One of our main roles as natural health practitioners is to encourage our patients to look at the connections between various aspects of their health. This means understanding the ways in which foods can impact on our health and create unwanted symptoms, the ways nutrient imbalances can contribute to ill-health, and the ways in which physical, emotional and environmental factors can affect our wellbeing.
Sometimes this is akin to being a detective, but the great thing is that a patient is always their own best supersleuth, as they know their bodies best. Often just providing a little bit of information can lead people to make breakthroughs of understanding where, for example, their headaches come from, and therefore how to stop them. Discovering or uncovering hidden triggers for headaches and migraines is the first important step to avoiding them completely.
If in doubt, check it out! Serious medical conditions may cause headaches, and it is always worth getting a medical examination if you are concerned, especially if the headaches are new or sudden or especially severe. However, often people get the all-clear from their GP and yet still have persistent headaches or migraines.
Here are some common and not-so-common factors which are worthy of investigation if you suffer from migraines or headaches:
- Food reactivity (individual intolerance or sensitivity to MSG, histamine foods, nitrates/preservatives) is a major cause of headache and migraine.
- Dehydration. Big big big factor. But most people know this already and monitor hydration if they are prone to headaches.
- Muscle tension and postural issues; try bodywork such as massage, osteopathic, chiropractic or physio, relaxation techniques, and also note hydration and magnesium play into muscle tension.
- Magnesium status (and Vitamin B6); many people are low in magnesium which helps with muscle relaxation and also contributes to blood vessel constriction/relaxation, if in doubt get this assessed.
- Medications; aspirin, painkillers, oral contraceptive pills, etc
- Hormonal balance; Women often note headaches or migraines before or at the onset of their periods. This is where a natural health practitioner such as a naturopath or medical herbalist can really be worth their weight in gold. Whether you need an oestrogen detox or specific herbal hormonal balancing, women’s health is definitely one place where natural medicine does amazing work.
- Prostaglandin balance; this is why fish oils and flaxseed oil help some people- omega-3 oils help to reduce inflammation by controlling prostaglandins (little biochemical messengers in the body). Too much red meat and dairy can tip the balance here.
- Strong or specific smells
- Constipation; when I was young if I had a headache my mother would always ask “Have you had a poo today?”. She is a wise woman. Bowel elimination is a big issue for headaches.
- Sluggish Liver function; this can be assessed or may be evident by your symptoms. Herbal medicine is wonderful for supporting liver function.
- Sleep problems and fatigue; this is no surprise!
- Inability to relax; this ties in to muscular tension and magnesium too. But learning relaxation techniques can actually make a huge difference to recurrent headaches. Herbal medicine can also help support relaxation.
- Eyestrain, glare, computer use, driving etc.
- Weather changes or extremes; Those from Canterbury will know of the classic ‘Nor’Wester Headache’! Other regions may have their own special brands of environmental trigger. For some people strong sunlight can even be a trigger.
- Alcohol, yes, a hangover of course, doh!
- Caffeine withdrawal, but most people know this. (Too much caffeine can also be a trigger!).
- Serotonin imbalances; Natural serotonin support supplements can be effective, especially for migraines.
- Sinus inflammation/congestion; whether from allergies, infection, or chronic inflammation, this is a special kind of headache and should be treated as such. Nasal rinsing, identification of food or environmental triggers, and immune support is key.