Headache Triggers That Are More Myth Than Truth
These natural remedies may help you stop your next headache before it starts.
Photo: joesayhello/Adobe Stock
Headaches and migraines are not fun. But before you pop a pain killer there are certain natural remedies you can try to help relieve the pain in your head. 25 percent of people who get headaches, and 30 percent of migraine sufferers, blame certain foods and drinks. Fortunately, science can help you protect you from your next headache or migraine, naturally.
Here we review 5 natural headache fixes to try, tricky dietary triggers and get to the bottom of headache myths.
Related: Foods That Fight Pain Naturally
5 Headache Fixes to Try
1. Chill Out
Your headache risk soars fourfold when a stressful situation ends. That's when the stress hormone cortisol-which also blocks pain-ebbs away. One possible solution: People who meditated for about 30 minutes daily experienced shorter and somewhat less-intense headaches compared to those who did not meditate, reported a recent study in Headache. Practicing stress-reduction techniques could keep cortisol lower when you become stressed, helping you avoid a crash later.
2. Get More Magnesium
When brain cells have adequate magnesium, they're less likely to switch on the pain pathways if they meet up with a pain trigger. The American Academy of Neurology says to hit the recommended daily allowance for magnesium (310 to 420 mg) for migraine prevention. Three servings of whole grains plus a cup of cooked spinach can get you your daily magnesium. Food sources of magnesium include:
- pumpkin seeds
- dark chocolate
- whole grains
3. Drink Up
Mild dehydration could double your risk for a headache, according to a Journal of Nutrition study. Fortunately, upping your water game is a simple fix, Dutch researchers found. Regular headache sufferers added four 8-ounce cups of water to increase their total beverages from 7 to 11 cups daily. This lessened the impact of headaches on their quality of life.
4. Go Exercise
Pedaling an exercise bike for 40 minutes, three times a week, blocked migraines as effectively as taking a migraine-preventing prescription drug, found a Swedish study. Any movement may help by activating feel-good brain chemicals (called endocannabinoids) and muting signals in pain-sensing areas of the brain.
5. Quit chewing gum
Giving up gum for a month halted head pain for 19 out of 30 kids and teens with chronic headaches, found Israeli researchers. And for those who restarted their gum habit, the headaches returned. All that grinding may put excess pressure on the jaw joint, causing skull-wide discomfort.
Tricky Headache Triggers to Watch Out For
Throbbing caffeine-withdrawal headaches affect nearly half of caffeinated-beverage drinkers. Caffeine narrows blood vessels, so missing your daily dose lets major arteries in the brain expand... ouch! "The more caffeine you regularly get, the bigger your chances for a headache if you miss your morning cupful or have it later than usual," notes Vincent Martin, M.D., director of the Headache and Facial Pain Center at UC Health in Cincinnati. Aim to keep your caffeine habit consistent day-to-day.
Giving up lunch to power through your day leaves you more than just hangry. Plummeting blood sugar can make your head hurt when brain cells react to low levels of their favorite fuel. One in five migraine sufferers, and one in seven people who get headaches, say that hunger can kick-start the pain. In fact, daytime fasting (eating only at night) nearly tripled migraine risk in people who regularly get them, according to a study in the Journal of Headache and Pain.
Hungover? Thank dehydration for your headache. Plus, when you drink, your liver makes excess acetaldehyde as it breaks down alcohol, and this compound can make blood vessels in your brain expand and throb. As for migraines, in a recent survey of 116 patients at a neurology clinic, 39 percent reported that sipping alcoholic drinks triggers migraines-but there's more at play than just the alcohol. Alcoholic drinks, particularly red wine, contain artery-dilating histamines and flavonoids that affect serotonin levels (researchers believe that changes in this brain chemical may cause or worsen head pain).
Headache Myths Busted
These headache triggers may be more myth than truth.
Forget "Chinese restaurant syndrome," says a review of MSG food tests involving 635 people in the Journal of Headache and Pain. One early study found that women reported headaches after eating MSG. But the researchers cautioned that MSG's distinct taste (at the high doses subjects received) could have resulted in a placebo effect.
Two decades ago, estimates said up to 42 percent of migraine sufferers got smacked down by this treat. But chocolate's been downgraded to niche nuisance. When 326 migraineurs tracked their diets for 3 months, only 2.5 percent of them named chocolate as a trigger, reported a 2016 study.
Found naturally in many foods, including beer, cheese, sausage and yeast breads, this amino acid was demonized as a migraine trigger in the 1960s and '70s. But scientific opinion has shifted, Martin says: "Older studies that found a link were not well-designed and more-recent studies have not found a clear connection."
Migraine-sparking wine may contain sulfites, but the sulfites might not be to blame. A recent review out of the Headache Center of Rio in Brazil found that foods that also contain sulfites (often at higher levels than wine), such as dried fruit, aren't pain triggers, while low- or no-sulfite wine can still trigger head pain.
When a Headache Is More Than a Headache
Call 911 right away for a "thunderclap headache"-a sudden, violent head pain that's the worst of your life. "Severe head pain that comes out of the blue could be a sign of bleeding or a blockage in your brain, meningitis (which may also come with a stiff neck and fever) or another life-threatening condition," says Matthew Robbins, M.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Also get help for a headache after a head injury that comes with symptoms like slurred speech, vision changes, trouble moving your arms or legs, or with nausea, fever, stiff neck or vomiting. It could be a sign of a concussion.
Staying hydrated, stressing less, exercising and eating magnesium-rich foods can all help naturally ward off headaches. And while caffeine and alcohol intake are important to keep in mind-you don't need to fully abstain from either to avoid headaches. Be sure to talk to your doctor about treatment if these natural remedies aren't helping your headaches and migraines.