Friday, January 11, 2013

Headache - what your body is trying to tell you

By Dusten Nelson

Headaches are like a crying baby - no one really likes to hear a baby cry - but it’s the only way a baby can tell us something is wrong. When a baby cries, we don’t view the baby crying as the problem (unless we are sitting next to it on a flight), no we ask ourselves “What does the baby need? Is it hungry? Is it tired? Does it need a diaper change?” - Incidentally if you crapped yourself in public you might cry too so lets pump the breaks on judgment here. The point is we try to figure out WHY the baby is crying, so we can fix the problem and put an end to the crying. Yet when we have a headache we use a different approach – we try to kill the pain with the most available form of analgesia – asprin, ibuprofen, tylenol etc. This approach w it will only mask the problem. The headache is NOT caused by a lack painkillers in the system, there is something else going on here.  The body is trying to tell us something is wrong. Its time to unmask the real cause behind headaches.

We reach for the painkillers because we don’t know what else to do, until now, consider this a crash course in learning to speak headache. The goal is to walk you through a 3-step process to prepare you so that the next time you feel a headache coming on you can stop it in its tracks.

Step 1: Determine the type of headache you are experiencing: 
The first step in fixing a problem is identifying what the problem is, in this case, you have a headache, but what type of headache do you have?

3 -Main Types of headaches:

  • Tension headache- Also known as a “hat-band headache” because the pain pattern presents like a hatband, is the most common type of head ache. The pain associated with a tension headache is thought to be caused by prolonged muscle contraction in the face, scalp and neck.
  • Cluster headache- Less common, but characterized by clusters of pain in and around the eye, these headaches are often mistaken for sinus or dental pain.
  • Migraine- The big daddy of the headache world, migraines split into two main categories: Migraine with Aura and Migraine without Aura. Both carry ipsilateral, pulsating characteristics.
  • Migraine without an aura – described as a recurrent headache manifesting in attacks lasting between 4 and 72 hours. Typical characteristics of this type of migraine include: unilateral location, pulsating quality, nausea and photophobia with symptoms aggravated with activity.
  • Migraine with an aura - Consist of an alteration in visual, sensory and/or speech that develop gradually but last less than an hour. People often feel the “aura” coming on before the other symptoms of the migraine present. Migraine headaches are complex entities take a little more refinement. Migraines can be caused

Step 2: Determine the cause of the headache - This is a short list of potential causes.

#1. Dehydration – Is a MAJOR cause of headaches and is fairly easy to avoid – drink water. But how much should you drink? General rule of thumb to avoid dehydration is to drink “half your body weight in oz” of water per day. i.e.: a 100lb human should drink 50 oz of water per day. That may or may not be true based on your ability to metabolize water and the quality of water you are drinking. For more explanation about how dehydration can cause a headache, visit the water section on our earlier post about hangovers – “Hair of the Dog”.

#2. Muscle Tension – Obviously, tension associated with headaches involves constriction of muscle and fascia contributes to the pain associated with tension headaches therefore, stretching is a useful weapon in the fight against tension headaches. Its about to get technical, muscle The most common cause of muscle tension headache (MTH) results from inflammatory changes at the site of muscular attachment on the occipital ridge.  In the adult, this occurs most often at the attachment of the Splenius Capitis and Semispinalis Capitis Muscles.  As inflammation develops, irritation of the Greater Occipital Nerve occurs and headache precipitates.

#3. Food sensitivity – Food sensitivities will almost certainly cause a headache, try eliminating grains from your diet and adopting a rotating food schedule to see if it impacts the headaches. If you want to take things a step further, speak with a health care provider about doing a Mediator Release Test (MRT) to help identify foods that may be causing you problems. Here is a short list of foods that have been linked to headaches:

  • All grains except rice, very rarely is rice associated with headaches or allergies.
  • All breads
  • Peanuts, peanut butter - Few issues reported with raw varieties of other nuts and seeds which most likely results from the elevated levels of Aflatoxin (dangerous fungus found in peanuts)
  • Potato chip products
  • Smoked or dried fish
  • Bread, crackers, and desserts containing cheese
  • Dried fruits (figs, raisins, dates)
  • Cultured dairy products, sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt
  • Chocolate, coffee, tea and colas and wine. – These have particular implications for estrogen.
  • Aspartame and ALL other artificial sweetener

#4. Hormonal fluctuations –Commonly associated with migraine headaches, the hormone most commonly blamed for headaches is estrogen. Estrogen driven headaches can occur in both men and women. (Though is it more common in women, and men that look like “Bitch Tit Bob” – watch fight club if you don’t get the reference.) This may explain why women, especially before and during their menses report a higher incidence of migraine headache. If you suspect a hormonal cause, it would not be a bad idea to talk with your health care professional about testing your hormonal balance. So how do hormonal fluctuations cause headaches? Dr. B.W. Somerville published a study in the early 1970s, showing a direct correlation between migraine headaches in women and a drop in estrogen (in particular estradiol –the primary type of estrogen made by the ovary). Estrogen along with progesterone, beta-endorphin, and serotonin levels, decreases dramatically from the last few days of the menstrual cycle to the first few days of menses resulting in headaches. There are several other common hormone causes for headaches, particularly women: Thyroid hormone, specifically T3, progesterone and DHEA have all been linked to headaches.

#5. Medication side effect – If you are on ANY medications, read the list of side effects. The first step in resolving a problem is identifying it, so start with the most likely culprit and work your way down. To quote one of my mentors who happens to be a brilliant physician “When in doubt, blame the pharmaceutical, it’s the most likely culprit” This does not mean that all pharmaceuticals are bad. There are a number of situations in which pharmaceuticals are needed, but they can also do a lot of damage and must be watched closely.

#6. Poor diet- chemicals: Eating a diet rich in foods that are packaged and/or claim to be “Diet, fat free, sugar free, or reduced in any way”, is most likely to contain a fair amount of chemicals and thus is unfit for human consumption. These foods include but are not limited to: most candy, chewing gums, mints, sodas and ALL “diet foods or diet food services”. They will not aid you in fat loss nor will they contribute positively to your health. Chemicals in processed foods can include aspartame, caffeine monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates, sulfites, Tyamine etc each of which can cause a laundry list of issues; headaches are just a pimple on the ass of the elephant here

#7. Magnesium decencies:
Magnesium is on of the four most common nutritional deficiencies and typically presents in the form of muscle cramping or cramp like headaches, muscle twitching, constipation (or dark and hard to pass stool), forms of insomnia and irritability.

#8 People: If you live in the world you will interact with people- some of these people will cause pains in head and other orifices - None of the remedies listed below will help, that is what vacation and training sessions are for.

Step 3: Pick a Remedy: If you have a headache, here is a short list of potential remedies.

  • Drink water
  • Take magnesium – (provided you do not suffer from hypermagneisa) magnesium glucinate, citrate and asparate can relieve symptoms. A magnesium supplement that includes several forms of magnesium would be best.
  • Remove grains, dairy and processed food from your diet.
  • Stretch your head, neck and shoulders and exercise regularly. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on stretching)
  • Consult with an acupuncturist – acupuncture in credibly successful in resolving headaches.
  • Use an herbal remedy.

Herbal Remedies for headaches:
The type of herbal remedy used to treat a headache depends on the type of headache that presents. There are probably hundreds herbal formulas that can be used to treat a headache, often addressing your personal “constitution” or “make-up” and trying to restore balance. For this type of treatment I would recommend speaking with a licensed herbalist to design an herbal formula specifically for you. That being said, here is a quick list of herbal remedies that may help your headache. 

Cluster & Tension headaches:
One-Sided Headache, Occipital headache, Headache behind the eyes, or Pain at the Vertex (top of the head) often described in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as Liver & Gall Bladder Heat Rising)
Useful Herbal Formulas: Tian Ma Gou Teng Wan and Xiao Yao Wan

Frontal or Occipital Headaches: Often described as Sinus or rhinitis headaches.
Useful herbal formulas: Bi Yan Wan

Headache Behind the Eyes:
Useful herbal formulas: Ming Mu Di Huang Wan

Whole head headache & headache following menstrual period:
Useful herbal formulas: Tian Ma Gou Teng Yin

The statements in the blog are intended to be educational in nature and create awareness for potential causes and solutions to a headache. If you have persistent headaches, it is always best to meet with a qualified health care professional and discuss treatment options. 


  1. Sometimes, we ignore going to a doctor to have a thorough check up, and start popping in the pain killers. This negligence can harm a person in the longer run, because you never know that you might be suffering from some major health issue that causes pain. Therefore, you need to be careful regarding your health and seek the help of a qualified doctor for diagnosing the cause of pain and discomfort.

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  10. Hi,

    I've just stumbled across this blog as I'm looking for a magnesium complex which offers all the forms of magnesium you've advised. I wanted to ask what supplement you use?

    Kind regards,


    "I also like a Magnesium and Tryptophan supplement that includes Magnesium Taurate, Glycinate, Fumarate, Orotate and 300 mg of Tryptophan to supplement the diet in some situations."