Headaches and Migraines and how Functional Medicine can help

Headaches are incredibly commonplace and most of us will experience them at some point.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. The head pain in a tension headache tends to be constant and is often described as feeling or tightness or pressure like a band around the head. Sometimes the headache is accompanied by pain the neck and shoulders.

Sinus headaches are caused by inflammation in the sinuses. They appear as pain across the cheeks, brow and forehead that worsens when you bend forward or lie down. There may be a feeling of stuffiness in the nose and an achy feeling in the jaw or teeth.

Cluster headaches occur in cyclical patterns or clusters. There can be days of weeks of headaches followed by long periods with no symptoms at all. The pain of a cluster headache usually centres over one eye or on one side of the head and is very intense. Often the pain occurs at night and disturbs sleep.

Contrary to popular belief, migraines aren’t just severe headaches. Migraine headaches have some distinct differences from other headaches.

Migraine pain has a throbbing quality and often worsens on exertion such as climbing stairs. Migraines are also often associated with additional symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, sounds or smells. Some migraine sufferers will experience what’s called an aura prior to the onset of the migraine pain. An aura is a collection of neurological symptoms such as visual disturbances, numbness, tingling and sensory disturbances that precede a migraine headache.

The mechanism underlying headaches isn’t fully understood and is thought to be a combination of factors that may be different in each person. When it comes to migraines the pain is thought to be triggered changes in the blood flow in certain areas of the brain. This is thought to be related to chemical reactions that cause swelling and irritation of the blood vessels, leading to the throbbing pain.

Headaches and migraines can occur for many different reasons. Some of the most common causes include:

·       Stress

·       Muscle tension

·       Bad posture

·       Eyesight problems

·       Drinking too much alcohol

·       Blood sugar dips caused by not eating regularly or choosing the wrong foods

·       Dehydration

·       Hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle or menopause

·       Having a cold or the flu

·       Caffeine withdrawal

·       Reactions to foods such as chocolate, cheese or wine

·       Certain smells

Headaches that are accompanied by other symptoms such as a fever, or that are much worse than normal should be checked out with your GP.

There are no specific tests for headaches or migraines headaches, but it’s important to rule out more serious conditions. Blood tests and brain imaging techniques may be used to ensure your headaches are not symptoms of an underlying condition.

Treatment for headaches focuses on pain management, usually over the counter painkillers. For migraine type headaches other medical treatments are available that work on the blood vessels in the brain.  Medications such as sumatriptan reduce inflammation and decrease the swelling of the blood vessels in the brain and can reduce migraine pain.

However, if you regularly suffer from headaches or migraines and are looking for a long-term solution, a functional medicine approach can help uncover the cause of your symptoms. Any underlying imbalances can then be addressed with a combination of diet changes, lifestyle adjustments and supplements.

Areas that can be addressed include:

·       Identification of food sensitivities and trigger foods – a functional medicine practitioner can help you work out which foods you may be reacting to and design you a personalised diet plan that excludes these foods but ensures a balanced intake of nutrients.

·       Balancing blood sugar levels – Optimising food intake to keep blood sugar levels even can mitigate the drops in blood sugar that can trigger a headache or a migraine.

·       Dietary analysis to uncover any nutrient deficiencies – a lack of certain B vitamins or a deficiency of the mineral magnesium could be contributing to headaches and migraines. Looking at dietary intake and factors that increase your personal requirements for key nutrients can identify insufficiencies which can then be corrected with foods and supplements.

·       Assessment and correction of hormone imbalances – too much oestrogen and not enough progesterone can contribute to headaches and migraines. This can be caused by stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, poor liver function or constipation. Working to support a healthy sleep-wake cycle, gut and liver function is vital in restoring hormonal balance.

·       Improving sleep – studies have shown that headaches and migraines may be related to problems with the sleep cycle. Diet and lifestyle changes alongside a targeted supplement plan can improve sleep quality and help headaches and migraines caused by exhaustion.