I have suffered from migraines and headaches for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I would get dizzy and see stars when I stood up too fast. After puberty hit I would see those stars and then a couple hours later be in full blown migraine mode, laying in a dark room with a pillow over my head taking little sips of water and a lot of ibuprofen.
I still get headaches now and then, especially during stressful times, but I have figured out how to deal with most of the migraines. The best way? Get to them before they get to you. Any migraine survivor will tell you to figure out your triggers because once your head starts to hurt, you’re too late to stop it from coming.
Let’s talk about headaches and migraines: what are they, what causes them, and how can we get them to lay off?
What's the Difference Between a Headache and a Migraine?
There are two main classifications of headaches, and a lot of the sub categories within those classifications. Which one are you getting most often?
1. Vascular Headaches
Vascular headaches are caused by the dilation of blood vessels. These are the hangover headaches, the sugar pains, the brain freezes. These come about when your body is having cravings that you won’t give it – like caffeine – and are connected with your gut health. Drink tea, eat soup, and try to figure out what you might be sensitive to in your diet.
2. Tension Headaches
These types of head aches are caused by muscle spasms in your upper body. While it’s true that most people with recurrent headaches have muscular issues in their upper body, these are the kind that you get when you’re stressed, when you’ve worked out too hard and your muscles are tense or when you stay up all night to cram for that exam (or power-watching Netflix) and you’ve been straining your eyes and your neck muscles for hours.
The big ones. Migraines are sort of a combination of the two headaches, aka super headaches. It’s pretty complicated, but essentially they are caused by spasms in the muscles of cell walls of the blood vessels. (See? Even the simplified version is complicated.)
The spasms constrict blood flow at the base of the brain, which reduces blood flow and oxygen to the brain. To compensate for that, arteries in the brain open up and that triggers all sorts of chemicals to be released. You're essentially going into survival mode. And some of those chemicals increase your sensitivity to pain.
As if the vessel spasms weren’t bad enough, your brain is pounding even harder because it has purposefully decided to be more sensitive to what’s happening. It’s basically saying, “Okay guy, we have a serious problem and I’m going to make you know it really intensely so that your only option is to go lay down.” (I’m not bitter about it at all, I swear.)
Common Triggers for Headaches and Migraines
For both headaches and migraines the most common triggers are stress and fatigue, food allergies, and smoking or breathing polluted/stuffy air. This means you have to relax, eat good food, and breathe fresh air- sounds like a weekly picnic to me.
If you have headaches or migraines, some foods you might want to keep track of are things like alcohol, processed sugars, dairy, chocolate (sad but true), nuts, eggs, and wheat. See if you can eliminate these from your diet one by one and if that helps.
Headaches can also be caused by emotions, change in the weather, change in sleep, caffeine (more accurately, lack of caffeine when your body expects it), and blood clots.
Chances are, if you get a headache you know what it’s from. If you’re having a lot of headaches that you can’t figure out, watch your diet and go see a naturopathic doctor.
Migraines can be more serious and it is important to understand the causes. While it could be that you’re sensitive to a smell or a flickering light, they can also be caused by issues with the liver, hormone levels (usually high estrogenic levels), and structural factors like misalignment in the spine or the cranium.
3 Easy and Natural Remedies for Headaches
The first thing I ask when someone tells me that they have a headache is, “How much water have you had today and yesterday?” It’s real folks. Drinking enough water can stave off a lot of the issues that we see in our society today, including headaches.
Your initial plan of attack when you think you feel a headache coming on should be to run to your water cooler and drink a tall glass of it, at room temperature. Then drink another one. It can stop a headache or a migraine in its tracks because our brains are made of 80% water. When we’re dehydrated our brains pull away from our skulls, that tells our pain receptors to go off, and wha-bam! A headache is born.
2. Oil Pulling
This is one is a wive’s tale and I’m not sure why it works, but it does. My second plan of attack when a headache is coming is to grab the coconut oil and swish like there’s no tomorrow. The coconut oil pulls impurities out of your mouth and it helps clear your sinuses. It also has a calming effect on your body because you’re in your parasympathetic nervous system for that 15-20 minutes. (More on that nervous system here.)
This might sound obvious, but it might not. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting too much sleep?
If you answered “no” or “I don’t know” to those questions, you probably need to regulate your sleep patterns. Most people don’t sleep enough for their cycle. I personally do my best with 9 hours, but I usually get only get seven and a half (which is also okay).
Try to time your sleep with your REM cycles so that your alarm isn’t going off in the middle of a cycle. Sleeping is the part of your day when your body gets to rejuvenate. If you’re not sleeping, you’re not healing.
5 Herbal Remedies for Headaches
I’m still working on my perfect herbal headache remedy for my first aid kit, but I’ll let you in on a few of the herbs that I’m really excited about for this herbal remedy.
My heavy herbal hitters:
- Skullcap (Scutellaria)
- Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
- Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis)
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
A lot of people will take a tincture for a headache, but I often just drink tea because I know I can use the extra hydration. Steep the herbs with very hot water – you can also boil them for about 10 minutes as with Chinese custom, but I have found that a 10 minute steep with almost boiling water is sufficient.
Note: I typically only use skullcap and mugwort in my tea because I’m very sensitive to smell when my head hurts and hedge nettle and valerian both can push me over the top a little bit.
Another note: Turmeric, internally, is a wonderful anti-inflammatory and should be eaten as often as possible. Because it is fat soluble, just making a tea with it isn’t going to pull out all the benefits. I like it with coconut oil.
Disclaimer: This information is supplemental and is not to be used in place of medical advice. If you’re reading through the internet for remedies for headaches and migraines that you’re having, go get some sleep. When you wake up, schedule an appointment with a holistic practitioner. Headaches are serious business.
What do you do when you feel a headache coming on?
by Aubrey Wallace, Resident Herbal Scholar
Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.