Western Explanations

Western scientists have become increasingly intrigued by use of acupuncture for headaches. One theory suggests that acupuncture releases endorphins, the brain's natural painkillers. Another states that acupuncture may stabilize levels of serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain.

The pain of a headache can be steady or throbbing and range from simply uncomfortable to debilitating. The most common types are tension headaches and migraines. Stress, irregular sleep, hormonal shifts, depression, eyestrain, and certain foods, among other things, can trigger a headache.

Alternative medicine emphasizes eliminating those things that cause or make the body vulnerable to recurrent headaches, recognizing that the pain is an important way for our bodies to alert us to trouble.

Naturopathic Medicine for Headaches

A naturopathic physician is interested in helping the body heal itself. To discover what could be causing the painful attacks, a naturopath would conduct a physical examination coupled with a dietary and nutritional evaluation and allergy tests. A naturopath would also look at possible hormone-related causes as well as bowel toxemia (the presence of toxins in the digestive tract).

In this investigation of suspects, diet receives careful scrutiny. Certain foods have been shown to bring on tension or migraine headaches in susceptible people. The list of common culprits includes:

  • aged cheese (especially yellow cheese)
  • nuts
  • citrus fruits
  • chocolate
  • hot dogs
  • red wine
  • coffee (and other caffeine sources, such as soda)

Some of these foods contain substances that influence blood vessels in the head, which may explain their connection to headaches. With other foods, it's unclear why they are linked to headaches. Allergic reactions to food may be contributing to the pain. Sugar may contribute to headaches by causing wild fluctuations of blood sugar levels.

After an assessment, the naturopath would suggest a specific diet for the patient. Supplements also may be prescribed if any important nutrients are missing from the diet, such as magnesium or niacin (both of which have an effect on the proper functioning of blood vessels) and quercetin (which can help block inflammation, among other functions). A naturopathic physician from Seattle reported that some of his patients have found immediate relief from headaches by taking magnesium supplements. Finally, the naturopath would specify a program tailored to each headache patient that might include nutritional supplements, stress-reduction techniques, exercise, herbal medicine, acupuncture, naturopathic manipulation, and homeopathy.

For your first visit to a naturopathic physician, be prepared for a thorough discussion of your headaches as well as your general health, lifestyle, and diet. To help your doctor pinpoint what triggers your headaches, it's a good idea to keep a diary of habits and symptoms for at least one month. Be sure to note the following:

  • When did each headache occur? How long was the attack? Was it mild or severe?
  • What did you eat minutes, hours, or a day before the headache?
  • Did you work late that day? Oversleep? Did you feel stressed or overtired?
  • Did anything remarkable or unusual occur before your attack?

Women should also note their place in the menstrual cycle during the headache.

Biofeedback Training for Headaches

Biofeedback training can instruct headache sufferers on how to control certain involuntary functions of the body, such as heart rate or body temperature, which can, in turn, ward off headaches.

First, it is important to understand what happens in the head when a headache strikes. In the case of migraines, the blood vessels in the head narrow and then expand, causing pain. With tension headaches, the blood vessels constrict, but first the muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders become tense. Biofeedback training can help to stabilize or alter these blood vessel or muscle functions.

For example, a migraine sufferer could learn to raise the temperature of a part of the body -- say, the hands. This change in temperature would redirect the flow of blood from the painful vessels in the head to the hands. This is how it would work:

  • A practitioner might use electrodes attached to the head and fingers hooked up to a biofeedback monitor, which reveals the current temperature of the hands and any tension in the head.
  • The patient concentrates on the idea of submersing the hands in a tub of hot water.
  • Meanwhile, the practitioner gives instructions on how to relax.
  • The monitor shows the progress of the hand's actual temperature and the tension in the head.
  • After several training sessions, the hands do change temperature. Eventually the patient can raise the temperature of the hands without the aid of the monitor.

Biofeedback training requires an experienced practitioner. The lessons usually include relaxation techniques, such as progressive relaxation, that can be done at home while the training is ongoing. Progressive relaxation involves letting go of the stress in the body in small isolated steps:

  • Lie down or sit in a comfortable chair. Wear loose clothing.
  • Close your eyes and imagine tightening the muscles in your feet. Then release these muscles.
  • Next, direct your attention to your calves, tensing and then easing these muscles in the same fashion. Continue up the body, including your arms, until you end with your scalp.

Acupuncture for Headaches

By inserting needles at specific points, acupuncture promises to restore the flow through the body's energy channels. The body is then able to heal itself. So, for example, when stress comes along, the body can weather it, and a tension headache doesn't result.

Sufferers of both tension and migraine headaches have found relief with acupuncture. In fact, researchers in New Zealand have shown that after as few as 12 treatment sessions, patients experience fewer and less-severe migraine attacks.

Several types of practitioners are qualified to offer acupuncture, including acupuncturists and some naturopathic physicians and medical doctors; different states have different licensing requirements. Be sure to inquire about the practitioner's training and experience. The needle therapy is often coupled with Chinese herbs, changes in diet and lifestyle, vitamin supplements, and other measures.

Herbal Medicine for Headaches

Various herbs have proved beneficial in either preventing or relieving headaches. Whether taken as a single herb or combination, they can be used for their calming, regulating, and restoring properties.

Tension-headache sufferers, for example, can benefit from herbs that soothe the body and mind. Teas made from chamomile or passionflower help relax stiff muscles in the head and neck, reducing pressure on the blood vessels.

For centuries, the perennial herb feverfew has been used to treat migraines. Feverfew can reduce the number and intensity of attacks or even prevent them. The herb contains compounds that may perform several headache-blocking functions, such as improving the tone of blood vessels. It can be taken in fresh, capsule, tincture, or tablet form. (If you go for the straight-from-the-garden version, be aware of its bitter taste and its potential to cause mouth ulcers.)

Several scientific studies conducted in the past two decades have confirmed feverfew's effectiveness and lack of serious side effects. Researchers have shown that migraine sufferers who took daily doses of feverfew leaves experienced fewer and milder attacks when compared with those who did without the herb. The patients reported no serious side effects from the herb.

To safeguard against migraines, a sample prescription would call for about 50 mg of dried and powdered feverfew in capsules taken daily. During an attack, between 1 to 2 grams a day is necessary. It's always a good idea to consult an herbalist or naturopathic physician before beginning an herbal regimen.

Other Headache Therapies

  • Acupressure for Headaches -- Treating the following acupressure points may bring headache relief: LI4 (located on the web between the thumb and index finger) and GB20 (on the back of head at the base of the skull).
  • Chiropractic Medicine for Headaches -- Adjustments or manipulations, especially of the neck vertebrae, can be useful in treating both tension and migraine headaches.
  • Homeopathy for Headaches -- Specific remedies must be tailored to the individual, but common prescriptions include gelsemium sempervirens, iris versicolor, and pulsatilla.
  • Meditation for Headaches -- Mind-calming and mind-clearing sessions are especially beneficial in treating tension headaches.
  • Yoga for Headaches -- Regular practice can relieve tension and improve breathing and posture.

For more information on headaches and alternative medicine, see: