When your head is pounding, sometimes all you can think about is making it stop. But popping a pain reliever isn't a cure-all—with prolonged use, acetaminophen and ibuprofen can have some frightening long-term effects.
Liver damage, stomach ulcers, and kidney problems are just a few of the risks. And the Food and Drug Administration recently announced that they will soon require painkillers like ibuprofen to be labeled with a warning that they will—not may—cause an increased risk of heart attack and stroke (and not just in people with heart problems). So why gamble with your long-term health for temporary pain relief when there are natural solutions?
First of all, you should try to pinpoint the cause of your pain. If you suffer from chronic headaches, inflammation could be to blame. If you think that's your issue, try adding foods that fight off inflammation into your diet.
Certain ingredients may also be triggering that throbbing pain—most commonly what's known as tension headache—that feeling of pressure that starts in the back of the head or above the eyebrows and eventually infiltrates your whole noggin, caused by poor blood flow to the brain. This can happen when eating processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts that contain preservative nitrates and nitrites that may dilate blood vessels and hinder blood flow.
The tyramine in aged cheeses like bleu cheese, cheddar, parmesan, and Swiss can be a trigger for migraines—an intense throbbing in one area of the head, commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
Red wine contains tyramine, too, along with sulfites, which have also been linked to migraines. Alcohol in general can cause dehydration, one of the major causes of headaches.
If you can't nail down the cause of your pain to eliminate it, there are natural options. We've got your best bets for relief.
Cold reduces inflammation and brings fresh blood to the surface of the skin. It also numbs throbbing muscles, which can bring quick relief. Use an ice pack over the point of pain, or run ice cubes over tense muscles in the neck and shoulders.
A well-known U.K. study from the 1980s showed a major reduction in migraine episodes after subjects took feverfew daily. This type of daisy can be homegrown, and its leaves eaten directly (as a salad ingredient or herb)—although they are fairly bitter. Feverfew also comes in the form of tea or freeze-dried capsules.
A peptide in the body called substance P transmits pain signals from the sensory nerves to the central nervous system. The capsaicin in cayenne pepper depletes this substance. Dilute ¼ teaspoon of cayenne powder in four ounces of warm water, soak a cotton swab in the solution, and inhale through the nasal passages. You’ll feel the heat initially, but the headache should subside shortly after.
Coumarin compounds in lavender can facilitate the opening and closing of blood vessels. You can inhale the essential oil directly, or put two to four drops in two to three cups of boiling water and inhale the vapors for relief.
Just like lavender, peppermint oil helps to stimulate the blood vessels. It can also open up the sinuses so that more oxygen can get into the bloodstream. Rub a few drops onto your temples, the back of your jaw, and forehead for quick headache relief.
This herb works as a muscle relaxant, meaning inhaling basil oil works as a remedy for tension headaches.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Inflammation of blood cells can press and pinch on nerves. This can be prevented by eating plenty of omega-3s. Flaxseeds and fish oil are great sources.
Getting a daily dose of at least 400 milligrams of riboflavin (vitamin B-2) can significantly reduce the occurrence of migraines. Eggs and green vegetables are high in this nutrient, so load up as a preventative measure.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont