Written by Meghan Rhodes MCPP MAPA
One of the most common things people pop a pill for in daily life is headaches. Recently on social media, I've been talking about why that's not necessarily the most helpful thing you can do for your body and not necessarily the safest in the long run, either.
First, let's start with why regular use of over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (or NSAID) drugs isn't helping your health in the long term. Aspirin and ibuprofen are both classes as NSAIDs, as they are synthetically produced chemical compounds that reduce inflammation. Surely this is a good thing, as inflammation causes pain, so if you stop the inflammatory process, you stop the pain - right?
Inflammation is a natural response of the body to an injury, infection or imbalance. In the case of an injury, it serves to bring healing blood to the area and create swelling to physically protect the injured part of the body - whether that's short-term/acute (you fell off your bicycle and hit your elbow) or long-term/chronic (deterioration of the joints in arthritis). When it comes to infection, inflammation is the heat the immune system is generating in fighting off an infection, much when you get hot and sweaty from exercising. When there's an imbalance, inflammation is the irritation in an area of the body from something being off (like a headache or painful bowel movements).
The key is in all of these scenarios, the inflammation is a) serving an active function in the body and b) alerting you to something that needs addressing. The body is sending up a flare signal so you'll pay attention and help it. If your car stopped working in a remote area and you sent up an emergency flare for help, ceasing to send up a flare wouldn't fix your car. The same is true for your body - suppressing the inflammation with NSAID medications does not resolve the reason your body is creating inflammation in the first place, which means the discomfort will just keep coming back no matter how many pills you take.
The other impact regular use of NSAIDs has on your health is damage to the gut lining. These isolated, synthetically created chemical compounds wear away at the gut lining over time, which can lead to leaky gut and stomach ulcers. And given our gut is the seat of our health, as well as having an influence over our pain receptors, wearing away at its structure isn't going to help your immune system or vitality, let alone your experience of pain, which is probably what prompted you to take them to begin with.
So if we put the aspirin and ibuprofen aside, how can you figure out what's actually causing your headache, so you can determine what the best course of action will be to resolve the headache at its root, rather than just repeatedly silencing your body?
Let's look at five common reasons you may have a headache and why:
Dehydration - It may sound too simple, but checking in with how much water you've had in the last 24 hours is a really straightforward first option. It can be really easy to get incredibly busy and forget to drink water. So if you've not had much, fill up a glass of still, filtered water, and take steady sips for the next hour or so. If your headache starts to diminish, you're on the right track. Keep sipping that water. Caffeinated beverages don't cut it, as they are dehydrating (this includes both black and green teas), fizzy drinks are pure chemicals (which is why they make effective drain cleaners), and juices and smoothies are concentrating a lot of natural sugars without all the digestive fibres of the original foods. So keep it simple - drink water!
Stress/tension - If lack of water isn't the case, check in with your physical body. Are your shoulders touching your ears? Are you hunched over a screen you've been staring at for hours on end? Have you got a nonstop schedule with an unending list of demands on your time and energy? Then the root of your headache may be stress and/or tension. Your head hurts, yes, but where? If you feel it as a band around your head, plus tightness in your neck and/or shoulders, then it may be a tension headache. To address the root cause, the stress factor needs to be taken care of - something no herb or pill can resolve. Alongside managing the stress, you can change your physical position and massage your neck and shoulders. If you want to add herbs into the mix, a calming tea blend can be of assistance - all the classics for relaxation: chamomile, lavender, rose, linden blossom.
A bunged up gut/sluggish digestion - When was the last time you had a good bowel movement? It may not seem related, but sluggish digestion can absolutely give you a headache. Think of it this way - if the exit on the motorway is blocked, you're going to end up with a long queue of cars and a bunch of irritated drivers. The same happens in your body. If the exit for a bowel movement is blocked or not functioning effectively, all of those waste products your body needs to dispose of get trapped and all that stuck energy starts queuing... all the way up to your head, causing a headache. So if you're constipated or bloated, this may be the root of your headaches. Keep in mind, when stress flows, digestion doesn't, so some of those relaxing herbs may be helpful alongside the occasional use of some gentle herbal laxatives like dandelion root and burdock root, both of which can simply be taken as a tea (not the fizzy sugary drink).
Allergies/sinuses - If the headache feels like it's radiating from the sides of your nose, over your eyebrows and under your eyes, and if you're stuffy or sneezing or have watery eyes, allergies or a sinus infection may be the root of your headache, particularly if there's a high pollen count or if there's a cold going round. Herbal steam inhalation is a great way to clear the sinuses and their resulting headaches, as is a foot bath. Yes - you read correctly! We've got tonnes of receptors on the bottoms of our feet and lots of little blood vessels that can absorb the benefits of the herbs directly through the skin, going straight into the blood stream and making a beeline for the lungs and sinuses without having to be processed by the digestive system. For either method, fill a bowl or basin with hot, steamy water (but not so hot you scald yourself!), sprinkle in herbs or essential oils that open the sinuses, and either pop your feet in the basin or your head over the bowl with a towel to direct the steam and slowly begin to breathe more deeply. There are a wide range of herbs for this purpose: pine, eucalyptus, tea tree, lavender, rosemary, and thyme are fairly easy to access. If you're dealing more with a histamine response due to allergies, go for nutritive, soothing herbs that help your body process and move smoothly through the changing seasonal air - nettle and chamomile are brilliant for this purpose, best taken as a tea. (Top tip: after infusing your nettle or chamomile tea bags, squeeze out the excess water and pop one on each eye with a flannel over them to calm allergy-irritated redness and itching.)
Hormones/your monthly cycle - Some women experience painful headaches and migraines in tune with their menstrual cycles. They may come round when you ovulate or right before/at the start of your period. See if you notice a monthly pattern to your headaches and if they get better once your period starts. If so, you want to look at two approaches: first, you can use migraine-specific herbal teas or tinctures like feverfew, willow or meadowsweet (*not appropriate if you're sensitive to salicylates, a compound that naturally occurs in some plants and herbs) to take the edge off, especially if your migraines are so intense, they mean you're unable to go about your daily life. The second is to dive into your cycle and hormones, as menstrual migraines indicate some balance needs to be brought to your hormones as they naturally fluctuate throughout the month. The herbs you'll use to support your cycle will depend on your individual needs. I'll be writing more on this in another article, but in the meantime, Dr. Aviva Romm is a brilliant resource for all things women's health.
So the next time your body sends you a message in the form of a headache, listen to your body and follow the path of the discomfort, rather than silencing yourself. Sorting out the root of the headache means you can get it to stop, instead of continually coming back.
If you'd like to have herbal remedies to hand to support your health when life's ups and downs come to call, consider joining The Members' Apothecary - my offering of herbal swaps for common family health scenarios so you're never caught out.