Fifteen ways you can fight off a headache naturally
Most of us turn to the pill bottle when pain hits, but there are a lot of alternatives, says Katie Byrne
Not all headaches are created equal. Almost 90% of them are what are known as tension headaches and they are brought on by, you guessed it, stress and anxiety. Tension headaches are generally felt on both sides of the head and they are experienced as a dull and steady ache or the sensation of a tight band around the head and neck.
Migraines, on the other hand, are throbbing and pulsating and sufferers often experience sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and even vomiting. Migraines are a form of vascular headaches, and cluster headaches are part of the same family. Vascular headaches are caused by the enlargement of blood vessels and the release of chemicals from the nerve fibres that coil around these blood vessels.
Sinus headaches can often be confused with chronic headaches. Inflamed sinuses lead to swelling and increased mucus production. This in turn blocks the passages and creates pressure around the sinus areas - in particular the cheekbones, forehead and bridge of the nose. Sudden movement tends to aggravate the pain and the headache is generally accompanied by nasal discharge and facial swelling.
The good news is that you don't have to rely on over-the-counter medication. There are countless proven natural alternatives that can help ease your headache by getting to the root of the problem.
1. Know your triggers
Headaches tend to have triggers, and often a certain food type is the culprit. If you have one or more headaches a week, try keeping a headache diary. This will allow you to identify the foods or substances that are responsible. Common triggers include alcohol (in particular red wine), chocolate and caffeine. The latter is a double-edged sword. In small doses, caffeine can cure a headache. However, it can also trigger withdrawal headaches when two or more cups of coffee are consumed per day.
2. Throw in the towel
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and are generally brought on by the travails of modern life, including stress, anxiety, tension, tiredness and poor posture. The tell-tale signs of a tension headache are a stiff neck and a feeling of pressure behind the eyes. Try a hot compress the next time you're tempted to reach for the painkillers. Simply dip a face cloth in very hot water, wring it out and fold it in to a washcloth.
Lie down, preferably in a dimly-lit room, and place the compress on your forehead or on the back of your neck (where it will help to relax tight muscles).
Stay relaxing for at least 10 minutes or until the headache has eased. The same procedure, but using cold water, will ease a vascular headache (migraine and cluster headaches).
3 Sitting pretty
You'll notice that tension headaches are more likely to come on when you're hunched over your desk. Poor posture leads to back and neck strain, and pain is eventually referred upwards towards the head. When sitting at your desk, make sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor (and not crossed). In terms of alignment, your ears should be over the shoulders and your shoulders should be over the hips.
4 Sharpen your pencil
Many of us have a tendency to clench our teeth when we're under stress. This in turn strains the muscle that connects the jaw to the temples and triggers a tension headache. To relax this muscle and unclench the jaw, try placing a pencil in between your teeth. Use a very light grip and be careful not to bite down on it. This will ease the headache and get you into the habit of relaxing your jaw when you're feeling the pressure.
5. Go nuts
Consider eating a handful of unpeeled almonds the next time you feel a tension headache coming on. Almonds contain a natural anti-inflammatory agent called salicin. When consumed, salicin is converted to salicylic acid, which is very similar in chemical makeup to aspirin. Conversely, almonds can be a trigger food for those who suffer from migraine headaches, so tread carefully.
6. Ready to rolf
Posture-based alternative modalities such as craniosacral therapy and Rolfing can help those who suffer from persistent headaches.
Therapist Gillian Duffin of Love Your Posture explains: "Usually by the time someone walks through my door they have exhausted dietary changes and the usual tensions that a massage therapist would commonly address, so we have to look deeper. The top question for me is always 'Did you have a head injury or dental work recently?'.
"The bones of the head can take a lot of pressure before they ache, but trauma or enforced movement of those bones through braces, is a very common cause of persistent headaches.
"All our postural issues end up in our neck because structurally, by the sheer design of the human body, it takes the brunt of our compensation patterns and we all compensate somehow because of habit or injury."
7. Full stream ahead
Apple cider is a cure for all ills… including sinus headaches. An apple cider vinegar steam bath can help clear the sinus passages without irritating the delicate mucous membranes and in turn eases those telltale pressure headaches.
To make a steam bath, pour a quarter of a cup of apple cider vinegar into a large bowl and fill the bowl halfway with boiling water. Hold your face over the bowl, but not so close that it gets burned by the steam, and place a towel over your head so that it drapes over the bowl.
Do this for five to 10 minutes, or until the water starts to cool down, breathing in and out deeply. Make sure to drink a glass of water afterwards.
8. Some like it hot
Many old wives' tales recommend chilli pepper as a natural pain reliever. What's more, several scientific studies have since proven the claim.
Chilli peppers contain the active ingredient capsaicin which is thought to deplete substance P, a neurotransmitter that helps transmit pain impulses.
Capsaicin is available as a pill, cream or nasal spray. Talk to your GP before you decide to self-treat.
9. Daily grind
If you suffer from deep, dull morning headaches, there's a chance that you could have temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, which is caused from teeth grinding (bruxism) at night. Consult your dentist and if TMJ is diagnosed, consider investing in a dental night guard which will prevent bruxism and in turn ease your headaches.
10. Magnuesium opus
Studies show that up to 50% of migraine sufferers have reduced magnesium during a migraine attack and that a lack of magnesium can lead to headaches due to the dilation of blood vessels. Dr Mark Hyman (doctor to the Clintons and New York Times best-selling author) has written about the success he has had when adding high doses of magnesium to the diets of migraine sufferers.
Magnesium-rich foods include green vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grain bread. Alternatively, magnesium supplements are reasonably priced and available in all health shops.
Alongside magnesium, the Migraine Trust recommends the following supplements as natural alternatives for migraine sufferers: riboflavin, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and the herbal preparations feverfew and butterbur. As always, talk to your GP before you self-treat.
12. Glass half full
Researchers at the University of Maastricht discovered that patients suffering from mild to severe headaches felt better when they increased their water consumption to 1.5 litres a day (on top of their normal liquid intake - tea, coffee etc). Headaches are often brought on by dehydration, so the first line of defence for any headache should be a glass of water. Simple, but effective.
13. Ginger up
Ginger root contains a powerhouse of pain-relieving substances that block prostraglandin synthesis, which is the manufacture of lipid compounds that stimulate biological processes like inflammation. Wendy Greene, author of 50 Things You Can Do Today to Manage Migraines, recommends chewing on raw ginger when a headache strikes. "Ginger helps to ease the nausea and can reduce the inflammation of blood vessels in the brain that lead to migraines," she writes.
If you find raw ginger unpalatable, try making a homemade tea by adding a few good-sized slices of peeled ginger root to boiling water.
14. Think on your feet
Christine Murphy, the author of Practical Home Care Medicine, recommends a rosemary foot bath to alleviate headaches. Rosemary has anti-inflammatory properties and by drawing blood to your feet you will reduce the pressure on the blood vessels in your head. Add one to two teaspoons of rosemary to hot water and steep your feet and ankles for at least 10 minutes.
15. Throw off the scent
"Peppermint, eucalyptus, and lavender are especially helpful in reducing headache pain and can also be used to make a compress to place on your forehead whenever a headache hits," says Fiona O'Keeffe, of doTERRA essential oils.
"When you do not have time for compresses, dab a small drop of lavender, eucalyptus or peppermint oil on each temple.
"For some people, a hot bath only makes their head pound more.
"However, if bathing does ease your pain, add a few drops of relaxing lavender or chamomile to your bath water. Dabbing a few drops of your favourite essential oil first thing in the morning is a great way to start your day and can help manage stress."
Essential oils for headaches: chamomile, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, ginger, jasmine, lavender, lemongrass, marjoram, patchouli and peppermint.