Everyone experiences at least an occasional headache, and chronic headache pain plagues millions of women. By far the two most common types of headaches are tension headaches and vascular, or migraine headaches. Tension headaches arise from tense muscles in the head, face, and neck. Symptoms include tightness or soreness in the back of the neck and generalized pain, pressure, or aching throughout the head. Many women suffer from chronic tension headaches that last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
The intense debilitating pain of migraine headaches afflicts one out of every four women. Migraines are often severe and cause intense, sharp, throbbing pain that is usually localized to one side of the head. These headaches are often preceded by a feeling of anxiety or depression, numbness or tingling on one side of the body, and visual disturbances called “auras” that appear as flashing lights, blurred vision, or tunnel vision. Migraines can last from a few hours to a few days, and the pain can be incapacitating. Most researchers believe that migraines are caused by the constriction of blood vessels in the brain, followed by a sudden expansion of the vessels. There are many triggers for migraine headaches, including food allergies, chemical exposure, emotional tension, weather changes, and too little or too much sleep. Because hormonal fluctuations are also a primary contributing factor, women are three times more likely to suffer from migraines than are men.
Most people don’t think twice about reaching for a pain-relieving drug to treat a headache, but researchers have found that the drugs commonly used for headaches, including analgesics such as aspirin or acetaminophen, are actually a contributing factor to chronic headaches, particularly for people who use them often. A much better alternative is to learn how to prevent headaches and to use natural, nontoxic herbs as needed for pain relief. Always consult your doctor if you experience an unusually severe headache, if a headache is accompanied by a fever of 102 degrees or higher, or if a headache lasts longer than three days.
A Nutritional Approach to Preventing Migraine and Tension Headaches
What you eat and don’t eat plays an important role in preventing headaches. Avoiding caffeine and headache “trigger” foods is crucial. Caffeine is a powerful drug and is a primary factor in both tension and migraine headaches because it constricts blood vessels and contributes to overall physical and emotional tension. Avoid caffeine in all of its forms, including coffee, black tea, cola, chocolate, coffee and cocoa-flavoured foods, and over-the-counter drugs that contain caffeine. If you currently use caffeine, giving it up will improve your health, but you will probably have severe withdrawal headaches for several days if you eliminate it suddenly. Taking a more gradual approach of cutting back on your intake of caffeine over a couple of weeks gives your body the opportunity to adjust without undue trauma. Try ginger tea, green tea, or an herbal tea with Siberian ginseng as a replacement for caffeinated drinks. These herbal beverages are beneficial for your health and provide a gentle energy boost without the negative drawbacks of caffeine.
Foods known to be triggers for migraine headaches include aged cheeses, beer, alcohol (especially red wine), chocolate, pickles, cured meats, and foods containing monosodium glutamate, nitrates, and artificial sweeteners. These foods contain substances that cause the blood vessels in the brain to expand, which sets the stage for a migraine. Many other foods, such as avocados, potatoes, shellfish, bananas, yeasted bread, and tomatoes can also cause migraines. Randomly trying to figure out what you can safely eat can be difficult, and there is no reason to unnecessarily restrict your diet. The best way to discover your migraine triggers is to keep a food-and-headache diary for a couple of weeks. Write down everything you eat, and also make a note of when you have headaches. With some diligence you should be able to see a correlation between your headaches and any dietary triggers.
Keeping your blood-sugar levels balanced is also important, because one of the most common symptoms that occur when blood-sugar drops is a headache. Eat small, frequent meals every three hours, and avoid refined carbohydrates and sugars. High-protein foods and foods rich in complex carbohydrates along with moderate amounts of healthful fats are the best foods for helping to keep blood-sugar levels stable. See Chapter 17 for a thorough discussion of low blood sugar and treatment recommendations.
As with many inflammatory pain disorders, eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids has been found to reduce the incidence of migraine headaches by shifting the balance of hormone like prostaglandins in favour of those that have anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving action and by decreasing inflammatory prostaglandins. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, and sardines), walnuts, flaxseeds, and flaxseed oil. Eat fish two or three times a week and take one tablespoon of flaxseed oil daily. Supplementing your diet with magnesium can also be helpful for preventing headaches. Magnesium is an excellent muscle and nerve relaxant and helps to keep blood vessels healthy. Take 250 milligrams of magnesium three times a day in the form of citrate, malate, or aspartate, which are easily absorbable forms of magnesium.
Regular exercise is also helpful for preventing the accumulation of emotional and physical tension. Many times, a tension headache can be relieved by going out for a brisk walk, which relieves muscle tension, increases circulation, and brings a fresh supply of oxygen to the brain. Sitting for too long causes energy to stagnate and contributes to muscle tension. Take time throughout the day for a few simple stretching exercises combined with deep breathing to keep your energy flowing, and plan a 30-minute walk or other form of enjoyable gentle moderate exercise five days a week or more.Tags: types of headaches, chronic tension headaches, migraine headaches, three times