When I was a teenager, I would get headaches almost DAILY. They were a bitch. And I was pretty much popping ibuprofen like they were friggin’ Tic Tacs. When I went off to college, I got to experience my first migraine (yay me!), which occurred smack-dab in the middle of one of my final exams (booooo). The migraines continued, on and off, throughout my early to mid-twenties (thankfully, I’ve been migraine-free for 3 or 4 years <knock on wood> now that I’ve figured out my triggers). I still get the occasional headaches, but they’re nothing like they were when I was younger (and I have better ways to deal with headaches now).
Luckily, I figured out how harmful ibuprofen and other NSAIDs can be before too much damage was done. These seemingly innocent drugs can cause side effects ranging from heart problems to liver problems to kidney problems to digestive issues… some NSAIDs can even increase gut permeability (a.k.a. leaky gut), which often plays a role in things like food allergies, food sensitivities, autoimmune conditions, and others. (I personally experienced the occasional heart palpitations while I was on ibuprofen, though I didn’t know that that was the cause at the time.)
Because I know just how AWFUL headaches and migraines can be, I’m sharing with you some of my tips for easing the pain (without drugs), plus I’ll give you some insights into ways you can avoid them in the first place.
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NATURAL HEADACHE & MIGRAINE REMEDIES
Here’s an acupressure technique that I stumbled upon a couple years ago – I use this on my husband all the time (he gets headaches with weather changes) and it seems to work pretty effectively. What I like about going this route first is that: (1) it’s free, and (2) as long as you have 2 hands, you can do it on your own wherever you are.
The technique: massage the fleshy area between your thumb and forefinger by pulsing (while applying even and firm pressure) with your thumb and a couple fingers from your opposite hand. I do this for a few minutes on each hand. In case my explanation doesn’t make any sense, here’s a video:
As the video shows, you can also massage your shoulders, neck, head, or any other areas where you feel tension. In my personal experience, usually the hand technique is enough to nip a headache or migraine in the bud if I do it early enough.
Magnesium is a “relaxation” mineral – it’s great for reducing tension. Many of us are low in magnesium for tons of reasons (magnesium being depleted from soils, exposure to certain chemicals making magnesium less absorbable, increased overall stress levels causing an elevated need for magnesium, etc.), and studies have also shown that those with frequent headaches and migraines are notoriously low in magnesium. Unless you have specific health issues (such as kidney disease), supplementing with magnesium is pretty safe if done properly.
The type of magnesium does make a difference – unless you struggle with constipation, you’ll want the more absorbable forms of magnesium. The amount of magnesium needed will vary from person to person, though, in general, any dose over 200mg or so will need to be split up into separate doses (unless you want looser stools…). For example, if you determine that you need 400mg of magnesium through supplements, you can take 200mg in the morning and 200mg in the evening.
I like the magnesium glycinate by Pure Encapsulations because it’s very “clean” (no unnecessary fillers, dyes, etc., plus it’s free of common allergens). Magnesium glycinate is more absorbable than many of the other forms of magnesium (one of the least absorbable forms is magnesium oxide, which is, unfortunately, the most commonly used… mainly because it’s less expensive).
If you don’t particularly enjoy taking pills, you can also absorb magnesium transdermally (through the skin) with magnesium oil. One of the major pros of using magnesium oil is that it bypasses the digestive tract (so there’s less things to get in the way of absorption). On the negative side, some people find that the magnesium oil can be itchy (though one of the theories floating around is that it usually causes itchiness in those who are super low in magnesium and the itchiness tends to fade as magnesium stores are brought back up). If the itchiness is a problem for you, you can apply some coconut oil (or other moisturizer) to the area after a few minutes or so. To apply magnesium oil, many folks use between 10-20 squirts from the bottle per day and apply it to arms, legs, and stomach.
(By the way, if you like the idea of using magnesium oil but want to save some money, try making some yourself. Bring 1/2 cup of distilled water to a boil. Place 1/2 cup of magnesium flakes in a glass bowl, then add the boiled water – stir until dissolved. When the mixture cools, you can transfer it to a spray bottle. Easy peasy. Note: DISTILLED water should be used to extend the shelf life of the mixture.)
Essential oils have been gaining tons of popularity in recent years. They’re basically super concentrated forms of certain health-promoting compounds from the plants/trees they’re derived from. This means they’re POTENT… and a little goes a long way. (Note: essential oils aren’t “cures” for anything, but they can give the body a little extra support so it can do its job better.)
Essential oils can help in a couple different ways when it comes to headaches and migraines – helping to reduce some of the tension, or helping to bring down stress levels in general (stress is a major trigger for headaches/migraines). When your head starts pounding, try Tension Relief Synergy (dilute it with a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil or sweet almond oil, before use – usually 1-2 drops essential oil per teaspoon of carrier oil is a good place to start). You can also purchase Tension Relief Synergy that is already pre-diluted with fractionated coconut oil (this one’s in a roll-on bottle for easier application – great to throw in your purse).
If you’re new to essential oils, I’d recommend the free Intro to Essential Oils course by Aromahead to learn more about the dos and don’ts.
COMMON HEADACHE & MIGRAINE TRIGGERS
There are tons of possible contributors to headaches and migraines, but I would say that dehydration is one of the most common culprits. Tons of things can cause dehydration:
- Not drinking enough fluid in general (duh) – if you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated
- Sweating without replacing enough fluids/electrolytes (exercise, hot weather, use of saunas, etc.)
- Switching to a lower-carbohydrate diet (such as Paleo) – carbs help the body retain fluids; when switching to a low-carb diet, extra fluids may be needed to avoid dehydration
- Prolonged stress/adrenal fatigue – one of the hormones that’s produced by the adrenal glands helps regulate fluids and electrolyte levels; if adrenals become overworked due to stress, this can cause dehydration (among other issues)
- Use of certain medications (such as those commonly used for blood pressure)
- Certain health conditions (such as uncontrolled diabetes) and any illness that includes vomiting or diarrhea as symptoms
… just to name a few.
Aside from headaches, other signs of dehydration include:
- Thirst/dry mouth
- Dry lips
- Dark yellow urine
- Dizziness when standing quickly
- Fatigue/low energy
- Lower back pain
When you first start to feel a headache coming on, ask yourself if dehydration could be the cause.
Common food triggers
There are certain types of chemicals that are known to have a tightening or constricting effect on blood vessels, which can trigger headaches and migraines. These include caffeine, tyramine, phenylethylamine, and MSG (among others). There are also other chemicals found in foods that are often problematic, such as aspartame and nitrites. If you’re a frequent headache or migraine sufferer, start with eliminating the main sources of these chemicals to see if your headaches/migraines improve (you can always add things back in after you’re feeling better to determine your individual triggers and threshold).
Caffeine can be a little tricky, as variations in caffeine from day to day can cause headaches and migraines (so lowering your caffeine intake too quickly can trigger ’em). Weaning yourself off caffeine will likely help in the long run, but do so VERY gradually (for example, if you’re used to drinking 4 cups of coffee per day, reduce your consumption to 3.75 cups and stay with that amount for a few days, then cut it back to 3.5 cups for a few days… continuing on until you’re off of it). I can’t tell you how many migraineurs I’ve worked with that just could not tolerate caffeine (plus, over time, caffeine can play a role in adrenal fatigue, which is a whole ‘nother can ‘o worms). Aside from coffee (including decaf coffee), caffeine is often found in energy drinks, soda, tea, chocolate (especially darker chocolates), and even certain medications that are specifically for migraines (funny how migraine meds can actually contribute to migraines…).
Other common foods to avoid for headaches and migraines:
- Aged, fermented, pickled, over-ripe, smoked, or spoiled foods
- Aged cheese
- Leftovers that are more than a day or 2 old (unless frozen)
- Processed meats
- Fava beans
- “Diet” or “sugar-free” foods containing aspartame
- Foods/ingredients that often contain MSG (gelatin, calcium or sodium caseinate, textured or hydrolyzed protein, yeast extract, carrageenan, maltodextrin, “ultra-pasteurized” dairy products, bouillon/broth/stock, soy protein isolate, barley malt, “natural flavorings,” “seasonings”)
- and others
In many cases, preparing whole foods from scratch can help minimize some of the problematic foods and chemicals.
Food sensitivities are a very common cause of headaches and migraines. I’ve helped many headache and migraine sufferers pinpoint their individual trigger foods with the use of specialized blood testing. Foods that were revealed as triggers for these clients were foods that are typically considered as healthy or safe for most other people, and yet they still caused headaches and migraines in the folks that I worked with. I’ve seen triggers be anything from lettuce to garlic to broccoli… you name it. If symptoms of headaches and migraines persist despite eliminating the most common triggers, I’d highly recommend exploring food sensitivity testing (and I’d definitely recommend testing if you have other symptoms/health conditions on top of the headaches/migraines).
Other lifestyle factors
It should be no huge surprise that stress can play a major role in headaches and migraines. If your life is pretty stressful, this will take a huge toll on your health over time (in addition to causing headaches/migraines). Try some of the techniques below to help get your stress levels under control.
Epsom salt baths
Add 1 – 2 cups of epsom salts to warm bath water and soak for 20 minutes (epsom salt baths also work well for various aches and pains and they can help increase your magnesium levels a smidge).
Diffusing essential oils can help when you’re under stress (though you’ll want to avoid diffusing oils around young kiddos or pets). You can also apply essential oils topically, if desired, by adding 1-2 drops of your desired essential oil to 1 teaspoon of carrier oil (such as fractionated coconut oil, sweet almond oil, or others) and apply where desired.
Common relaxing essential oils include lavender, ylang ylang, Roman chamomile, sweet marjoram, vetiver, and tons of others. You could also go with a pre-made blend for relaxation, such as Relax Synergy (note: you’ll still want to dilute it with a carrier oil). Experiment to find whatever oil (or combo of oils) works best for you.
Yoga (and physical activity in general) can really help with stress levels (it also boosts feel-good hormones and has tons of other health benefits, too!).
Getting into the routine of meditating a few minutes each day can do wonders for your stress levels and overall well-being. If you’re a meditation newb, check out Meditation for Beginners. There are also tons of videos out there with specifics on meditation.
Emotional Freedom Technique
Emotional Freedom Technique (a.k.a. EFT or tapping) is kind of a combo of acupressure and psychology – you basically tap on specific points while you think/state the problem that is bothering you (obviously my explanation is pretty simplified here – there’s a little more to it than that). The Tapping Solution by Nick Ortner is a very popular book on the topic. There are also many videos that can help guide you through the process.
Changes in sleep patterns can be a huge headache and migraine trigger. Aim for at least around 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. For better quality sleep, avoid falling asleep with the TV or radio on and minimize the light that comes into your bedroom (use blackout curtains, remove night lights, etc). You should also avoid looking at your phone/computer/tablet right before bed.
Hormonal changes can also play a role in headaches and migraines – some women have more problems around that time of the month. This may be more of a problem if hormones are imbalanced (which is far more common than you probably realize). A lot of things can add to hormonal issues. Common endocrine (hormone) disruptors include:
- Pesticides/herbicides (choose organic food to avoid these)
- Chemicals found in plastics (choose glass food storage containers instead, etc)
- “Antibacterial” products
- Parabens, which are commonly found in beauty products, personal care products, and others
- Sodium lauryl sulphate (usually found in personal care items and cleaning products)
- Fluoride (fluoride is frequently added to city water; some people opt to filter it out themselves)
- Soy (found in tons of pre-packaged foods and even in some medications and supplements – check the labels)
- Meat and animal products from livestock that was given exogenous hormones (farmers will often do this to promote faster weight gain in their livestock; look for pasture-raised, antibiotic-free, hormone-free products whenever possible)
A lot of people underestimate the effects of endocrine disruptors (and other chemicals) that are found in personal care products (lotions, creams, shampoo, deodorant, etc.) – the skin is the largest organ of the body and varying percentages of what you place on your skin goes right into the blood stream (the amount absorbed depends on what the chemical is and where on the body it’s being placed).
Food sensitivities can also disrupt hormonal balance (yet another reason to get tested).
There are tons of possible environmental triggers and, unfortunately, it’s not always easy to avoid all of them. Mold, mildew, perfumes, air fresheners, pollens, and others can definitely trigger those who are already prone to headaches and migraines. If you suspect things like mold and mildew in your home, make sure you take care of those issues ASAP (since other health issues can result from mold exposure as well). If you suspect that other environmental triggers are a problem for you, be especially picky about what you expose yourself to at home. In my experience, if you tackle headaches and migraines from different angles (food, stress, sleep, reducing inflammation, etc.), the environmental stuff that you can’t change (like at work) tends to be less of a problem for many folks.
I hope you found this info helpful! I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below. 🙂
Amanda Austin is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified LEAP Therapist who approaches health and wellness from an integrative and functional perspective. She loves a good DIY, making a mess in the kitchen, and working up a sweat. She’s also obsessed with her incredibly spoiled fur-babies, which includes a rambunctious Boston Terrier, 2 cranky house cats, and 3 boisterous chickens.