There are three types of headaches, each with a different treatment.
We can all agree that headaches come with a lot of pain - whether they are migraines, cluster headaches or tension headaches. There are numerous treatments for all three of them, including taking supplements, changing your diet and exercising.
Whether it's a migraine or a headache, I am ALWAYS on the alert for ways to alleviate the pain and angst associated with a headache. I have diligently plotted out my triggers; I have kept food journals and I have experimented with the times of day I exercise to try to figure out when and how these headaches happen (and most importantly, how to best thwart them). It is not easy – my headaches usually occur because of a “perfect storm” of conditions: stress, dehydration, lack of sleep, and an intake of a whole host of foods that are hard to pinpoint. Since moving to Hong Kong, it seems that even the air I’m breathing triggers migraines (anyone who has tried to catch a bus at Shun Tak Centre can attest that sucking in those fumes can take years off your life). However, knowing what to avoid gives me a bit more power to enjoy my life. However, it took years of my own research. Here is part of what I found:
There are different types of headaches: migraines, cluster headaches, and tension headaches.
- Migraines have various triggers for different people. They can come with “auras.”
- Cluster headaches are arguably the most powerful headaches.
- Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches.
These are what I get – they stop me cold and leave me shivering in a darkened room, often sick to my stomach for days if left untreated.
Some migraines come with “auras,” which produce alterations to consciousness that serve as a “warning” of the impending migraine: an odd smell in the air, swirling colors, bright lights, or confusing thought patterns. Auras can occur a few seconds to a couple hours in advance. Generally, they go away once the actual migraine hits. Migraines affect more boys than girls, and more women than men. They also run in families.
Triggers: Most migraine sufferers have a food, smell, or chemical compound that triggers them. For some, it’s bad Chinese food (maybe the MSG?) For others, it’s red wine, aged cheeses, dairy in general, gluten, fast food, or even red meat. According to Chris Kresser, an expert in functional and integrative medicine, the most common triggers are foods containing histamine, tyramine, or arginine. Triggers can also be environmental such as common household chemicals and perfumes. Some people report EMF as a trigger. Even particularly powerful emotions, stressful situations, and loud sounds can be triggers for some people.
Magnesium: The evidence is quite clear in 2016. Magnesium matters for (many) migraine sufferers.
Red meat: Red meat is the best source of both L-carnitine, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. Throw some sauteéd spinach in there and you’ve got a big dose of L-carnitine, riboflavin, and magnesium. Make it beef heart and you’ll get some CoQ10 as well. Make it liver and you’ve got yourself some folate.
Supplementation: If you’re like me, you’re not a huge fan of taking a supplement for anything and everything. HOWEVER, this goes into the “can’t hurt – might help” category. B12, Magnesium, folate and riboflavin are all important nutrients with a high safety profile. A recent study gave a proprietary magnesium, riboflavin, and CoQ10 supplement to migraine sufferers. The supplement was a huge success, reducing symptom severity and duration.
Personal note: I’ve been mixing a teaspoon of Maca in with my yogurt in the mornings and have found a significant decrease in the frequency of my own migraine episodes, and a general improvement in my mood. Despite having to catch the bus at Shun Tak.
Meditation: Mindfulness meditation seems to work
Cluster headaches are probably the most painful type of headaches, but they don’t last as long as a typical migraine. They hit one side of the head, usually centralized around the eye, and come in waves or “clusters.” Cluster headaches affect more men than women.
Psychedelics: Although rigorous trials are lacking, a number of surveys and case studies indicate that the classical psychedelics psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and LSD (aka acid) may alleviate and reduce the severity of cluster headaches. In one study, authors interviewed people who had treated their own cluster headaches with either LSD or psilocybin, finding that the vast majority had derived major benefits from their experimentation. In a more recent survey of cluster headache sufferers, psilocybin, LSD, and LSA (a close relative of LSD with similar effects and mechanisms) appeared to be just as efficacious as conventional medicines, and often more so.
Sex hormone replacement: Cluster headaches frequently appear in people with low testosterone levels. When you give testosterone to male cluster headache sufferers with low testosterone, symptoms improve. Half experience total remission.
Circadian hygiene: For decades, researchers have found many examples of circadian misalignment in patients suffering from cluster headaches.
Getting more natural light during the day and less artificial light at night will also help.
Tension headaches are the most common type and have many different causes - some physical, some psychological. Women are more likely than men to get tension headaches.
Vitamin D or Sunlight: There’s a fairly consistent relationship between latitude and headache occurrence. The further away you are from the equator, the less sun and the more headache. This probably holds true for migraines as well.
Massage: An effective massage for headaches can be as simple as rubbing your own temples until the headache diminishes. It can be more complicated by employing trigger point therapy. Maybe you can try Thai massage. Or maybe just your significant other rubbing your neck and head while you watch Netflix together. Perhaps the most reliable way to alleviate a tension headache with massage is to focus on the suboccipital muscles along the base of your skull.
You don’t necessarily need a massage therapist every time. Touch heals, and healers needn’t be experts.
Chiropractic: Spinal manipulation may help some tension headaches, particularly combined with massage. It improves range of motion along the cervical spine, which should also help to prevent future headaches.
Exercise: Getting your neck stronger can reduce headaches. If you’re not keen on going to the chiropractor, find yourself a good Pilates studio and ask the instructor to give you a “postural analysis.” This will enable you to develop a series of exercises specific to your body type and will address any issues (including headaches that you might be experiencing). Headache sufferers tend to have tender trigger points along the trapezius (“shrugging muscles”) sternocleidomastoid (muscles running from the breastbone past the collarbone to the back of your head; controls head turning), and temporalis (big muscles alongside the head that control chewing) muscles.
Address posture: People with chronic tension headaches tend to show a more forward head posture and have more active (read: painful/tender) trigger points along the neck and upper shoulders. Avoid text neck. Break up sitting time and especially staring-at-a-device time. Also, if you carry heavy bags (students with book bags or Mums with diaper bags), sling that bag over a different shoulder each time.
Relax: Whatever relaxes you, go do it; stress is a consistent factor in the development of tension headaches.
Hydrate: Drink water consistently. Keep hydrated, especially in this crazy Hong Kong climate of heat, humidity, frigid air conditioning and inconsistent air quality.