Women’s health articles
Natural relief from chronic headaches
by Marcy Holmes, NP, Certified Menopause Clinician
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that headaches are my body’s
way of telling me something’s out of balance. The good news in this is that
I now know that my daily choices play an active role in preventing my headaches.
This means I can act first, not just react.
When I am doing my best at practicing what I preach — optimizing my diet,
taking my core supplements consistently, drinking enough water, and exercising with
regular walking and Pilates — my headaches are almost non-existent, even during
A healthy lifestyle, one that optimizes nutrition and supports natural hormonal
balance, is the first step in any drug-free approach to preventing and treating
frequent headaches. Most headaches have multifactorial roots, however, which means
relieving them may require multiple strategies.
In addition, there are many different types of headaches, so that means wide variation
in triggers and differing components of the headaches themselves. What causes a
headache depends on a woman’s individual situation — her nutrition,
stress factors, body mechanics — and her medical history. But one thing is
certain: in most cases, a headache is a symptom of something deeper going on in
As a headache sufferer myself, I well understand the need to treat the pain in the
moment. But to truly resolve your chronic headaches, you may need to figure out
what stressors lie at the root. Once you familiarize yourself with the pattern you
can treat and ultimately prevent them from recurring.
So let’s start by looking at the most common types of headaches.
Different types of headaches — a brief overview
The three major categories into which most chronic headaches fall are
tension headaches, cluster headaches, and
migraine headaches. We will discuss each major
type separately, as well as briefly review rebound headaches
and touch on a less common but serious form of headache known as
temporal arteritis. There are many other subtypes — from
caffeine withdrawal headaches to menstrual headaches,
and the lines between many of these can be blurry, so if you are unsure what type
of headache you suffer from, it may be helpful for you to see your healthcare practitioner
for a diagnosis. Please note that what we are talking about here concerns most moderate
headaches — if your headaches deviate from the norm, change or worsen in a
way you find alarming, seek medical attention immediately.
Tension headaches may be the most common type of headache women experience. They
are typically described as a band-like vise that creates pressure and pain uniformly
around the head, and may involve the neck as well. Tension headaches can occur episodically
or chronically, depending on the individual and aggravating factors. They can even
progress to include migraine-like sensitivity to light or sound, and even become
a trigger for true migraines in some cases.
The many stressors that can make a woman prone to tension headaches may explain
their prevalence. Chief among these are poor head and neck alignment and other postural
issues, prolonged computer work, more serious prior cervical strain (such as whiplash),
poor jaw alignment, other dental issues such as nocturnal teeth grinding (bruxism),
need for eyeglasses, changes in the weather, stress with loved ones or work environment
— from there the list is fairly endless! Fortunately, these headaches often
respond remarkably well to natural prevention and episodic treatment when needed.
This is one type of headache that seems to affect men more than women. Patients
describe the pain of a cluster headache as severe, usually one-sided, often associated
with symptoms such as nasal congestion, a bloodshot or tearing eye or facial perspiration.
The pain of a cluster headache is intense, often prompting a restless pacing behavior.
The symptoms can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. Cluster headaches
may occur every other day, or come and go as often as eight times in a single day
in what is termed a “cluster cycle.” They will frequently begin during
sleep, and may remain present for several days in a row, but a series of cluster
headaches can also recur months or years apart.
A more severe version of chronic cluster headaches will sometimes go into remission
for 14 days or less, and then reoccur. In such a case, a tumor needs to be ruled
out with proper medical evaluation. Oxygen therapy with deep breathing seems to
ameliorate the pain as the headache is coming on.
Migraine headaches are characterized by a series of four phases that occur with
some regularity but which do vary widely among sufferers: prodrome, aura, headache,
The prodrome phase may take place anywhere from a few hours to days before
onset of a headache, with symptoms that can include mood changes, fatigue, and craving
for certain foods that may themselves be migraine triggers.
Some migraine sufferers also experience an aura, with sensations of flashing
lights, numbness and tingling, or altered vision before or during onset of the severe
head pain. This aura experience is generally short-lived and considered part of
the classic migraine sequence, but the majority of migraine sufferers do
not experience an aura. Interestingly, the aura phase can occur on its own, with
no subsequent headache pain, which is known as optical migraine or acephalalgic
migraine, among various other terms. But most migraines occur without any
aura, known simply as common migraine.
Pain during the headache phase is generally described as severe throbbing
or a pulsating sensation that occurs on one side of the head or temple. It can last
anywhere from two hours to three days. This type of headache is usually associated
with sensitivity to light (photophobia), sound (phonophobia),
or smells (osmophobia) and is frequently accompanied by lightheadedness,
nausea, gastric upset, and vomiting.
By the postdrome phase, the pain has mercifully subsided, but the sufferer
is typically left feeling tired and worn-out. Some also report experiencing negative
psychological effects such as slower thinking or flat affect after a migraine, and
in some cases the after-effects can last several days.
Women may also experience migraines at the onset of their monthly cycle. These hormone-related
headaches are often referred to as menstrual migraines.
Approximately 70% of migraine sufferers are women, and there’s no doubt that
chronic migraines can significantly impact a woman’s quality of life. Perhaps
this is related to our hormonal fluctuations, or perhaps to how we respond to stress
in our lives — but as we know, these two are interlaced!
As mentioned above, many experts for years considered migraines to be a vascular
disorder caused by constriction, then sudden dilation of the blood vessels to the
neck, brain, and scalp. The throbbing pain of migraine is then brought on by an
abnormal release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which brings about additional
constriction of the arteries supplying blood to the brain.
The New Migraine Theory is developing with advances in brain imaging technology.
This neurologically-based theory proposes that migraine starts with electrical “hyperexcitability”
in an area of the brain, meaning migraine sufferers may simply have a hypersensitive
nervous system that makes them prone to the headaches. A lifestyle or environmental
trigger such as hormonal fluctuation, a certain food, or chemical exposure can provoke
In any event, migraine pain is best prevented and treated — both conventionally
and naturally — at its onset. While debate continues about the biochemical
basis of migraine headache, what’s important to recognize is that with a little
detective work you can learn to recognize your personal triggers, and in many cases
abort a migraine before it becomes painful. But more about that below.
Another common type of headache we want to touch on is the rebound headache.
Many people don’t realize that regular overuse of prescription and non-prescription
headache medications is a very common cause of chronic daily headaches. What happens
is that the brain becomes dependant on what once helped relieve the headaches, and
weaning off the overused product is the only way to break the cycle. This can be
a difficult situation to rectify because the sufferer is stuck with headache pain
and must slowly taper off the meds.
There are, of course, alternative measures that can help alleviate symptoms of withdrawal
from these meds, such as acupuncture, but I encourage anyone with rebound headaches
to see a headache specialist or neurologist for consultation. Working together from
here, you can develop a plan to really support your body through the withdrawal
and stabilization periods.
One rare type of headache that is important to be aware of is temporal arteritis.
Temporal arteritis, also known as giant cell arteritis, is an inflammatory
condition affecting the medium-sized blood vessels that supply the head, eyes, and
optic nerves. It is an uncommon affliction, but women are approximately four times
more likely to suffer from temporal arteritis than men, and it occurs most often
after the age of 50, coinciding with menopause. It should be ruled out in menopausal
women who experience unusual headaches with localized temple or scalp tenderness
and affected vision in one eye (eventually in both).
Temporal arteritis can include other associated symptoms, including fever, nausea,
or jaw discomfort. There is a risk for permanent vision loss if left unidentified
and not properly treated in the acute stages with corticosteroids. If you should
experience an unusual headache or a headache with symptoms matching these, you should
seek medical evaluation promptly by a specialist or an emergency room physician.
Headache treatments: the conventional approach
As a headache sufferer, woman, and healthcare practitioner, I am a big believer
in pain relief. While my colleagues and I want to prevent headaches as effectively
and naturally as possible, we also accept the reality that once a headache is entrenched,
a woman may need help with the pain. Women need to work and function for themselves
and their families, so turning to the medicine cabinet once in a while may be their
There are plenty of headache medications, or “rescue treatments” available.
But it is important to recognize that headaches are your body’s way of getting
your attention and highlighting an imbalance that needs to be addressed. Simply
treating the pain without addressing the underlying imbalance will not only leave
you vulnerable to further headaches, it can lead to other, more substantial issues
over time. And while there are effective natural headache remedies, the
best place to begin is with natural prevention.
Natural prevention — start with a headache diary
Most chronic headaches, including tension and cluster headaches, can be helped by
dietary and lifestyle changes. Migraine headaches are somewhat different as they
may stem from other issues, but they also respond well to natural measures depending
on the issues involved.
A headache diary is one of the most useful tools available for this purpose. Tracking
your headaches, their quality, quantity, and duration, will allow you to spot triggers
over time. You can print out our Wellness
Diary and keep a daily record of your eating, sleeping, drinking, and exercise
habits, along with when and where you begin to feel a headache coming on. You can
also use this page to mark down where you are in your menstrual cycle, if and when
you take medication or HRT, and how this may relate to your headaches. When in doubt,
write notes on behavior and events. All of this information can reveal surprising
patterns if you record it consistently for two to three weeks.
Some of my patients who began a headache diary found that their headaches were directly
related to previously undiagnosed food or environmental sensitivities, underlying
muscle tension, teeth grinding (a major culprit in TMJ headaches) — even sleeping
on a bad mattress! One of my friends consistently developed a migraine the day after
visiting her mother-in-law — a trigger she was unaware of until she began
keeping a record of her daily activities.
Regardless of the form your headache diary takes on, assessing the support you give
yourself in relation to the demands and unpleasant side of your life, is absolutely
the first step in determining how to help yourself best.
Once you have a broad idea of your habits and the kind of headaches you suffer from,
you can choose to adopt a few or all of the following natural measures on your own.
Or you may want to consider membership in our Personal Program, which offers one-on-one
guidance by telephone with our Nurse–Educators. Either way, we hope you won’t
expect instant results — remember, you are treating your headaches from the
ground up, not just at the surface. But if you’re prepared to stick with it
and tune in to the elements creating the core imbalance, these measures can often
provide full relief from chronic headaches.
Ten ways to eliminate headaches naturally
1. Focus on diet and optimal nutrition.
We always start by suggesting that headache sufferers take a close look at their
diet. For many people, sugar, caffeine and alcohol are headache triggers. While
it may not be possible for you to eliminate them from your diet, gradually reducing
your intake may decrease the frequency of your headaches. Ensuring that your body
has all the proper essential vitamins and minerals it needs to work efficiently
will also aid in reducing headache frequency and intensity. A balanced diet rich
in all the food groups, but focusing on whole foods in their natural state, forms
a solid base. We recommend women take a top quality daily multivitamin that includes
calcium, magnesium and EFA’s in addition to a healthy diet — because
even the best nutrition nowadays is likely to have gaps.
2. Consider testing for food and environmental allergies and sensitivities.
Many patients at our clinic receive blood testing for food and environmental allergies
and sensitivities. Many of the larger labs now offer these tests, often with a regional
focus. We also use a specialty lab for
ALCAT allergy testing which provides detailed guidance.
Headache-aggravating foods worth investigating include alcohol (wine especially),
dairy, aged and fermented foods, and any highly processed food product. Substances
in foods of greatest concern to headache sufferers include tyramine, nitrites, MSG,
sulfites, histamines, tannins, and prostaglandins; plus artificial colorants, preservatives,
and sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet).
Depending on your unique physiology, a headache could be triggered by just about
any substance. To get a handle on what affects you, consider being tested. And don’t
forget your environment; mould, scented candles, air fresheners, cosmetics, cleaning
products — even soap — are all suspect. We have found NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Techniques)
to be successful at diagnosing and clearing both food and environmental issues.
3. Reduce inflammation with regular detoxification.
Much of the inflammation in your system
starts with inflammation of the gut. Good digestion and regular daily bowel movements
are signs of efficient detoxification.
One of the first signs of sensitivity to a toxin is a headache, and chronic headaches
may indicate that your body is trying to process a heavier toxic load. Magnesium
at bedtime and a daily dose of probiotics can really help. Consider a biannual detox
and colon cleanse if you have any issues with IBS or constipation. We will be covering
this topic at length in an upcoming newsletter, so stay tuned.
4. Adopt stress management and relaxation techniques.
Once you start tracking your headaches, you may reach a conclusion prevalent in
most healthcare circles: mild to moderate headache sufferers always feel better
when they’re on vacation. Why? The answer is simple — stress reduction!
We cannot escape stress, but we can develop better coping strategies for daily challenges
— at home and at work. This takes attention, self-care, and awareness. If
you feel overwhelmed, begin with small steps you are confident you can take —
these will lend momentum toward a greater shift.
Sometimes a therapist, behavioral counselor or life coach can help you explore the
emotional roots of your learned coping strategies, so you can get past those that
are not serving you well. Don’t forget the possibilities of physical stress
— poor ergonomics at work, too much staring at a screen or driving —
even carrying a heavy purse or wearing an ill-fitting bra can cause muscle tension
leading to headache.
Many women respond to yoga, meditation, and
deep breathing exercises to reduce tension. Others may prefer a more active
antidote to stress, like running or swimming. And still others find peace in learning
a new hobby or artistic technique. It is up to you to learn what you find soothing
and do it more consistently. Think about how you can build “mini-vacations”
into each day. Counselors, doctors, books, and classes are all good places to start.
I often recommend the book The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook.
5. Get enough sleep.
Sleeping soundly for a good amount of time can surely help headache sufferers in
many ways. Most of us thrive on seven to nine hours per night, with less in summer,
more in winter for some. If you have trouble falling asleep or find yourself waking
in the night, take a look at what you do before going to bed.
You can set the stage for a better night’s rest by making a few simple adjustments.
Some women need a small bedtime snack to keep their blood sugar stable. Other women
may do well with extra adrenal or serotonin support that can shift their physiology
into a deeper, more restful sleep cycle. At the clinic and the Personal Program
we sometimes suggest a short-term course of phosphorylated serine or 5-HTP for these
purposes. If hormonal fluctuations are contributing to restless sleep, these may
be influencing your headaches as well, and progesterone support may help.
Most women find that more peaceful activities during the two hours before bedtime
translate to more peaceful sleep. No More Sleepless Nights is a good resource that
details successful sleep hygiene techniques and has proven to help sleep in my patients.
6. Stay well hydrated.
Many of my patients’ headaches improve dramatically once they focus on drinking
more water daily. Most have no idea they are dehydrated! Your best bet is to increase
water consumption slowly, working up to 8–10 glasses a day by increasing one
cup per day every three days. Sipping throughout the day is better for you than
guzzling large quantities of water in one sitting, but we encourage you to experiment
and do whatever works best for you and maintains good results. Many people are convinced
they don’t need so much water, but if you suffer chronic headaches, what easier
way to take better care of yourself than to drink more water?
7. Evaluate body mechanics and alignment.
Posture and head and neck alignment are huge factors in nearly all types of headaches.
Many of us are unaware how significantly our body architecture affects our joints
until we face chronic pain. A chronic headache may be your body’s telltale
sign that something is misaligned and not working for you.
It is critical to make sure your desk and overall work environment are ergonomically
correct for your body’s dimensions and work activities — especially
repetitive or computer tasks. Consider strength and alignment training with a certified
yoga or Pilates trainer. Pay attention to how you “shoulder” the weight
of your life. Are you sleeping in a healthy position? Cradling the phone? Driving?
Carrying your purse? All of these activities add up to major stress and lead to
head and neck pain over time, so don’t overlook the obvious.
Talk with your dentist about your bite and whether or not you grind your teeth.
Ask about whether you might benefit from an occlusal adjustment — a process
that realigns the way your teeth surfaces impact each other when you bite down.
I recently had this done and my jaw feels tremendously better — along with
getting a soft night guard to reduce the damage from clenching. Many dentists now
prescribe a night guard to all their patients because it helps relax the jaw so
8. Get regular exercise and stretch daily.
We all need exercise for its manifold benefits — to the heart, circulation,
muscle tone, and stress reduction. Most tension headache sufferers will find immense
relief with the addition of exercise — and there is the added benefit of deep
breathing and better oxygenation. But remember to pace yourself if you are beginning
a new routine, and to support your workout with good nutrition and plenty of water.
9. Explore alternative manipulative therapies.
Many headache sufferers respond well to massage therapy, Reiki, the Alexander Technique,
Feldenkrais, and acupuncture. In fact, any form of bodywork or physical therapy
that attends to misalignment, administered by a well trained practitioner, may help
you break a pattern of chronic headaches. Even a good personal trainer can help.
If you pursue Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture, we recommend finding
a licensed practitioner. Other women do very well under the care of a chiropractor
or osteopath for spinal and craniosacral manipulation. If these methods work in
alleviating headaches for you, I would take that as a clue that additional strength
and alignment training could help you firm up the web of muscles that supports your
shoulders, head, and neck.
10. Support with supplements.
In addition to a full-spectrum multivitamin
with EFA’s, we recommend some specific supplements to reduce headaches.
Research — and our own medical experience — indicate that magnesium,
probiotics, fiber, and vitamin D can all be helpful. Regular use of herbal products
containing standardized, purified extracts of butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
and feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) can help
prevent migraines. A custom homeopathic or flower essence formula is also
worth consideration, as they are very safe and yield good results — especially
in combination with the above measures — in our natural approach to headache
relief for women.
Our Personal Program is a great place to start
The Personal Program promotes natural hormonal balance with nutritional supplements,
our exclusive endocrine support formula, dietary and lifestyle guidance, and optional
phone consultations with our Nurse–Educators. It is a convenient, at-home
version of what we recommend to all our patients at the clinic.
If you have questions, don't hesitate to call us toll-free at
1-800-798-7902. We're here to listen and help.
Related to this article:
Further reading on chronic headaches
Last Modified Date: 04/19/2011
Principal Author: Marcy Holmes, NP, Certified Menopause Clinician