According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are two headache types and 13 headache classifications. If you have been seeing a doctor for treatment or have been doing some research then you’ve probably come across a number of terms, like migraine headache, cluster headache, tension-type headache, allergy headache, sinus headache and so on.
Despite the advances in medical science, an astonishing 25 million Americans suffer from migraines! And a whopping nine out of 10 suffer from other headaches as part of their daily lives! The headaches are accepted as inevitable parts of life and sufferers swallow prescription drugs as a matter of habit, just as they brush their teeth without giving the action a second thought.
The problem is chronic headaches and migraines take their toll, not only on the body’s ability to maintain a state of homeostasis or wellness, but on the ability to think logically, see clearly and to feel and act appropriately. The impact all of this has on one’s quality of life is shattering: jobs lost, relationships ruined, motivation diminished and happiness disintegrated.
Not all headaches are the same. Not everyone experiences headaches and their symptoms the same way. The same trigger does not always trigger the same type of headache. What’s more, headaches encompass physical, physiological and emotional dimensions. In short, headaches are complex conditions that need a comprehensive approach to achieve their banishment.
Despite what you may have been told, the particular label you place on a headache is less important than 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 nearly 30 years, I devised an “integrated mind/body approach” to prevent headaches of all kinds from taking hold in the body. Indeed, 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 harboring stress and missing sleep. 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. Here are seven ways to start:
Be Mindful of Dietary Choices
Eat more fresh items 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 headaches.
Drink plenty of water every day to help your body expel 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 headaches, 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 system. Many people benefit from tai chi, yoga, qigong or other gentle exercises that stretch the body and soothe the soul. Find whatever stress relievers 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’s breathing is too shallow, which means they don’t 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.
If you must drink caffeine, avoid it six hours before bed. Also avoid 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 taking a warm bath and reading a good book before retiring.
Engage in Regular Exercise
Exercise reduces stress, releases endorphins and dopamine, improves blood flow, works through muscle tension and keeps the body firm and supple. Engaging in simple, regular activities 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 exercise. To stretch and release tension in the shoulders and upper back, use your hands to gently push the back of the head forward until your chin touches your chest. Repeat several times daily.
Know Your Number
Most chronic headache sufferers can’t seem to find definitive relief from their pain by simply adhering to the above-mentioned suggestions. Unfortunately, the problem is more complex and what I tell patients is that the problem is compounded by multiple trigger combinations.
For me, my trigger number is four within a 24-hour period. I can have coffee, milk and sweetener with no problem, but if I get stressed: Bang! I can eat a hotdog on a white bun, drink a beer and I am fine. But get up with less than eight hours sleep and a headache will show itself. So, when living a lifestyle based on prevention it is important that you know your number… that magic digit that indicates how many triggers you can have in a day or week before the headache returns. And with that knowledge and the right amount of discipline you can keep the pain away forever.
With the above lifestyle changes you can reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches. The time to make the change is now. I wish you the best in this life-changing endeavor.
Yours in self-directed wellness,
—Dr. Mark Wiley