your toes. Hold for a moment, and then exhale as you consciously relax them. Gradually and slowly continue up the rest of the body, mindfully tensing and relaxing the feet, calves, thighs, etc. as you inhale and exhale.
Get Sufficient Sleep
Everyone knows we get cranky and headachy when we don’t get enough sleep. To prevent headaches, it’s essential to establish deep and constant sleep patterns.
Avoid caffeine six hours before bed, as well as overly stimulating activities such as intense exercise. Stop working at the computer at least an hour or so before bed. Instead, establish a regular, soothing routine, such as a warm bath and a good book before retiring.
Correct sleeping posture is also important for headache prevention. After three weeks the body forms a habit. So, going to sleep correctly may only last a short duration at first, as the body turns. However, you accomplish two vital things–at least for some time your body is sleeping in a non-hurtful position, which will help by reducing the term of the pain positions and you are training the body to eventually remain in the correct position, so as to create perfect sleep position in the near future. Each time you wake up, readjust your position until you no longer have to do so.
Engage in Regular Exercise
Exercise reduces stress, releases endorphins, improves blood flow, works through muscle tension and keeps the body firm and supple. Engaging in simple, regular activity such as brisk walks and simple stretches will go a long way toward preventing headaches, as well as improving health overall.
Exercise at the same time every day, buddy up with a friend or group for accountability and support, and consider a trainer (if only for a few sessions) to help you establish a safe, personalized program. Even very easy, do-it-yourself stretches are beneficial for headache prevention. For example, try the chin-to-chest. To stretch and release tension in the shoulders and upper back, use your hands to gently push the back of the head forward to the chest. Repeat several times daily.
With the above lifestyle changes, you can reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches. The time to make the change is now. And I wish you the best in this life-changing endeavor.
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Updated: May 13,2011