Headaches are a leading cause of loss of productivity for people in their late teens to 50s. Headaches can range from troublesome to debilitating, but fortunately there are simple steps you can take to reduce both their frequency and severity.
Dehydration: Staying hydrated is one of the single most important things you can do to alleviate and prevent common headaches. While it’s not known exactly why dehydration triggers headaches, it’s a fact that every organ and cell of your body works harder when you’re dehydrated. While the general recommendation of 6 to 8 glasses of water a day is helpful, many people need significantly more fluids than this. Here’s a quick way to figure out what your minimum intake of water should be: Take your body weight in pounds, divide that number in half, and that is the minimum number of ounces of water you should drink every day. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, drink at least 80 ounces of water (that’s ten 8-ounce glasses). This formula works well for children too. Remember that this is a minimum, so if you perspire from hot weather or exercise, are breastfeeding or pregnant, or are ill or under a lot of stress, drink more.
You can replace some of your daily water with herb teas, fresh juices, or clear soups, but try to drink mostly plain water. Avoid sugary drinks—that’s an easy way to consume a lot of sugar without noticing. Avoid beverages that contain caffeine since caffeine acts as a diuretic and will exacerbate dehydration. Alcohol is another common diuretic. Processed food, which often contains excessive amounts of salt, will also increase your fluid needs.
The best solution for dehydration is prevention. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink (see Takeaway Tip below to learn how to spread your water intake out over the day). If you’re suffering from a dehydration-related headache, adding some electrolytes to your water will help your body get into balance more quickly. You can use an electrolyte powder, or simply add a couple of ounces of orange juice and a pinch of salt to your water. It’s a much healthier and less expensive alternative to energy drinks.
Takeaway Tip: Fill a large container or a few water bottles (glass or stainless steel is best) with the minimum amount of water you need to drink in a day. Purified or bottled water is usually better than city tap water. Keep your water with you throughout the day so that you remember to drink and can easily track your water intake. Try to drink about 35% to 40% of your minimum amount in the morning since morning is a natural cleansing time for your body; about 25% before lunch; 30% in the afternoon before dinner; and the remaining 5% to 10% in the evening. This way you spread it out over the day, giving your body a steady stream of hydration.
Stress and Tension: Stress and tension are a double whammy when it comes to headaches. First, stress elevates cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone that increases your heart rate and blood pressure, triggers fat storage, and increases inflammation. Over time, too much cortisol can exacerbate many health problems, including headaches. Unfortunately, when we experience a lot of stress, we may also find it difficult to exercise, drink enough fluids, and eat as healthfully as we should—making it difficult to distinguish which trigger is causing the headache. Many headache sufferers find that triggers tend to compound each other.
In addition to stress, muscle tension adds to the problem by decreasing circulation and impeding the nervous system. Practicing good posture, using proper ergonomics, and keeping your muscles limber and hydrated will help prevent tension. There are many time-tested practices that will help you learn to manage stress and relieve muscle tension, such as yoga asanas, Yoga Sound Meditation, tai chi, and chi kung. Massage and other types of body work can also be very therapeutic for breaking up chronic muscle tension.
Takeaway Tip: Choose a stress-reducing activity to practice on a regular basis and make it a priority. Even something as simple as deep breathing can make a big difference in how you handle stress. Try taking a breathing break several times a day: Just stop what you’re doing for a minute or two, close your eyes, and breathe deeply and slowly; let your body and mind relax. This can help you regroup and gain some insight and clarity.
Food: Many experts believe that certain foods and drinks can trigger headaches, especially migraines. For someone who suffers from chronic headaches, it’s very important to try to eat balanced meals on a regular schedule. Avoid skipping meals as this is a common trigger. Many people have different food sensitivities, so the best way to zero in on what may be bothering you is to be aware of common triggers and to eliminate them from your diet to see if your headaches are relieved:
Sulfites: Foods and beverages that contain sulfites—such as red wine, dried fruits, and processed foods—may trigger headaches in some people. To avoid sulfites, look for labels that say “sulfite-free.”
Alcohol: Even if you’re not dehydrated, alcohol can trigger headaches.
Chemical Food Additives: Some headache sufferers have experienced improvement by avoiding foods that contain chemicals, preservatives, artificial food coloring, artificial sweeteners (like aspartame), nitrates (found in processed meats), and MSG (monosodium glutamate.)
Processed foods are very nutritionally depleting and place a lot of stress on your body, so it’s best to avoid them altogether. It’s important to eat healthfully on a daily basis to keep headache-triggering inflammation under control. Eating a yoga diet, based on fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, and other healthy fats, should help reduce headache frequency and severity.
Takeaway Tip: Eat a wholesome plant-based diet focusing on foods that are as close as possible to how they occur in nature. Avoid refined and processed foods and alcohol.
Medications: Certain prescriptions, such as some blood pressure and cardiovascular medications and those containing hormones, and even common OTC (over-the-counter) pain medications can be the culprit behind chronic headaches. If you think a prescription may be triggering your headaches, talk to your doctor about alternatives to see if the medication is the problem.
So-called “rebound” headaches can be caused by overuse of pain medications. This happens because your body adapts to the medication. To avoid this, it’s best to try to prevent your headaches and manage them as naturally as possible.
Research has shown promise for preventing headaches with herbs and supplements, such as feverfew, butterbur, and magnesium. Rubbing essential oils such as peppermint and lavender on the temples may also help alleviate headaches that have already come on. Some sufferers also find relief from homeopathic blends designed specifically for headache symptoms.
Takeaway Tip: Talk to your doctor if you think a prescription or OTC drug may be triggering your headaches. Experiment with natural remedies to reduce your headache symptoms.