When a headache strikes, you want fast relief. Yet, for lasting relief, it’s important to try to figure out what’s causing your pain. Stress and sleep deprivation can bring on a tension headache. Allergies and sudden weather changes can cause sinus pain. And certain foods, alcohol, and changes in hormonal balance may be at the root of migraines or cluster headaches.

While no headache is pleasant, migraines are in a class by themselves. These excruciating headaches can last for a few hours or a few days, and may or may not be accompanied by an “aura.” They appear to have a strong genetic component and commonly occur among family members. Migraines are a vascular event, meaning they are generally characterized by changes in the brain's blood vessels. Many scientists now believe migraines are caused by a sequence of chemical changes that cause these blood vessels to constrict, then dilate, resulting in throbbing pain. Such blood vessel changes are caused by a fluctuation of serotonin, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that mediates pain.


In some people, certain foods can trigger a headache or migraine. The most commonly reported “triggers” include an excessive intake of sugar, alcohol, and junk food. In addition, artificial flavorings and colorings; pesticides; allergenic foods such as wheat and soy; artificial sweeteners such as aspartame; preservatives such as sodium nitrate; food additives like monosodium glutamate; and heavy-metal contaminants in tap water may also be culprits. Studies have also found that foods rich in the amino acids tyramine and phenylalanine can prompt changes in blood vessel tone. Some tyramine-rich foods include fermented products such as beer and wine as well as pickled products, bananas, figs, prunes, pineapples, raisins, and cheese. Phenylalanine is found in chocolate, turkey, pork, wild game, wheat germ, and ricotta. If you suspect that food is at the root of your headaches, keep a food diary to help pinpoint the offending trigger.


Other people may find that the chemicals in household cleaners, air fresheners, or perfumes can bring on a headache. It that’s the case, do what can to avoid exposure and opt for chemical-free alternatives in your own home. Stress is another common trigger. Regularly practiced, relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga can help keep headaches at bay. Exercise can also relieve stress and may help reduce headache frequency. Massage and muscle relaxation can also help.


5-HTP: is a natural amino acid that boosts serotonin levels in the brain. Research in the journal Headache also suggests that 5-HTP can help shorten the duration of migraines and tension headaches when used daily. Typical dosage: 100 mg three times per day for tension headaches, 400 to 600 mg per day for the prevention of migraines.

Butterbur: has been shown in two separate trials to reduce the frequency of migraines when taken over the course of three to four months. Look for a supplement that does not contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can be toxic to the liver (most butterbur supplements today have these removed). Typical dosage: 50 to 75 mg twice a day.

Feverfew’s: pain-relieving properties have been clinically shown to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. One study found that people who took feverfew had fewer migraine attacks per month compared to those who took a placebo. Another study found that a combination of feverfew, magnesium, and vitamin B2 led to a 50 percent decrease in migraine attacks. Since this herb effectively quells inflammation, it may also be useful for other types of headaches. Typical dosage: Up to 250 mg per day of a standardized supplement containing at least 0.2% parthenolides.

Peppermint essential oil: has relaxing and pain relieving properties that can tame tension headaches when applied topically. In a double-blind study, massaging a 10 percent peppermint oil solution across the temples was just as effective as acetaminophen in reducing headache pain. It may also help clear nasal passages to soothe a sinus headache. Typical dosage: Use a few drops of 100 percent essential oil diluted with one-half teaspoon of almond or olive oil.