Healing Your Headaches
It was 2 a.m. and I couldn’t sleep.
Tossing and turning for 2 hours already, my head was throbbing.
I NEVER ever get headaches, so this unusual occurrence had me all wound up inside.
Earlier that day, I had fallen and bumped my head—nothing traumatic, but a stumble nonetheless that jarred me quite a bit.
I didn’t think much of it, until, a couple hours later, a general overall head tension surfaced and I found it more difficult than usual to concentrate or focus my eyes on my computer screen.
“Man, headaches suck,” I thought—finally being able to relate to those who experience headaches on a near daily basis.
When you are unable to optimally function, in your mind, all of your other daily activities and ho-hum usual routine are challenged—things you take for granted (like doing anything without pain or discomfort; i.e. driving, reading, socializing, working) are no longer easy.
All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball in a dark room and close my eyes (but that didn’t help either!)—there was no escaping it.
One of those moments where you wish your mom was there to take care of you or something to just make it go away.
“Tylenol!” “Aleve!” “Ibuprofen!” “Benadryl!”
I hear you screaming, loud and clear.
After all, isn’t that what you’ve been told to do to cure a headache your whole life?
And you are NOT the only one: More than 70 million NSAID prescriptions are written each year, and 30 billion over-the-counter NSAID tablets are sold annually.
So…you pop the pills, and, like magic…the pain is ‘gone’ (at least for a brief period) and you can function again, think more clearly, feel relief.
However, NSAIDs may not be the answer.
NSAID drugs—like Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, Ibuprofen—only temporarily relieve your symptoms, but do not address the ROOT CAUSE of the dysfunction.
Similar to the posts I’ve written about antacids—like Tums—for moments of indigestion or GERD, you may think you are doing your body good, but in actuality you are not getting to the ROOT of the problem (as generally, stomach acid is necessary for digesting your food properly in the first place, and most people are actually deficient in stomach acid).
Do YOU know what you are putting in your body?
We are quick to reach for quick fixes because they feel good or seem like a good idea in the moment…even when these ‘quick fixes’ may not be the best for us in the long run.
But really, how bad could NSAIDs be? A LITTLE dirt never hurt! I’ve been taking them my whole life.
Let’s break it down:
First off, for a clear understanding let’s define NSAIDs.
‘NSAID’ stands for ‘non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.’
Initially, they were created to serve as an alternative to steroids, which come with a host of side-effects and addictive properties. In other words: More watered down, ‘safer’ versions of the alternative, stronger, harsher medications.
A good thing, right?
A better thing than steroids for sure, however, NSAIDs are still pharmaceuticals, meaning they come with a host of side effects all their own, and chemicals that the body views as toxic to the system.
So what are these ‘side effects’ people are buzzing about nowadays?
Two words: “Leaky gut.” NSAIDs are directly correlated with this condition that irritates your intestinal wall, leading to increased intestinal permeability, leading to digestive breakdown, increased bad bacteria in your gut and the release of this bacteria and toxins into bloodstream. Common symptoms from a leaky (irritated) gut include: dysbiosis, intestinal bleeding, autoimmune conditions, lowered immunity, increased anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, and decreased energy.
A literature review in the Journal of Gastroenterology (Bjarnason I & Takeuchi, 2009) revealed all studies in agreement that NSAIDs increase intestinal permeability in the human within 24 hours of ingestion, and this breakdown continuing over the long-term(1).
Instant gratification is really what NSAIDs are all about—instant relief, but with repetitive use, even just 1-2 weeks, they actually stall healing. Many physicians consider NSAIDs to be the medication of choice for managing musculoskeletal pain and injury, however, more and more research is coming to fruition that they actually inhibit the healing process of bone, muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries; this is primarily due to the impact of NSAIDs on inflammation (preventing inflammation, which is actually a healing response) (2.).
NSAIDs are by no means a natural substance found in nature; so in actuality, our bodies were not meant to consume them or recognize them. In addition to being irritating to the gut, regular use of NSAIDs throughout our pain and lifetimes specifically impact the liver as well. If you can remember your anatomy, the liver is the host of your energy sources (where glucose is stored as glycogen for later use). In addition, your liver is your number one weapon against toxic exposure from all sorts of outside sources.
Just like it fights off a hangover, it also removes and neutralizes toxins from the blood. In addition, the liver boosts your immunity and protects the body from infection. However, it’s not invincible—and the repetitive intake of NSAIDs forces it to take a hit. And, when it gets damaged, all the amazing things it does decline. Additionally, the liver becomes a victim of your ‘leaky gut syndrome’, leaking enzymes into the bloodstream as well (instead of aiding in digestion).
NSAIDs Address the Symptoms, Not the Root.
I’ve already mentioned this, but when you pop the pills, you are really only addressing the symptoms of your headache—not healing the cause. NSAIDs are not magical pills that help you recover faster—they just numb the pain and other discomforts for a short time. We often think about medicine as being something that helps fight disease or helps us ‘get better’, but with NSAIDs, these simply just make the process of being in pain more tolerable (and longer).
Ok, ok. You get it: NSAIDs are no bueno.
However, if you’re you do have a headache is there ANYTHING, other than ‘just rest’ and ‘waiting it out’, that you can do to help manage pain and heal it?
Yes there IS hope!
Get to the Root
First things first, it’s important for you to understand the triggers behind your headaches in the first place.
In my case this week, it was a physical injury (bonking my head on a surface). For others, it may be particular mineral deficiencies, or certain foods that you have an allergic (histamine) reaction to, or certain foods that trigger a blood sugar rollercoaster (highs than crashes, accompanied with headaches)—namely sugar.
With a clearer understanding of the why behind your headaches, you will now be able to better determine how to ‘heal’ them.
How to go about determining the triggers, or ‘root cause’ of your symptoms?
If headaches are frequent, keep a log for 3-7 days.
In your log, keep track of your daily food, water, exercise, sleep, alcohol, and potentially even environmental factors (i.e. after 6-8 hours in front of a computer screen). In addition, note your symptoms—headaches—and time of day they come on.
After some time has passed, review your log and see if you observe any patterns or similarities in times of day and triggers for your headaches.
More often than not, you are going to find a strong correlation between your food and what you eat.
In other words: Our food, and our gut health, greatly impacts and affects headaches. How so? Our gut is our ‘second brain’.
Headache strikes every day at 3 p.m. no matter what? Check out what you are eating for lunch. Sandwich and chips? Rice bowl? Nothing at all? Large sweet potato? Often times carb-richer lunches can send our blood sugar into a surge initially, followed by a crash wherein sleepiness, headaches or hangriness (hungry + angry) may occur.
Pounding headache every night after dinner time? What do you notice? Oh wine most nights when you get home from work to decompress? Or low water intake throughout the day? General lack of sleep or increased stress in your days? No wonder.
Love to eat eggs, yogurt and/or fruit most mornings for breakfast, but by 10 a.m., your head aches? These are just some foods with noted higher levels of histamine that may impact some people more than others. Perhaps try a different breakfast option for a couple days in a row and just see what happens.
In a study of 500 patients who experienced frequent headaches, researchers found that upwards of 60 percent had allergies to dairy, about 50 percent to grains and 35 percent to eggs. (1)
The researchers noted: “Keep in mind that many of these patients had HIDDEN food allergies. They didn’t even realize the offending food was creating an allergy response in their digestive tract since they didn’t present with digestive symptoms. This is tricky, since [some people] may never experience digestive disturbances or be aware of an allergy unless [they] get tested. Common symptoms [aside from digestive disturbances] may be headaches, insomnia or fatigue.”
You get the picture: What you eat (or don’t eat) can influence your headaches greatly:
- Food allergies
- Bowel & gut imbalances
- Chemical triggers (ex. artificial sweeteners, MSG, sulfites in wine or dried fruit)
- Lack of water
- Magnesium deficiency
In addition, your environment and other internal and external influences (from screens, to lighting, hormone imbalances, and stress) are also well-known culprits—so be aware!
With your ‘triggers’ better understood, here are a handful of treatments that can help heal your headache.
Experiment with a low-histamine approach.
If you suspect food intolerance or sensitivity as a potential cause of your headache, check out this list of histamine-rich foods. If they are a frequent part of your daily diet, experiment with replacing those that you consume most often with other choices and options:
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- Processed, cured, smoked and fermented meats such as lunch meat, bacon, sausage, salami, pepperoni
- Leftover meat (After meat is cooked, the histamine levels increase due to microbial action as the meat sits)
- All fermented milk products, including most cheeses
- Yogurt, buttermilk, kefir
- Citrus fruits – eg. oranges, grapefruit, lemons, lime
- Most berries
- Dried fruit
- Fermented foods: sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, relishes, fermented soy products, etc.
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- Seafood: shellfish or fin fish, fresh, frozen, smoked or canned
- Tomatoes- including ketchup, tomato sauces
- Artificial food colors and preservatives
- Spices: cinnamon, chili powder, cloves, anise, nutmeg, curry powder, cayenne
- Beverages: Tea (herbal or regular), alcohol
- Chocolate, cocoa
- Vinegar and foods containing vinegar such as pickles, relishes, ketchup, and prepared mustard
If you must take an NSAID, L-glutamine’s ‘man of steel’ powers arm the gut lining to be able to ‘take the hit.’ Glutamine has been shown to help maintain gut mass and intestinal barrier function against bacteria Taking Glutamine supplements prior to using NSAID drugs is a preventive measure which inhibits small bowel damage (3).
3. Fish/Cod Liver Oil.
You may already be taking one, and if so—good for you (as long as it is from a quality source). An alternative treatment with fewer side effects that also reduces the inflammatory response and thereby reduces pain is believed to be omega-3 EFAs found in fish oil. In a recent study, a total of 125 patients dealing with both acute and chronic neck and back pain were asked to take a total of 1200 mg per day of omega-3 EFAs found in fish oil supplements. At the end of the 75-day period, 60% stated that their overall pain had improved, and 60% stated that their joint pain had improved. 80% stated they were satisfied with their improvement.
One word of caution: If you are taking fish oil AND NSAIDs at the same time…the two cancel each other out. Choose a quality brand (fish oil, cod liver oil, krill oil) and give it a try the next time you have pain. A couple suggestions: Green Pasture’s Cod Liver Oil, THORNE Research’s Omega-3, and of course, dietary choices, such as wild-caught seafood, walnuts, flax and chia seeds).
Isn’t that for my gut? Yes, but think about it. You eat food and supplements on a daily basis. Food and supps fuel your life, your energy, your performance, your healing. However, if your gut is filled with bad bacteria, or ‘leaky’ from years of bad digestion, regular NSAID use, or poor dietary choices, THEN the assimilation and distribution of all these great nutrients you eat now are going to basically get cancelled out if you don’t have a healthy gut.
A healthy gut=healthy digestion=more bang from your buck on the nutrition front=increased healing, power, energy, decreased illness, fatigue and more. Prescript Assist’s soil-based probiotic is a quality option as well as Transformation Enzyme’s probiotic for supplement forms. Otherwise eat up foods such as: fermented foods, kombucha, full fat raw organic yogurt and kefir.
Headaches are an inflammatory response! The brain gets excitable, then inflamed. Neurons are involved, along with changes in blood vessels and blood flow to the brain, eventually leading to a release of inflammatory peptides—and aching pain. Moreover, as mentioned above, your gut is often the mothership for causing this inflammation in the first place (via leaky gut, or gut irritating foods).
As I lay on the couch the other night at 2 p.m., trying to make my headache “go away”, I had a lightbulb moment: Enzymes! Instead of reaching for Tylenol, I reached for Intezyme Forte—an enzyme I keep on hand, primarily for digestive health. Intenzyme Forte taken near a meal will act to digest food. When taken between meals (3 hours after or 30 minutes before), it will aid the body by reducing inflammation and swelling.
How so? The formula contains proteolytic enzymes, known to break-down proteins into amino acids. In addition, proteolytic enzymes have also been shown to facilitate tissue healing after injury, presumably by breaking-down products of inflammation. Consider ordering a bottle to have on hand for yourself. The only caution with Intenzyme Forte is with blood thinning agents and anemia. If the patient is on a blood thinning medication or is anemic, you must be cautious because Intenzyme Forte will reduce blood viscosity.
A mineral you need, and headache sufferers are often deficient in. Low tissue levels of calcium and magnesium are one cause of excessive muscle tension and muscle cramps. How do you know if you have a deficiency? Common symptoms include: Anything that feels tight or crampy like headaches, constipation, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, sensitivity to loud noises, muscle cramps or twitching, and palpitations. Magnesium affects changes in the blood vessels in the brain. Magnesium supplements are sometimes recommended to prevent migraines. Have you heard of Natural Calm? A powder you mix in water, like tea? Try adding 1 of these to your evening or morning routine and see how it impacts your head.
If you’ve ever eaten turmeric before (often found in Indian food), you had curcumin: A spice that has been linked to decreased inflammation. In fact, this little spice is actually even stronger than NSAIDs. In short, a pharmaceutical NSAID completely blocks ONE inflammatory pathway, whereas curcumin blocks many inflammatory pathways—and blocks each only a little, taking a more balanced approach as opposed to an “all or nothing” approach.
Curcumin is widely available in supplement form, but therapeutic high doses are required to achieve its full anti-inflammatory effects, and the spice is generally not absorbed that well. Commom therapeutic doses are up to three grams of bioavailable curcumin extract, three to four times daily, and this is difficult to achieve using standard curcumin powders. Some tips for absorbing the spice, include combining it with a fat and making a microemulsion (a tablespoon of curcumin powder + 1-2 egg yolks and a teaspoon or two of melted coconut oil; use a small blender on high speed to emulsify the powder and consume); or boiling one tablespoon of the curcumin powder in a quart of water. After boiling it for 10 minutes you will have a solution and you can drink this once it has cooled down within 4-hours of preparing it.
This herb derived from a tree called Boswellia serrate, is also commonly known as the source of biblical frankincense. Boswellia extracts have been used for thousands of years to treat a wide variety of conditions caused by inflammation, including injuries, arthritis and cancer. Boswellia resin (a gummy solid form of the herb) is rich in several biologically active compounds including terpenes and boswellic acids, two powerful inhibitors of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules.
In fact, nearly all compounds isolated from the resin of Boswellia have now been determined to have anti-inflammatory properties. Look for standardized extracts, available in tablet or capsule form, at your local health grocer or online that contain at least 37.5% boswellic acids, sometimes listed as boswellin. Follow the directions on the package or as prescribed by a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Healing IS possible.
You don’t have to ‘just deal with it’—nor do you have to pop NSAIDs with no other clue of ‘what to do.’
Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.
Gokani, T. The Prevalence of Food Allergies in Migraine Patients. Headache. Abstract 2012; 54