Dealing with the Pain of Headaches and Migraines

As anyone who suffers from headaches or migraines can attest, once the pain starts, it can be hard to think about anything else. Thankfully, there are many natural ways to stop these aches, and even prevent them from beginning.

Headaches and Migraines:
What’s the Difference?

While headaches can range from mild to chronic, migraines are an especially acute type of pain that affect approximately 28 million Americans. Before the pain starts, many sufferers experience an “aura,” which can cause vision problems such as flashing lights. These episodes can also involve nausea and dizziness, as well as extreme sensitivity to light and sound (1).

While the causes for migraines are not concrete, Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., director of the Annapolis Research Center for Effective Fibromyalgia/CFS Therapies, believes they are “common endpoints for many different underlying problems.” These problems can include excessive contractions and expansion of brain blood vessels, muscle spasms and low levels of serotonin (1).

Common Headache Causes
One might be suffering from a headache for numerous reasons.

  • About 75% of headaches are tension headaches, which are often caused by stress (2). Such headaches can be felt at the base and the top of the head and often behind the eyes and across the forehead (1). They are caused by muscle spasms in the neck and shoulders, which then move on to strain the scalp (2).
  • Sinus headaches are caused by bacteria buildup in sinus cavities, which can cause swelling and pressure leading to head and facial pain. Treating the infection will resolve these headaches (2).
  • Temporo mandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) can cause headaches due to tightness of muscles in the jaw (1).
  • Many women experience migraines as a part of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). These are triggered by a drop in estrogen level.
  • Food allergies also cause headaches and are largely responsible for children’s migraines. The most common food trigger is wheat, followed by oranges and eggs (1). To help diagnose an allergic headache, keep track of when headaches occur and what was ingested before the pain began (2).

Get Relief the Natural Way
A number of natural supplements may aid headache sufferers. According to Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., feverfew is an important herb to use against headaches, as it appears to have anti-inflammatory properties and is safe enough for daily use (2). Another herb found to lessen headache pain is butterbur, which may affect the pressure on blood vessels and calcium channels, two possible causes of headaches (3). Fish oil has also been found to lessen headache frequency, possibly due to its omega-3 fatty acids that may lower triglycerides (4).

Magnesium is an important natural source of migraine relief. It can be taken as a preventative measure, as well as in cases of premenstrual migraines. Also, since magnesium relaxes muscles, it may also lessen the pain of tension headaches (5).

Acupuncture can be used in cases of chronic and tension headaches. It has been found to reduce the pain and frequency of headaches, along with improving function and energy in patients (1).

If natural supplementation does not decrease your headache pain, do not rule out painkillers. Talk to your doctor and follow any recommendations.

Change Your Life, Lose the Pain
If you are suffering from headaches, it may help to consider some long-term lifestyle changes. You may consider changing your sleep position. Poor sleep position, especially lying on the stomach, can lead to neck and head pain (2). Consider trying a special pillow for neck support to reduce tension.

As stress is a leading cause of headaches, finding ways to reduce stress is a positive step. Try putting a cold pack on your forehead, eyes or neck, or taking a hot shower or bath to relieve stress. A head or neck massage may also help reduce tension.

Yoga may also be effective. The gentle stretching and breathing can help reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation and better posture (2).

If suffering from allergic migraines, a change in diet may be helpful. Research has found that eliminating triggers such as wheat, eggs, chocolate, dairy, sugar, coffee and tea help relieve migraines. The elimination of cigarette smoke also may benefit headache sufferers (2).

Living Headache-Free
There are many different routes to consider when suffering from headaches. To find the most effective one for you, talk to your doctor and determine what kind of headache or migraine you are experiencing. From there, you can decide how you want to seek relief. WF



  1. J. Teitelbaum, Pain Free1-2-3 (Deva Press, Annapolis, MD, 2005).
  2. C. Dean, Dr. Carolyn Dean’s Natural Prescriptions for Common Ailments, Second Edition (Keats, Lincolnwood, IL, 2001).
  3. National Headache Foundation, “Fish Oil for Migraines,”, accessed April 5, 2010.
  4. WebMD, “Butterbur (Petasites Hybridus) for Migraine Headaches,”, accessed April 5, 2010.
  5. N.K. Fuchs, User’s Guide to Calcium and Magnesium (Basic Health Publications, North Bergen, NJ, 2002).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2010