My Four Favorite Cures for Your Cranial Woes

Touch your head with one hand – and an electric eel with the other.

Or try shaving your head and giving your scalp a third-degree burn.

Well, 18th-century Dutch scientists and ancient Greek physicians, respectively, were serious about those zany ideas as headache remedies.

Headache pain ranges from a minor annoyance to a debilitating condition and affects about 40% of the world's population, more often women.

And in the U.S., the most severe form of headaches (migraines) cost tens of billions of dollars every year in medical expenses and missed days of work.

Headaches typically arise from changes in blood flow, tight facial and neck muscles, or inflammation due to an illness or infection.

Here's a lineup of some of the most common types of headaches and where the pain tends to concentrate...

Cluster: Cluster headaches usually affect one area just above or behind the eye on one side of the head. These headaches get their name for their frequency. You'll likely get clustered bouts of pain for a period of about two weeks to three months (with up to several waves of pain every day) then go through periods with no pain at all.

Migraine: Migraines often involve throbbing pain on one side of the head. Light, sound, and movement can make them worse, and many migraine sufferers experience nausea as well. Typically lasting from four hours to days, migraines can spring up from a number of triggers, whether it may be certain foods, smells, exercise, stress, or hormonal changes.

Sinus: Sinus headaches happen from an inflamed sinus cavity that causes dull or throbbing pain around your eyes and across your forehead. If you bend down and the pain gets worse because of pressure on the sinuses, that's likely a sinus headache. Other symptoms may include fever, excessive mucus, or congestion.

Tension: Feeling like your head is being squeezed on both sides is the most common type of headache. The pain also may radiate to your neck. These headaches can last anywhere from a half hour to a week.

TMJ: TMJ stands for "temporomandibular joint," or the joint where your lower jaw hinges onto your skull. Sometimes this joint wears out over time or suffers damage from a blow to the face. Also, when you feel stress, you may clench your jaw or grind your teeth in your sleep, putting strain and pressure on your joint. (You also may benefit from a night guard, which you can ask your dentist about.)

So, what can you do?

Two things to consider, first...

Schedule a doctor's visit if you start having headaches more often and/or they're becoming more painful.

Call 911 or get to the emergency room pronto if what feels like the worst headache of your life blindsides you out of nowhere, along with symptoms like fever, stiffness in the neck, changes in vision or personality, numbness, and weakness, or if it starts after a head injury.

Otherwise, here are some of my favorite tips a try to alleviate and/or avoid that pounding headache before reaching for that bottle of Excedrin...

1. Drink water.

Our brains are about 75% water... Start losing some of that water, and say hello to the ensuing brain shrinkage and pain. Not only will dehydration often cause a headache, but it can also impair other areas of brain function like your memory and attention span.

I usually grab a glass of water right away whenever I feel a headache starting.

And remember, alcohol will do the opposite and make you more dehydrated. That's why I recommend a glass of water after every glass of wine.

As for another dehydration culprit, be careful with caffeine. A 2023 study of nearly 9,000 adults in the U.S. found that ingesting at least 400 milligrams of caffeine per day was associated with a 42% higher risk of severe headaches or migraines (while 100 milligrams per day was linked to just a 5% increased risk).

For reference, an 8-ounce brewed coffee usually has anywhere between 80 milligrams and 100 milligrams of caffeine. If I'm on the road and grab some self-serve coffee, I leave room in the cup or add a little bit of hot water instead of topping off a full 10-ounce cup.

2. Boost your body's "rest and digest" mode.

Stress can trigger headaches, big time. My favorite way to destress is to do some deep breathing exercises by focusing on lots of paced, steady, diaphragmatic breaths. These are deep breaths – the kind where you can feel your belly moving up and down. The beauty of it is that you can do this anywhere – it doesn't matter if you're sitting at a red light or on an airplane.

Being mindful of your breathing for a few minutes can help your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your "fight or flight" response, simmer down... and let your "rest and digest" parasympathetic nervous system take the wheel.

Another way to destress is with massage. It's great for tension headaches. Just use your fingertips or a tennis ball to massage from the upper neck to your upper back with medium pressure in a sweeping motion.

You can also try massaging the sides of your forehead in a small circular motion. Try using some diluted peppermint essential oil, too. The menthol increases blood flow in the skin. A few drops in an ounce of carrier oil like jojoba will do – make sure to do a small patch test with a tiny amount to make sure your skin doesn't react to it.

3. Opt for more omegas.

Your body can turn omega-3 fatty acids into oxylipins which act as a natural anti-inflammatory and painkiller.

A 2023 review of 40 randomized-controlled trials with 6,616 adults (roughly 79% were women) found that omega-3 supplementation resulted in fewer and less-severe migraines. But as I always say, work on changing what you eat before grabbing that bottle of pills...

My favorite source of omega-3s comes from the sea: fatty fish. A serving of salmon about the size of a deck of cards nets you from 1.2 to 1.7 grams.

A smaller study from 2021 of 182 frequent-headache sufferers (most of whom were women) showed that eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids could reduce the severity and number of headaches per month. The high-omega-3 diets featured 1.5 grams per day over 16 weeks.

4. Keep tabs on the perpetrators.

That pepperoni pizza with extra Parmesan cheese might be the culprit... Several foods and beverages can trigger headaches, particularly migraines, for many. Here are some common ones:

  • High levels of a naturally occurring substance called tyramine in foods like salami, smoked fish, aged cheeses, citrus fruits, and soy products
  • High levels of nitrates or nitrites in foods like hot dogs and cured meats
  • High levels of phenylalanine (an amino acid) in artificial sweeteners and various foods like nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and eggs
  • Alcohol
  • Super-salty foods that can make you prone to dehydration 

Keeping a journal to track your meals and your headaches will help you figure out which foods to avoid.

Interestingly, a 2023 Neurology meta-analysis found migraine sufferers had most attacks happen in spring to fall, as well as throughout the day except between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Researchers noted that genes associated with a predisposition for this cranial woe were also linked to poorer regulation of circadian rhythms.

What's more, migraine sufferers tended to have lower levels of melatonin than their migraine-free brethren. And melatonin is, after all, the "sleep hormone." Be sure to check out my issue of Retirement Millionaire for my two tips on improving your sleep hygiene this summer. Go here to get started with a subscription.

What We're Reading (and Watching)...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 9, 2024