Headache Rescue: What Are Your Triggers and How to Resolve Them


headacheThe ingredients for prevention for the millions that suffer with headaches every day.

Pain is no fun! Headaches are certainly no exception and can quickly put a major damper on anyone’s otherwise pleasant day. Headaches come in all shapes and sizes and range in symptoms from a slight throbbing in the temples to a debilitating vascular migraine causing temporary loss of vision. With more than 45 million 1 in 7 people in the U.S. alone suffering from chronic and recurring headaches according to the National Headache Foundation, there is a clear need to find solutions and help relieve the pain. While severe debilitating headaches often require medical care and supervision along with medications appropriate to the patient and type of a headache, for the still-nagging, but less medically serious headaches, there are a number of headache rescue strategies that may offer some relief. And offering the best of both worlds, some of the smartest strategies to help reduce headaches are preventive (offering an opportunity to stop them before they occur), while others help tackle the issue ‘head’-on!

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the National Institutes of Health, there are three main types of headaches: tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches. While each distinct type of headache comes with its fair share of challenges, there are numerous remedies, lifestyle adjustments, and techniques that can help to ease the pains. Becoming more familiar with nutrition and dietary triggers, learning some common sense and easy practices to adopt in order to avoid headaches, and tapping into other beneficial approaches like acupuncture and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) can make the difference in how frequently or how severely you experience a headache.

Nutrition and Headaches

First, to manage headaches as well as support an overall healthy lifestyle, we need to be eating a more anti-inflammatory diet. This is a diet that features whole foods, plenty of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains, lean proteins including low-fat dairy, and healthy fats in moderation. And just as important is what it limits: refined, processed foods and excess sugar, saturated fat, salt and calories. It also limits trigger-foods, some of which are more common headache triggers, others that will be unique to your own body chemistry, and always individual to the person.

Following a lower fat diet may help. Recent research has suggested that a nutrient-rich diet that is lower in fat (but includes the omega-3 healthy fats) may reduce the frequency, intensity, duration, and amount of medications needed for migraines. Healthy fats like the omega-3s EPA and DHA, found in fatty fish like wild salmon, trout, sardines and herring, as well as fish oil supplements are thought to play a role in preventing the development of headaches. Flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and pumpkin seeds also provide a plant-source of omega-3s.

Drink Up the Water. Important to our overall diet, staying hydrated is critical. When it comes to headaches, not consuming enough water each day can lead to dehydration, which can trigger a headache in some people or make symptoms worse. Boosting water intake while minimizing caffeine can help. This is always a good practice toward prevention, but also important once a headache is underway. Especially during episodes of nausea or vomiting from an acute migraine, staying hydrated is essential to a speedy recovery.
Tip: Carry a water bottle and aim for about 8-10 cups daily. Another handy rule of thumb is to drink approximately 1 cup water per 20 pounds body weight.

Magnesium. While the science is preliminary and inconclusive, there is some recent suggestion that magnesium may help with migraine headaches. Keep your eyes out for emerging research in this area and there’s no harm in ensuring your diet is rich in magnesium, from nutritious, whole food sources. Consult a doctor before diving into supplementation, which is not right for everyone. Magnesium-rich foods include halibut, almonds, cashews, spinach, oatmeal, potatoes, other nuts, peanuts, beans, and brown rice. Some of these are also potential head-ache triggers so may need to be evaluated.

Banish those unhealthy fats! While healthy fats in modest amounts can help, unhealthy fats may trigger headaches and at a minimum are less healthful to your overall diet. Limit saturated fats like those found in butter, fatty meats, lard and whole milk in your diet. And try to avoid trans-fats, a sure sign that you’re eating a processed food.

Identify and then avoid your own triggers. This is one of the most important and also sometimes challenging tasks you can undertake to help you manage the diet-related aspects of your headaches. Here are some of the more common diet-related triggers to get you started, but ultimately the best discovery is tracking and finding your individual triggers that are unique to you. Preventive nutrition for headaches requires limiting your intake of ‘trigger’ foods and additives may help you avoid certain kinds of headaches.

The more common food-related triggers; one or several of these may affect you:

  • Certain alcoholic beverages, often and especially red wine, white wine with sulfites, vermouth, champagne, beer.
  • Beverages and foods containing caffeine. If you consume a lot of caffeine, you may have to step down your intake over many days or a couple weeks. For many headache sufferers, going ‘caffeine-free’ can reduce the frequency and severity of pain of headaches and may help nearly eliminate them altogether.
  • Chocolate
  • Sauerkraut, avocados, and over-ripe bananas
  • Certain dried fruits like figs and raisins
  • Papaya, red plums, citrus fruits (small amounts are sometimes tolerated)
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, and hazelnuts
  • Certain beans (like broad beans, lima beans, fava beans) and snow peas
  • Nitrite-containing foods like luncheon meats, dried meats, dried or pickled fishes, chicken liver, sausage, bologna, hot dogs
  • Salted and cured meats (e.g., ham, corned beef, sausage, bacon, luncheon meats, etc.)
  • Certain breads (e.g., sourdough bread and yeasty, homemade bread)
  • Canned soups and powdered soup mixes
  • Ripened or aged cheeses like cheddar, blue cheeses, brie, camembert (cottage cheese is often tolerated)
  • Sour cream
  • Foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), some soy sauce, meat tenderizers, seasoned salt, certain convenience foods, nuts and soups
  • Tyramine-containing foods affect some headache sufferers. Tyramine, a naturally-occurring amino acid is found in some foods like cheese and sausage and tyramine levels increase in these foods that are aged, fermented, stored for long periods or are not fresh. Avoiding foods that are aged, dried, fermented, smoked or pickled may help alleviate symptoms. High protein foods like meat, poultry and fish should be prepared and eaten fresh to limit tyramine levels. The National Headache Foundation has more information about tyramine-containing foods.

Acupuncture Relief

For over 2,000 years, acupuncture and Chinese medicine have been ‘front-line’ strategies in the everyday battle with headaches and migraines in China. And here in the west, the research evidence supporting acupuncture for the care of headaches and migraines is mounting. In 2008, Duke University researchers from the department of anesthesiology published a comprehensive review of 31 studies evaluating the management of chronic headaches with acupuncture. Based on the pooled analysis, they concluded that acupuncture “was superior to medication therapy for headache intensity and headache frequency.” In other words, the participants did significantly better using acupuncture their headaches less frequent and symptoms milder than they were with prescription medications.

In another recent study in the journal Cephalalgia (the medical term for headache), over 15,000 headache patients received once weekly acupuncture treatments for 3 months. The researchers found that total number of days with headaches decreased as did the intensity of pain reported in the participants receiving acupuncture. Importantly, the people who received acupuncture also reported significant improvements in their overall quality of life. Further, the researchers observed the benefits of the acupuncture sessions lasted 3 months after the treatments ended showing the lasting effects of such therapy. With the evidence and lack of side effects, on its side, it’s no wonder that more and more people are turning to acupuncture and Chinese medicine to help find relief from their headaches.

At-home technique: simple hand acupressure.
Here’s something easy that you can do in the comfort of your own home that may help alleviate the pain of a mild or emerging headache. This is a technique where you will use your thumb and first two fingers of your right hand to pinch, press and massage the soft area, or web, between your thumb and ‘pointer’ finger (1st finger) on the left hand. Your right thumb should be on the top or back (nail side) of your hand and right fingers beneath on the palm side making the shape of a ‘claw’ in order press, massage and hold the fleshy area of the left hand (for 5-10 seconds). After several seconds, switch and alternate hands. You can continue this for 3 or more minutes or practice this periodically throughout the day. Massaging this area topically hits the acupuncture point He Gu, also called Large Intestine 4 a point commonly used in acupuncture for the relief of frontal headaches that might be a result from sinus pressure or congestion or jaw issues (such as TMJ). And massaging the hands at this point by applying some at-home acupressure may just help!

Find an acupuncturist.
If you are suffering from headaches, you might want to seek the assistance from a licensed acupuncturist in your area. Ask for referrals from friends or colleagues and read about How to Find an Acupuncturist and Chinese Medical Herbalist. Some women find they experience headaches according to their menstrual cycle and hormonal shifts so keeping a headache diary along with tracking the menstrual cycle can help. Acupuncture treatments may help in advance or during that time period where headaches are typically experienced and also assist in managing any associated symptoms of PMS.

Exercise and Rest

Even though there isn’t a large body of research specifically addressing how exercise affects headache frequency or pain in particular, because of the more well-established link between tense or weak muscles and chronic pain, exercise is likely to help. Since probably the last thing a person suffering with a severe headache wants to do is exercise, this is clearly one strategy that works best as a preventive life and health-enhancing activity with the goal to stave off headaches before they happen, while also increasing well-being. We already know the benefits of regular moderate exercise are many, but when it comes to headaches and pain, exercise can improve blood and oxygen to the muscles and also strengthen weak muscles around the shoulders and neck that often tire and cause tension up into the head.

Regular exercise.
You’ve heard it before, exercise regularly and include some aerobic and strength exercises that safely engage the back, shoulders and neck. Sweat. And do stretch. Stretching should be part of your regular exercise routine and can also be incorporated simply throughout the day.

Regular rest.
Even if you know you have a hard week at work, if you are a person who suffers from periodic or regular headaches, it’s very important to build in mini-breaks, small power naps and also a ‘scheduled rest’ to recover when the crunch-period is over. Planning ahead is so important since some headaches can take you out of the game altogether, making it impossible to finish the task on deadline. Plan ahead, pace yourself and work toward productive work while preventing headaches.

Effective prevention and care of headaches and migraines are multifaceted and fortunately, though there is no single remedy or recipe for success, there are clear strategies and approaches that can be used to find the best approach for each individual. The combination of nutritional and lifestyle practices, like exercise (including stretching) and rest, alongside complementary healthcare approaches like acupuncture and at home acupressure self-care with the careful use of medications when and if appropriate bring a broader and more customized opportunity for helping tackle ‘head first’ the wide variety of headaches affecting millions of us each year.

Jason and Wendy Bazilian are husband and wife integrative medical and health care partners based in San Diego, California. At Bazilian’s Health Clinic in San Diego (their private practice), they emphasize simple and effective strategies, based in science, for optimizing the quality of everyday living. Jason is the first Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in the United States, and a national and state board-certified Acupuncturist (CA, NY, CT) and Chinese Medical Herbalist. Wendy has a doctorate in Public Health and Nutrition, is a Registered Dietitian, and American College of Sports Medicine-certified Health and Fitness Specialist. She is the co-author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean, and the author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet.

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