Why You Get Constant Headaches and How To Put an End To Them
You know the feeling. The twinge in your temple. The pain in your head that’s dull, throbbing, stabbing, jabbing, searing, twitching, vice-like, jolting, electric, or pounding.
You’ve got a headache, and you’re not alone—it’s the most common form of pain that people experience.
Headaches can range from annoying to downright incapacitating.
In a basic sense, headaches are a subjective neurological indicator that something is wrong.1 Various kinds of headaches can occur for a number of reasons, like poor diet or hormone imbalance, but one thing’s for sure—no matter what type of headache you have, it’s important to discover the root causes in order to rid yourself of them for good.
What Exactly are Headaches?
Since the brain itself lacks pain receptors, the cause of pain is from structures within the brain or head such as nerves, blood vessels, organs, mucous membranes, the lining of the skull, sinuses, subcutaneous tissue, or muscles.
How Do Headaches Occur?
Most headaches occur when there is an irritation in the nerves, blood vessels, meninges (lining of the brain), or muscles of the head and neck. The irritation can be due to a variety of reasons:
Biochemical: Hormone and neurotransmitter imbalance, as well as cytokines or histamines generated in the inflammatory and immune response, can result in headaches. When altered hormone and neurotransmitter activity causes irritation to the nerves or blood vessels in the brain, a headache can manifest.
Dietary: Food allergies and sensitivities that generate an inflammatory response such as gluten, dairy, soy, nuts, and eggs are common causes of headache. Additionally, the histamines, tyramines, nitrites, and sulfites in foods, especially aged and fermented foods, may also cause a headache. Alcohol and caffeine are also triggers.
Noxious stimuli: Exposure to cold, altitude change, or an extreme pressure change can produce headaches. Pressure on nerves from tight muscles is the major cause of tension headaches.
Stretching or traction on the blood vessels or meninges (lining of the brain) may also cause headaches (as in meningitis). Tumors place pressure on structures of the brain and increase intracranial pressure, resulting in pain.
Exertional: When you work out too hard or over-exert, biochemical and inflammatory changes occur that can cause headache.
Medications and supplements: Birth control, estrogen replacement therapy, asthma medications, stimulants, and blood pressure medications such as nitroglycerin or nitrates can cause headaches. Opiates and barbituates are also known triggers. Rebound headaches can occur with frequent use of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as Advil, Aleve, Excedrin, and Tylenol, which are used to treat headaches.
Physical trauma: Trauma of any kind causing the destruction of tissues and increasing pressure in the brain can cause headaches.
Types of Headaches
There are numerous criteria to consider when identifying a specific headache, like location, duration, and type of pain.
The most important initial distinction to make is between a primary and secondary headache:
A primary headache is one that is associated with an underlying cause or condition.9 Migraines, tension-type, and cluster headaches are examples of primary headaches.
According to current criteria, there are over 150 diagnosable types of headaches. In most cases, a headache will fall into one of the following categories: cluster, tension-type, or migraine.
However, there are some that can be a combination of two types, like a cluster and tension. There are also a small percentage that do not fall into one of these categories.
It’s important to note that headaches with sudden onset, feeling like a thunderclap, and described as “never having felt this pain before” should be considered medical emergencies, as they may suggest bleeding in the brain, a mass or tumor, vascular malformation such as an aneurysm, temporal arteritis, or meningitis.
Types of Headaches: Cluster
Cluster headaches are one of the most painful and difficult to treat, according to pharmacist Suzy Cohen, author of Headache Free.
She describes them as “feeling like you have an ice-pick going through your eye.”7 The severe, stabbing, unilateral pain is usually associated with the nasal, eye, or sinus area.
The pain may start in the middle of the night and be a response to high histamine levels.7 For this reason, Cohen recommends eliminating high histamine foods, like avocados, cider, vinegar, red wine, coffee, and dried fruits.
Episodic is when clusters lasts 4-16 weeks followed by a cluster-free period lasting anywhere from six months to years.
Chronic is when a patient is headache-free for less than one week of a 12-month time frame.
Types of Headaches: Tension-Type (TTH)
A tension-type headache is characterized by a tight bilateral band-like pain that is of mild to moderate intensity.
Accordingly, attributes such as stress, tension, posture, and depression are known contributors.6 Dr. Alan Gaby, author of Nutritional Medicine, reports that reactive hypoglycemia and/or food allergies are often causing the problem.
Types of Headaches: Migraine
Some of the many clinical classifications of migraines are with or without aura, familial or sporadic hemiplegic, and basilar type.
Triggers of Headaches
The physiology as to how a trigger activates the response is speculative, with multiple hypotheses. The various models center around neuronal pathways that may be inflamed or sensitized.
There is, however, a diverse list of common triggers that cannot be disputed even if the physiology is controversial.
The list of triggers includes stress, sleep deficiency, changes in ovarian hormone levels, food products, environmental toxins, and weather changes.16 Some of the other triggers that will be reviewed more closely are:
Food additives and preservatives: Many headaches can be minimized or eliminated by addressing diet. This includes additives, preservatives, or artificial sweeteners.
Food sensitivities/allergies: Often a food that is considered “healthy” causes a subtle adverse response, such as a headache, due to a sensitivity.
Medications: For many, medicine is the way to fix a headache, not cause one. However, medicine-induced headaches are becoming more recognized in literature.
Trigger of Headaches: Foods
Science has been researching the role of food in headaches since 1900.19 The findings continue to indicate a strong association between diet and the onset of a headache.
Experts agree that it’s worth the effort to identify dietary triggers and that elimination of these foods does not always have to be permanent.
Dr. Alan Gaby recommends considering hypoglycemia for all migraine patients, especially those who eat a diet high in refined sugars.6 Some of the biggest offenders are:
Caffeine: Can alleviate headache pain, although it is also a known trigger, such as during withdrawal.
It has a stimulatory effect and acts by antagonizing neuronal receptors in the brain.
Dr Mark Hyman advises minimizing coffee intake due to its effects on insulin resistance, increased cortisol, and reduction in serotonin, all of which can play a role in headaches. It has also been shown to increase urinary excretion of magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which can lead to headaches.20
Nitrites: Preservatives found in processed meats such as hotdogs and lunchmeat that act as vasodilators.23 The effect of vasodilation can be the onset of a migraine.
Additionally, the immune response generated as a result of the sensitizing food produces inflammatory chemicals that mediate headaches.
Dr. Fuhrman’s list of foods to avoid are: coffee, caffeinated teas, chocolate, alcohol, wine, dairy products, red meat, processed meats, sweets, commercial baked good, processed foods, food additives, and temporarily, nuts, dried fruit, and avocado.
Trigger of Headaches: Gluten
Dr. Tom O’Bryan has been a leader in informing the public of the many symptoms that gluten intolerance can cause, and headaches are high on the list.
Trigger of Headaches: Medication Overuse Headaches (MOH)
Insight as to the cause of the chronic condition is hypothesized as being the result of neuronal hyperexcitability, the cause of which stems from the medications deranging the modulating control system of the 5-HT (5-hydroxytryptophan, which is the precursor to serotonin) dependent system.27 Ultimately, this process becomes a perpetual cycle if intervention is not initiated.
Medications may offer temporary relief but they also interrupt the body’s natural detoxification process without addressing the root cause.
Acetaminophen, when overused, can lead to a glutathione deficiency.
Trigger of Headaches: Infections
Headaches are secondary to infections as a part of the body’s immune response. Sometimes the type of headache can provide insight into the type of condition that a person has.
Other tick-borne illnesses such as Ehrlichiosis, Babesiosis, and Bartonellosis, as well as mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile virus and many varieties of encephalitis are also known to cause headache.
Root Causes of Headaches
Identifying the root causes of a headache is the first step toward successful treatment.
The following root causes are important to identify and correct in order to start seeing some headache relief:
Nutrient deficiencies can cause inflammation, vascular constriction, muscle tension, or mitochondrial dysfunction.
Hormone imbalance is especially pertinent for women and their reproductive cycle. There is a delicate balance between estrogen and progesterone levels, and when estrogen naturally decreases before menstruation, many women are prone to headaches.41
Inflammation occurs as a result of the body’s immune response to pain, injury, illness, diet, or toxins. The chemicals produced can mediate headaches.
Dysbiosis occurs when there is an imbalance in the the body’s microorganisms, especially in the gut, which can perpetuate inflammation, food sensitivities, increased toxin load, and imbalanced neurotransmitters that all play a role in headaches.
Root Cause of Headaches: Nutrient Deficiencies
The causes of nutritional deficiencies are numerous. A deficiency can be attributed to anything, from stress, alcohol, illness, leaky gut, and medications to an imbalanced diet.
As they relate to headaches, there are some specific nutrients that can have a significant impact if they are lacking.
Many of these key nutrients are ones that provide mitochondrial support (the part of the cell where energy is produced).
Magnesium is described as the “relaxation” mineral. For those headache sufferers who are deficient, this may be all it takes to cure the problem. Author Dr. Alan R. Gaby reports one case study of >3000 female migraine patients who were treated with 200 mg/day of magnesium (from amino acid chelate) with an 80% success rate.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is another form of mitochondrial support whose effectiveness in reducing migraines dates back to the 1940s and ‘50s. Unfortunately, its effectiveness on migraines was forgotten until recently.
The latest research indicates that it is dose-dependent and stresses that higher doses should be reserved for those who do not find relief with moderate ones.6
Vitamin D, which has gained recognition for its importance in recent years, is also meaningful when it comes to headaches. Although limited in scope, some research shows an inverse relationship between headaches and a vitamin D deficiency. This may be due to the fact that low vitamin D contributes to poor sleep quality, which can in turn result in frequent headaches.
Root Cause of Headaches: Hormonal Imbalance
The HPA-axis regulates the stress response (“fight or flight”), and the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonad HPG-axis is responsible for reproduction.
During a stressful event, when you need that burst of adrenaline, cortisol is released and all other bodily systems are essentially put on hold. When the event is over, the body deactivates the stress response and all is well. The problem occurs when the body is constantly under stress (real or perceived), and it never gets to rebalance.
Root Cause of Headaches: Stress
With continued high stress and cortisol release, the body maintains a high blood sugar level in order to preserve a readily-available energy source for dealing with a stressor.
This becomes a problem when stress continues for long periods of time, in which case it compromises sleep patterns, the immune system, digestive health, and blood sugar regulation. This can lead to headaches from the imbalances.
Root Cause of Headaches: Inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s immune response to pain, injury, or illness. Simply put, this response is a complex cascade of events that recruits immune cells which produce chemicals, antibodies, and free radicals in an attempt to resolve what it perceives to be a problem.
This complex system can become an issue when the normal resolution of the inflammatory response doesn’t occur. Thus, the body ends up in a continually responsive state known as chronic systemic inflammation.
Poor diet, food sensitivities, stress, toxins, and dysbiosis are contributors to chronic inflammation. The more often your body perceives these, the more the chronic inflammation is perpetuated, resulting in an increased likelihood of getting a headache.
The pro-inflammatory condition also impacts the nervous system, altering levels of neurotransmitters and pain receptor function, which can result in headaches.
Root Cause of Headaches: Dysbiosis
Dysbiosis occurs when there’s an imbalance in the body’s microorganisms where the beneficial organisms are in lower numbers that the harmful ones, especially in the gut.
When the bad bacteria outnumber the good bacteria, inflammatory chemicals are produced and leaky gut can occur.
A leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, allows foreign substances into systemic circulation, which causes an immune reaction. This reaction produces inflammatory chemicals, in addition to the ones being produced in the gut. This progressive increase in systemic inflammatory load can lead to headache, because the liver cannot clear the inflammation fast enough.
Another important point is that the gut largely regulates the immune system, and it is also where many neurotransmitters are produced, thereby making the gut a focal point for a wide variety of conditions (including headaches).
Natural Relief from Headaches
Addressing root causes and avoiding headache triggers are key to minimizing headaches. However, there are some other things you can do in the short term for prevention and/or immediate treatment:
Sleep is imperative. Some of the causes of headaches also cause sleep issues. Taking vitamin D and magnesium can improve sleep as well as reduce inflammation and stress.
Ginger, boswellia serrata, and turmeric are all potent anti-inflammatories.
White willow bark is a natural pain reliever often found in combination with these anti-inflammatories.
Hydrate with water frequently. Insufficient hydration can trigger a headache or make the one you have last longer.
Serratiopeptidase is a proteolytic enzyme that, when taken on an empty stomach, helps to degrade proteins in circulation that may be causing an inflammatory response.
This enzyme has a fibrinolytic effect, meaning that it reduces clot formation. Proteolytic enzymes are good for reducing total inflammatory load.
Antioxidants in the form of brightly-colored fruits and vegetables are important for controlling inflammation. Supplementally, resveratrol and pycnogenol are good options that modulate inflammation and blood pressure.