Everyone gets headaches once in a while. They range from mild to severe, occasional to chronic. This article will discuss a few types of headaches and possible natural remedies.
Pain is a signal from your body telling you something is wrong. With the exception of extremely severe chronic pain, dulling the senses inhibits the ability to address the cause of pain permanently. To avoid getting flamed online, I’m not saying that a war veteran in intense pain should just “suck it up”. I’m not advocating for a patient fresh out of surgery to be given some leather to bite on for the pain. Tylenol, aspirin, and even morphine have their uses and places.
What I am suggesting is to consider the type of pain and its possible reasons before you try to address the symptoms. The goal is to end the headache and underlying issue. With all this in mind, the first section will discuss a few types of headaches.
Types of Headaches
When to Seek Immediate Medical Attention
The article here discusses dangerous headache types in more detail. In particular, a “thunderclap” headache should be examined by a doctor, and an MRI performed. A thunderclap headache is a sudden, severe headache with an explosive and near instantaneous onset. This kind of headache can be a sign of an aneurysm if accompanied by nausea, blurred vision, light sensitivity, or loss of consciousness. A thunderclap headache without any of the above secondary symptoms may be ruled “idiopathic” (fancy medical term for “We don’t know what the cause is”) if it occurs in otherwise healthy people (particularly men). If you experience these, don’t automatically assume it’s a strain headache from lifting. See a doctor for an MRI/MRA to rule out an aneurysm. The difference between an exertion headache and a thunderclap headache is the intensity and severity. Sufferers will say it’s as if a “clap of thunder” went off in their head. When in doubt, get it checked out.
If you also experience headaches with sexual activity (pre-orgasmic or orgasmic), see a physician as well.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the scarier types of headaches, let us discuss some more common ones with easy remedies.
The dehydration headache is typically dull, and not accompanied by facial pain or pressure (as from the sinuses). It will be accompanied by other signs of dehydration, including
- dark urine
- mild dizziness
- dry, sticky mouth
The remedy is quite simple here: stay hydrated. What’s also important is to ensure that you haven’t lost too many electrolytes. If you are an endurance athlete or you work out in the hot sun often where you’re sweating profusely, hydration doesn’t just mean drinking water (although you should do that too). If you’re severely dehydrated, don’t reach for the Gatorade unless there’s nothing else around. Look for natural electrolyte replacements, such as watermelon, citrus, chocolate milk (unless you’re too hot; milk may make you nauseous), and coconut water.
Here are some recipes for electrolyte drinks you can make yourself. These aren’t just good for endurance athletes; they can help rehydrate someone who’s sick with the flu or other illnesses as well.
I’m lumping headaches due to eye strain in with “screen headaches”. If you wear corrective lenses and are experiencing chronic headaches, consider visiting an eye doctor to get your prescription checked.
Otherwise, if you work with computers and screens frequently (or just find yourself on your phone way too much, particularly at night), you may be inducing headaches from the eye strain. I’ve experienced these myself, and they typically present as a dull headache concentrated behind the eyes, or at least diffuse behind the eyes in the front of the head.
A way to tell if your headache is due to screen or eye strain is to step away from the screen for at least an hour, maybe more. I’ve had to give up computer work for an entire afternoon to get rid of the headache before. For this headache, I’ve found several good herbal remedies:
- peppermint tea (do not consume at night if you are prone to acid reflux)
- peppermint oil or fresh leaf rubbed on the temples and forehead
- aromatherapy with rosemary oil or peppermint oil. In fact, I keep a diffuser in my office for this purpose.
If taking the remainder of the afternoon off from your screen isn’t an option, here are some other tips to prevent or lessen the eye strain:
- Make sure you get as much natural light in your work area as you can. If you’re stuck in a cube farm, or it’s winter in the North and you haven’t seen the sun in three weeks, consider a Happy Light. I promise they really do work. (I have no affiliation; just a happy user.)
- Lower the contrast on your monitors.
- Read as much on a larger screen with larger fonts as you can. Straining your eyes to read small fonts on a mobile device will make your headaches worse, not to mention the neck strain and poor posture it’s inducing.
- Get up every hour at least, and take time to look around away from the screen.
- Keep good posture when sitting.
Stress or Tension Headaches
These headaches are some of the most common headaches. These tend to be dull, and can be felt in the forehead, back of the head, or a general “pressure” or “clamping” on the entire head. It may also be accompanied with neck tension and pain behind the eyes. These headaches overlap with the eye-strain headaches significantly. The best way to distinguish them is to step away from screens. If you only seem to get headaches after long days at an office job, but the headaches are gone on the weekends when you aren’t using screens as much, it’s likely a screen headache. If they persist even after hours-long breaks from screens, you may be experiencing stress or tension headaches.
These headaches can become full-blown migraines as well, and are worth looking for the root cause to treat.
As trite as it is to write this, a stress headache is best remedied permanently by identifying the sources of anxiety or stress and removing them. That’s easier said than done for many people, particularly once anxiety becomes a full physical problem rather than only a mental one. My personal opinion is that some notion of purpose and spirituality needs to be addressed in these cases in addition to any medicinal remedies. I will not personally prescribe or endorse any particular spiritual course; that’s far too personal. If this is something you need, I encourage you to really take some time to think about what you need. Do you need companionship and structure? Consider a church or other organized spiritual group. Do you need a sense of purpose? Think about something small you can make or build to increase your confidence.
For physical remedies for tension headaches, I’ve personally seen the following work extremely well. These are longer-term solutions for the most part, so it’ll take days or weeks of using these herbs to notice a difference. Herbal remedies are toning and conditioning the mind to ease its own stress and decrease the amplitude of stress responses. Occasionally, for very severe headaches, you can use a Tylenol or aspirin, but try not to.
- Vervain tea: I have personally seen this work wonders in someone with chronic anxiety that manifested in high blood pressure, headaches, and heart arrhythmia. Vervain is extremely bitter; it’s so bitter that I personally could not stomach it to test it on myself. I asked the individual who used it to describe its effects. He reported that the headache lessened after about 20 minutes using 2 tsp. per cup of tea at first, and after a couple weeks was able to achieve the same effects with 1 tsp. per cup. He used it nightly for several weeks, then was able to revert to using it as needed. His headaches have lessened both in severity and frequency.Vervain is a hypotensive, relaxing the blood vessels. From my case study, that seemed the be the mechanism of action for this person. This remedy worked when other common herbs such as peppermint failed.Due to its bitterness, vervain can be mixed with honey and lemon juice in a tea. If that’s still too much, consider taking it as a tincture. I personally would try it as a tea first, because you get the additional water. When drinking it at night, note that vervain is a bitter and diuretic. My case study did report needing to get up in the night to urinate when he drank it before bed.
- Peppermint: This one works well for me. For more immediate headache relief, try peppermint oil in a diffuser. Use only a few drops; peppermint oil is potent. Take deep, calming breaths. Peppermint tea can also help, as peppermint is a hypotensive as well.
- Rosemary: I’ve also had success in banishing tension headaches with rosemary oil in a diffuser. Follow the same protocol as for peppermint oil.
- Siberian ginseng (eluthero): This root helps with stress long-term. Consume this as a decoction during the day. I’ll write another article focused on Siberian ginseng. Its benefits are too large for this one.
“Liverish” Migraines and Headaches of Undetermined Cause
I found this term used in a book discussing Chinese herbal remedies (See references). Some herbalists maintain that liver trouble is the root cause of headaches for which no obvious cause presents. The theory is this: if the bile formed by the liver thickens and the flow of bile slows, then the gall bladder does not empty and bile can back up into the bloodstream. This seems pretty drastic, and a true blocked bile duct or other liver issue will have additional and more severe secondary symptoms besides a headache. The science is pretty mixed on this, though the claim is common among herbalists. This article claims there is no such link. This one suggests a link.
One cause of “thickened” bile is the consumption of fatty or indigestible foods. My personal (unproven) theory is that the consumption of over-processed foods, rancid seed oils, and other gross artifacts of the modern Western diet can contribute to a low-level thickening of liver bile and a general sense of inflammation that can constrict blood vessels and cause headaches. Obviously I’m no official scientist, but I’m not the only person who has posited a similar idea.
To help condition the liver, look for the following herbs:
- dandelion root
- marshmallow root
- ginger root
You’ll note that all of these have a bitter element to them. That’s on purpose. See this article for a discussion of bitters as liver aids.
These are a few types of headaches that are the most common, and some possible remedies. Each person is different; what works for one may not work for another. Try a remedy for a week or two. If it’s not helping much, change the dose or try another. None of the herbs I listed have any risk of dependence or overdose.
Finding the root cause of the headaches will go much further than hoping for a simple tea to fix all the problems. Herbs help your body heal itself and provide some relief; they’re not a cure.
I didn’t discuss exertion headaches, though I know most of the readership here is probably familiar. The remedy is pretty simple — back off the exertion, breathe properly, and stay hydrated throughout the day. If you are experiencing exertion headaches despite all these things, particularly if you’ve backed off weight and still experience them, consult a physician for imaging to rule out any serious issues.
Overall, to remedy and prevent headaches
- Stay hydrated.
- Limit screen time and take breaks.
- Identify sources of stress (work, existential, other) and consider possible spiritual or emotional remedies.
- Stay away from processed foods and seed oils. If you’re new to cutting out seed oils and wondering what fats to cook with, see this article.
- Eat fruit and vegetables. Protein is great, but you can’t live on it alone. Fruits contain sugar, but they also contain vitamins, minerals, and essential electrolytes.
- Lucas, R.Secrets of the Chinese Herbalists (1977). Parker Publishing Company. IBSN: 0-13-797639-9