I just finished reading a book that provides a new framework for understanding my headaches. Since March 2011 I have been diligently trying to track down the cause of my late night headaches. I’ve had them for many years, but only recently decided to seriously pursue their cause. I’ve done many tests and tried numerous supplements, but haven’t found the cause. At times I felt I was getting close, but the data hasn’t shown that I’ve made any improvements.
Part of the problem I discovered when trying to research headache causes is that there is a web page out there for every suspect. You can go mad trying to figure out and weigh true risk factors from the extremely rare conditions. Heal Your Headache has a clear message about the roots of headaches and what steps we need to take to fix the problem.
Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain by David Buchholz, M.D.
It’s Likely Migraine
The first thing Heal Your Headache explains is that most headaches are migraine in nature and that a lot of misunderstanding stems from that label. A headache with migraine roots need not have classic migraine symptoms. A migraine can manifest as sinus pain or neck stiffness or tension headaches. The author makes a very strong case that what I’ve falsely labeled as a sinus headache is really migraine in nature. A good chunk of the book goes into this labeling and why other explanations for headaches are often false.
The 1-2-3 Program
The 3 steps of Heal Your Headache are:
- Avoid the “Quick Fix”
- Reduce Your Triggers
- Raise Your Threshold
The Quick Fix
A headache occurs when the cumulative triggers exceed our pain threshold. That makes sense. Triggers can be dietary, weather and/or stress based. They can also come from medication we are taking. Headaches may or may not occur at the time those triggers are present or they may occur later when the triggers aren’t present. This makes the testing approaches I’ve taken so far pretty much worthless, because removing a single trigger (or class of triggers) may not be enough.
Heal Your Headache advises a strict dietary approach that removes the major triggers and then after being 4 months in the clear, start adding back foods to see if specific triggers can be isolated. Four months is a lot longer than any test I’ve done so far.
Raising your Threshold
I didn’t understand most of this section. It talked a lot about specific medications taken in small quantities that could raise our pain threshold once we’ve removed our triggers. This seems like a nice place to be. My take is that I need to focus on finding and reducing triggers first. If I win that battle, I can always revisit this section later.
The good news is that if I accept the premise of this book and remove the dietary triggers that my headaches could be cured or greatly reduced. The bad news is the #1 trigger for migraines is caffeine. Caffeine also paradoxically can make the migraine pain go away in the short term. The author states that this help in the short term increases headaches in the long run.
Other dietary triggers include:
- Processed Meats and Fish (bacon, sausage, ham, etc)
- Cheese, Yogurt, Sour Cream, Buttermilk, Kefir
- Alcohol and Vinegar
- Certain fruits and juices (citrus fruits, bananas, raisins, raspberries, plums, avocado, figs, dates)
- Certain Vegetables (onions, sauerkraut, lima beans, lentils, navy beans, fava beans, pea pods)
- Fresh Yeast-Risen Baked Goods
- Maybe List – Fermented soy, tomatoes, mushrooms
This book does give me hope that solving my headaches may be possible. However, the idea of living without caffeine in Seattle may be too much of a challenge even for me. Coffee isn’t just a drink for me. It is an important component of my social network and a core hobby. If caffeine is the culprit, I may need to move away from Seattle. Heal Your Headache has given me a lot to think about.
Jun 7, 2012 — 10:33 am
Have you seen this report? http://www.drbriffa.com/2012/06/07/magnesium-for-migraine/ The claim is that magnesium deficiency is often the “smoking gun” when it come to migraine.
Jun 7, 2012 — 11:24 am
@Steve – Yeah I did. I left the first comment on that post. I’ve also got a question into Chris Kresser about the dosage. I’m also playing with 5-HTP.
Jun 7, 2012 — 1:03 pm
I have been praying that you can find a solution to your headaches that does not involve giving up caffeine ever since I read that you get headaches and you love coffee, but I am not optimistic. Often it is the things we crave the most that give us the most problems. And given that you are an ectomorph you are probably more vulnerable to stimulants than most people.
Coffee is too strong for me (I used to drink tea) but I have similar problems with chocolate and sugar, and yes, I get withdrawal headaches that are cured by a bit of the hair of the dog. Looking at a coffee shop menu, I often don’t see anything that won’t cause some sort of problem or other. I’d gladly pay for water just to have something I can buy at these places. A wider variety of herbal teas (or even any herbal teas at all) would help, too.
Jun 7, 2012 — 2:47 pm
@Anemone – Thanks for the support. I was holding out on this option for last and it appears that day is close. I am going to experiment with 5-HTP and increased Magnesium first.
Jun 8, 2012 — 8:17 am
Have heart, MAS! If you find your headache is caused by caffeine, it may be dose dependent. You may only have to limit your intake somewhat. That’s doable, and you may even enjoy it more if you can’t have it as much as you want it. “Stay calm, have courage, and wait for signs.”
Jun 8, 2012 — 8:58 am
@Becky – Thanks for the support. I’m still researching this, but everything I’ve read so far suggests that it isn’t dose dependent. I may need to leave Seattle for a few months to perform this test. Giving up espresso in Seattle would be like trying to give up gambling in Atlantic City.
Jun 10, 2012 — 11:21 am
I wanted to mention the Magnesium oil spray I recommended to you recently. I experimented during a week or two of heatwave weather in the UK -I had a very sore head for a day or two for some reason. I had just received the spray in the post and sprayed it on the back of my neck a few times. Headache relieved with an hour or two. That was quick an amazing! If its not magnesium it may be caffeine withdrawal? depending on how much you drink in the day. Whenever I try to give up caffeine I get the most amazing headaches!
Jun 10, 2012 — 11:24 am
Magnesium has also hugely improved the depth and quality of my sleep.
Jun 10, 2012 — 11:37 am
I use the spray from late afternoon or early evening, applying 5-10 sprays for the day, if I have any pain I apply it to that area. I also take magnesium citrate as a tablet at night, if I take it in the day I feel too drowsy and sleepy. It has calming effect on nervous system and brain, excellent for muscle or joint pain. Excellent if you are experiencing any particular stress in your life. Always monitor how you respond as like Vitamin C it is according to body tolerance. Sublingual B12 is also very valuable and for mood and concentration the response is very noticable, I have recently used both for recent exams and studies and felt the difference.
Jun 10, 2012 — 3:22 pm
@Pauline – I’ve doubled my Magnesium intake. We’ll see how it goes.
Jun 11, 2012 — 6:16 am
Just thought I’d weigh in on magnesium.
I think because of your coffee consumption that you probably need more magnesium than most. I think that doubling the dose is a reasonable approach.
With respect to the comment by Pauline, I don’t seem to have any problem taking the magnesium during the day. I use magnesium citrate.
Hope the extra magesium is beneficial.
Jun 11, 2012 — 7:00 am
@Alan – That makes sense. Plus it lines up with what I’ve learned reading The Mood Cure. I’ve started tracking my daily intake Mag in mg. I switched to using Glycinate after Chris Kresser mentioned on his podcast that with his clients test results show it absorbs better.
Jun 13, 2012 — 3:25 am
Yes, and I am addicted to coffee both for the joy of it and the social aspect, so maybe that is also why I respond so quickly to it. I also think my body detoxes coffee very slowly, if I go over a certain limit in the day, I really feel it. The book Magnesium Miracle speaks of taking half of the dosage transdermally as this is quickly absorbed and doesn’t have to go through digestive system. I love the smell of the transdermal magnesium oil, it smells of the sea. Also people who walk a lot or exercise need more magnesium as this is quickly depleted.
Jun 13, 2012 — 8:40 am
@Pauline – I’ll look into it when I visit the supplement store later this week. Thanks!