What if headaches and migraines were not a disease unto themselves, but, instead, a way that your body is simply raising its, well, hand, to let you know something else is out of balance?
Before I started acupuncture school, I had no idea just how many people are walking around with headaches and migraines, not able to stay fully engaged with their lives because of the lurking threat of pain. If you’re dealing with headaches or migraines, you know too well the dread that can set in when you feel one coming on...followed by the struggle to pull it together juuust enough to meet the bare minimum requirements of your life. You might find yourself using the easiest tools available to turn down the volume, simply so you can make it through your work day, cancel your evening plans with friends, and go home to wait it out in bed.
Perhaps you’ve found a few things that might keep headaches from fully overtaking your day, like NSAIDS (aspirin or ibuprofen) or caffeine or prescription medications. But what if they aren’t working so well anymore? Or you’re looking for natural alternatives, after learning that, in addition to better known side effects of NSAIDs (stomach ulcers, gastritis, leaky gut syndrome, fertility impairment, to name a few), they can actually be a *cause* of headaches (medication overuse headaches, also known as rebound headaches! Yep, it’s a thing). Or you’re starting to see that headaches aren’t something to simply be managed, but are popping up because something else in your body, or your life, needs attention?
Of the wide variety of health issues that inspire people to try acupuncture, headaches are something I see every day, but they still never fail to spark my excitement: I know that feeling good in your body and doing the things you love, pain-free are not that far away, because I’ve witnessed amazing shifts for so many people who were locked in a long-term battle with chronic headaches. Read on to learn how you can treat yourself with a few simple lifestyle shifts, supplements, and herbs, or get some additional personalized support from your local acupuncturist/herbalist.
Chinese medicine understands your Pain.
From the perspective of Chinese medicine, headaches are not a disease unto themselves, but a symptom of an underlying imbalance, in the acupuncture channels, organs, or emotions. Many other signs and symptoms are taken into consideration alongside the headache pattern, to paint a comprehensive picture of the whole person’s health and constitutional tendencies. Unlike in Western medicine, where there are a few standard treatments offered for all types of headaches, no two headaches are treated with the same acupuncture and herbal strategies. Even if two patients seem to have the same type of right sided temple migraine, their treatments may be wildly different, because their constitutions and lifestyle habits are unique.
If you’ve been to an acupuncturist for your headaches, then you know that the duration and severity are just the beginning of the conversation. The following factors also provide a ton of valuable information about where your headaches are coming from and how to best treat them.
Where is it located?
Do your headaches tend to settle into your temples, or are they mostly in the back of your head? What about in your forehead and sinuses, or behind your eyes, or the top of your head? Or do they simply blanket your entire head, dulling your senses?
How does it feel?
Are your headaches dull, aching, or heavy? Do they throb or pound? Are they sharp, stabbing? Do they radiate heat? What about cold? Do they stay fixed in one place, or do they move around your head? Have you noticed what makes your headaches better or worse?
What are the circumstances?
Is there a time of day when your headaches tend to start? Are you currently under a lot of stress? Where are you in your menstrual cycle? Are you pregnant? How’s your sleep? Do you eat regularly and drink water throughout the day? Do you get headaches when hungry, or do they come on after eating meals or certain foods? Do you tend to catch every cold that comes your way, or get sinus infections? Might there be environmental factors at play, such as terrible lighting or ergonomics at work, or environmental allergens?
What are the accompanying symptoms?
For example, a headache that comes on with a strong surge of anger, red face and eyes, and hot feeling, is totally different from one that pops up in someone with a pale face, super low energy, and digestive problems….which is totally different from a headache associated with neck and shoulder tension caused by a structural issue or bad pillow or not stretching enough after exercising, which is also totally different from migraines that pop up only during ovulation or only toward the end of menstruating….and so on.
As you’ve now gathered, there are *a lot* of factors that acupuncturists investigate to understand your particular headache pattern, and from our perspective, this detective work is extra rewarding when working with those in chronic pain. The comprehensive picture gathered and interpreted within the framework of Chinese medical theory provides a map for supporting each individual. Herbs and acupuncture treatment follow this map, and are targeted at balancing the underlying issues. And aside from doing its thing in the Chinese medicine framework and language, acupuncture helps headaches by reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, increasing circulation of blood and lymph, increasing endorphins and opioids (natural pain killers), and preventing the chemicals that signal pain from even being formed. (I am biased, of course, but....acupuncture is simply amazing.)
But you don’t need to visit an acupuncturist or herbalist to start to feel better, naturally! Below are many lifestyle and supplement options you can try today.
How you can prevent headaches + treat yourself, naturally
Start with prevention:
- Get enough sleep. Our perception of pain actually changes when we are tired, so your head pain seems worse than it would when you’re rested. Getting 7 or more hours of sleep per night can help reduce the pain you experience, and also provide support for you to adapt to and handle any pain that does arise during the day. While you’re at it, get a new pillow! An old pillow or mattress could be causing you structural tension, leading to headaches.
- Take care of your body. This is often as simple as stretching after exercise and throughout the day, and taking breaks from your desk and computer. You can also consider massage, which reduces headaches by both releasing underlying muscle tension and by stimulating the release of opioids, our natural painkillers. Deeper bodywork like Rolfing or structural integration can help address deeper patterns of tension in the fascia.
- Be curious about your diet. Pay attention to your appetite, and eat regular meals to keep your blood sugar balanced. You might also have some food allergens that you’re not aware of, and a food journal can help you identify foods that might be contributing to the problem. Many people, especially the caffeinated among us, are dehydrated, which is itself a cause of headaches.
- Check in with your emotions and stressors. This is a big one, friends! My interest in stress and emotions, as they relate to chronic headaches, is less in managing them, and more in identifying the foundational triggers that have been built into your life (but could now use an update!). For example, do you get headaches from 9am on Monday to 5pm on Friday, but not on the weekends? Welllll....maybe it’s time to look for a new job. Do you get a headache when you're with a certain person, or even just in anticipation of seeing them? Then consider that there is probably something going on in that relationship that you’re not looking at. Many of us learned strategies for avoiding certain emotions in childhood, which can show up later in life as physical symptoms: Dr. Sarno’s The Mindbody Prescription is my go-to recommendation for those who suspect they could be more in touch with their emotions.
TRY supplements + (organic or wildcrafted) herbs instead of NSAIDs:
- Magnesium glycinate*: 400-800mg/day for prevention and treatment
- Vitamin B2 (aka riboflavin)*: 400mg/day for prevention
- Ginger capsules*: 500-1,000mg/day for treatment
- Cramp bark tincture*: 2-4mL 3x/day for treatment
- Fish oil*: 1,500-3,000mg/day for prevention and treatment
- Butterbur extract capsules: 75mg 2x/day for prevention. Be sure to get one that is labeled as free of Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids.
- Feverfew capsules: 50-150mg/day for prevention
- CoQ10: 150-300mg/day for prevention and treatment
- Essential oils: peppermint, lavender, helichrysum, eucalyptus
- Custom Chinese herbal formula ;)
*Considered safe in pregnancy / breastfeeding, but always check with your doctor to make sure it’s appropriate for you.
And, everyone, it’s super important to check in with your doctor first before starting supplements, to rule out potential herb/drug interactions with your current medications.
I would love to hear about your experience! Leave a comment below to let me know what works for you.
(photo from Bones of Pressed Flowers)