Headaches are our country’s number one pain problem and are one of the most common reasons why patients visit physicians. Recent studies have estimated that 16-23% of Americans suffer from severe headaches or migraines.1 If you regularly suffer from headaches that make you feel as if your head was clamped in a vise, you are not alone. Headaches, including the migraine type, are so widespread that many people consider them a normal occurrence of human existence.
There are two types of headaches: (1) tension and (2) migraine. The tension type or muscle-contraction headache is generally less severe than a migraine. They are both experienced after stressful periods have ended, and the body attempts to repair and detoxify. The pain of a migraine usually occurs in the front of the head and is often centered on an eye. It is typically accompanied by visual and gastrointestinal disturbances. Essentially, migraines are severe pulsating, or throbbing headaches, associated with nausea, dizziness and visual auras, such as flashing lights, zigzag lines and blind spots.
Headaches can take a terrible toll on a person’s life. They can affect a child’s education, cause people to lose their jobs, create stress in family relationships and create a feeling of hopelessness about life. Recurrent headaches and migraine headaches can lead to depression,2 and the use of medications to treat the pain can cause serious side effects.
Demystifying the Causes of Headaches
The standard theories that tension headaches are caused by widening of the blood vessels and that migraines are caused by constriction of the blood vessels have been disproven. The evidence now illustrates the similarities between migraine and other types of headaches rather than the differences. The major cause of both tension headaches and migraines is the retention of toxins or tissue irritants within the central nervous system. These chemical irritants may cause an over-sensitivity of nerve tissues to other stimuli. Rather than saying that tension headaches and migraines are caused by differing mechanisms, it would be more accurate to see them on a pain and symptom continuum, differing only in severity of symptoms.
Many factors may trigger or aggravate an attack of migraine. Common precipitating factors include physical activity, menstruation, alcohol consumption (especially red wine), too little or too much sleep, a missed meal or a change in the weather. A high protein diet is one of the most common reasons people suffer from chronic migraines. Protein breakdown and digestion causes the production of multiple toxins, especially nitrogenous wastes that can cross over the blood-brain barrier.
Foods headache sufferers should avoid
- Coffee, caffeinated teas and chocolate
- Alcohol and wine
- Dairy products and cheese
- Red meat and processed meats
- Sweets and commercial baked goods
- Processed foods and food additives
- Nuts, dried fruit, avocado (temporarily)
Certain food senstivities and food allergies can also trigger migraine in many patients. Salted foods are frequently noted as a trigger, as are chocolate, cheese, ice cream, nuts, eggs, banana, herring, fatty foods, citrus fruits, NutraSweet® (aspartame), monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates (often present in processed meats) and concentrated sweets.3-7
The use of medication, even in quantities as low as ten aspirin tablets per week, can be the cause of a chronic daily headache syndrome. Besides the typical toxic drugs that physicians routinely prescribe, exposure to toxins such as lead, arsenic, morphine, carbon monoxide, pesticides and noxious fumes can also be a cause.
Likewise, other unhealthful practices, such as drinking coffee and soft drinks, eating sweets and other foods devoid of nutrition, contribute to the problem. Even drinking milk and eating cheese can add to our discomfort, as they frequently contain antibiotics and other inflammatory components.
Headaches are a signal that something is wrong. Typically, they result from retained wastes or toxins in the body. The pain usually begins when the body attempts to mobilize and remove the noxious agents. It is when you stop drinking coffee that the headache comes. It is when you stop consuming noxious food that the headache begins. It marks an effort of the body to dilute and remove the injurious agent. Drinking more coffee, eating more noxious food or taking drugs may offer some temporary relief, but eventually suppressing headaches can turn an occasional episode into a deep seated chronic problem. Therapies and remedies are not the answer to headaches. Removing the cause and letting the body accomplish its self-cleansing tasks can result in a migraine-free life, without the need for medication ever again. When these metabolic waste products are eliminated, people can regain their long-sought-after freedom from pain.
Headaches may also be a result of high blood pressure or rare diseases such as brain tumors, meningitis, tuberculosis, head injuries, and diseases of the eyes, nose, teeth and ears. Allergic conditions and chronic sinusitis are also uncommon causes of headaches. Because most physicians have no clue about dietary detoxification, they have trouble discerning the cause. Most headaches respond within a few days of a careful detoxification program. A physician should also properly evaluate the sudden onset of a severe headache that is unlike one ever experienced before.
The general medical viewpoint is that migraines cannot be cured, but they may merely be suppressed with drugs. Physicians generally don’t hesitate to prescribe medication for a person to take for the rest of his or her life. The common medical practice of giving drugs, which are all toxic, to treat the ill effects of retained toxins, without attempting to determine and remove causative factors, is a misguided approach illustrative of the overall inadequacy of today’s healthcare system.
Besides contributing to the body’s toxic overload and leading to overall deterioration in health, it is well recognized that the medications used to treat migraines are a crucially important factor in perpetuating future headache attacks. Drugs that are used for headaches – such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol®), barbiturates, codeine and ergotamine – all cause headaches to recur on a rebound basis as these toxins begin to wash out of the nervous system. Then, in order to temporarily lessen the pain, headache sufferers take more of these tissue poisons, only to excite another attack in the near future, thus maintaining the patient on a drugging merry-go-round.8
Just as we can “cure” the coffee drinker’s headache by giving him or her more coffee to stop the withdrawal or elimination of the toxins, so too, we can “cure” the heroin addict’s withdrawal symptoms by giving him or her more heroin. By prescribing the headache patient Esgic®, Ergostat®, Bellergal®, Cafergot®, Excedrin®, Fiorinal®, Vanquish® or Wigraine®, which contain caffeine, ergotamine or barbiturates, we perpetuate the problem. Many other medications also cause headaches, both the garden variety tension headache as well as migraines. These drugs include those used for angina and high blood pressure, as well as estrogen-containing birth control pills and estrogen hormone replacement therapy, often prescribed after menopause.
Medications may make you temporarily feel better, but they halt the detoxification process, thus allowing the storage of tissue irritants. Inevitably, when the body has the chance, it will attempt to mobilize and remove these irritants, initiating another round of pain. You will be trapped with rebound headaches in a vicious cycle of pain the rest of your life. Often, in order to recover your health you may have to temporarily feel bad so your body can cleanse itself of an offensive substance to enable a more permanent recovery.
The Solution is Usually Dietary
|Nutrition is the Prescription
|End the Merry-Go-Round of Dieting
A basic plan to rid one’s life of headaches, as outlined in my books, The End of Dieting or Eat For Health, is to start a lower-protein, high-nutrient, plant-predominant (Nutritarian) diet specifically designed to avoid offending foods, as well as all caffeine-containing products. To start, headache sufferers should withhold all medication, including oral contraceptive pills, utilizing another birth control method. All herbal preparations, food supplements, teas, soft drinks, coffee and caffeinated beverages should be omitted, as well.
Since the use of medication, even in low quantities, can be the cause of headaches, the best thing a physician caring for headache patients can do is to withdraw medication. However, sometimes it is necessary to taper medications gradually or to do so in severe cases. Drugs to relieve pain are rarely necessary if headache sufferers are allowed to detoxify at the first sign of headache symptoms. Patients trying to detoxify and eliminate dependency on medication often find it useful to retire to a dark room and use ice compresses or a tight ice wrap around the head to reduce pain. An alternative can be to stand in a hot shower with hot water beating on the painful area.
Sometimes headaches continue for a few days while the body is still eliminating retained wastes, but usually this diet approach results in the quick elimination of the patient’s problems. Dietary modification alone results in a complete recovery more than ninety percent of the time.Once a definite recovery has been achieved and the patient is free of headaches for one month, some healthful natural foods that were prohibited in the first phase may be added back to the diet.
Taking care of patients with recurrent headaches or migraines is probably the most rewarding interaction I experience on a daily basis. These patients typically recover very quickly and most usually never return. They have learned the cause of their headache—a poor diet, and they let nutritional excellence protect their valuable health.
Anything that rapidly takes away symptoms or makes you feel better is likely to be a health risk. Taking drugs for headache relief is fraught with long-term dangers and is not a permanent solution. The Nutritarian eating style described in The End of Dieting or Eat For Health is a vegetable-based diet designed to maximize nutrient per calorie density. It is the most effective treatment for those with headaches. Rather than offering temporary relief, it takes some time to work, but it allows people to make an effective and permanent recovery from pain.
I have cared for hundreds of patients who have achieved total recoveries from migraines and recurrent severe headaches as a result of this nutritional program. Of course, no dietary approach to headaches will succeed without attention to other risk factors, especially sedentary lifestyle, smoking and lack of sleep. The road to wellness involves making the commitment to regular exercise. My clear message is that headache sufferers can’t just “eat better.” They have to go all the way and commit to nutritional excellence. The added benefit of losing weight, protecting you against heart disease and cancer and living longer, is a large bonus of adopting this vegetable-based diet style.
If you suffer with headaches do not despair. It will not be difficult to resolve your pain. Read Eat to Live or Eat For Health first and then join my Member Center, where you can get additional support from other members who are experienced in this eating style. I want to make sure you get all the information you need to get started on the road to wellness, so you can’t possibly fail.
If your case is more severe and you are on daily medications to suppress headaches, it would be wise to work with your physician to gradually reduce your prescribed dosage, after having read The End of Dieting or Eat For Health and committing to the dietary program, as described. Other options would be to join my Member Center as a Platinum member to ask your questions in the online Ask the Doctor forum or to call my office and set up a consultation. Together, we can work on a plan to gradually remove your dependency on drugs and solve your problem once and for all.
1. Smitherman TA, Burch R, Sheikh H, Loder E. The prevalence, impact, and treatment of migraine and severe headaches in the United States: a review of statistics from national surveillance studies. Headache 2013, 53:427-436.
2. Breslau N, Lipton RB, Stewart WF, et al. Comorbidity of migraine and depression: investigating potential etiology and prognosis. Neurology 2003, 60:1308-1312.
3. Hoffmann J, Recober A. Migraine and triggers: post hoc ergo propter hoc? Curr Pain Headache Rep 2013, 17:370.
4. Spierings EL, Ranke AH, Honkoop PC. Precipitating and aggravating factors of migraine versus tension-type headache. Headache 2001, 41:554-558.
5. Martin PR, Seneviratne HM. Effects of food deprivation and a stressor on head pain. Health Psychol 1997, 16:310-318.
6. Saracco MG, Calabrese G, Cavallini M, et al. Relationship between primary headache and nutrition: a questionnaire about dietary habits of patients with headache. Neurol Sci 2014, 35 Suppl 1:159-161.
7. Wober C, Wober-Bingol C. Triggers of migraine and tension-type headache. Handb Clin Neurol 2010, 97:161-172.
8. Kristoffersen ES, Lundqvist C. Medication-overuse headache: a review. J Pain Res 2014, 7:367-378.