Anyone who’s ever had a headache (and that’s 90% of the entire population, according to some estimates) knows that they can range from nagging to debilitating. The most common type is a tension headache, a mild, constricting feeling around your head that’s often caused by holding your neck in a tight position. Migraines, on the other hand, tend to be both intense and recurring. Medication is one way to treat your discomfort, but there are also plenty of natural ways that can help relieve headaches.
Migraine headaches are often a sign that your body needs a break, says Elizabeth Loder, MD, chief of the headache and pain division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and President of the American Headache Society. “Many people are very busy and are reluctant to take the time, but if you consider the trade-off of spending 10 minutes to close the blinds, lie down, and relax when you feel a headache forming, that might be better use of your time than being incapacitated later on after it gets worse,” she says.
Eat Small, Frequent Meals
If you haven’t eaten anything in a while, that aching or fuzzy feeling may be a result of low blood sugar. In this case, eating something right away could nip the nagging sensation in the bud. Some research suggests that foods rich in magnesium, such as spinach, tofu, olive oil, or sunflower or pumpkin seeds, may be especially helpful.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, applying pressure to a point on the hand between the thumb and index finger can help achieve migraine relief. Simply squeeze the indentation between the two digits with the thumb and index finger of your opposite hand and massage in a circular motion for five minutes, then switch hands. “It’s certainly a harmless thing to try, and at the very least it’s a distraction from the pain,” says Dr. Loder, who adds that it may also he helpful to rub ice on this spot for a few minutes. You could also try acupuncture. The technique, which uses long needles inserted into the skin to stimulate trigger points throughout the body, has been shown to help prevent migraines as well as frequent tension-type headaches.
Headache is one of the first signs of dehydration. To make sure you’re drinking enough fluids, try to consume them throughout the day, rather than just guzzling them down at meal times or during periods of heavy physical activity, suggests Dr. Green. Institute of Medicine guidelines say that adults should consume between 11 and 15 cups of water a day, but that also counts liquid from other sources—like low-calorie liquids (tea and skim or low-fat milk, for example) as well as fruits and vegetables. Even moderate coffee consumption contributes to your daily fluid intake; a 2014 study published in PLoS One debunked the long-standing theory that its caffeine content contributed to dehydration.
Maintain A Healthy Weight
Being significantly overweight may increase a person’s chances of having recurring migraines, according to a 2013 study from Johns Hopkins University. The finding was especially true for women, white people, and those 50 and younger. “We also know that being obese can turn episodic headaches into chronic headaches,” says Dr. Green. “It’s one of the major risk factors we worry about.” Losing weight through diet and regular exercise—or keeping your weight healthy if you’re already there—can go a long way in preventing headaches from happening more frequently.
Take Computer Breaks
Eyestrain on its own isn’t usually a cause of bad headaches, says Dr. Loder, but she believes that spending long hours in front of a computer can make people more susceptible to them. “It hasn’t been well studied, but having talked with many patients, I believe that very prolonged and intense periods of mental concentration can contribute to headaches,” she says. Paying attention to ergonomics at your workspace can help reduce strain on the neck, she says, and taking frequent breaks—every 30 minutes or so, to stretch and look away from your computer screen—can reduce eyestrain and muscle stiffness.
Some research has suggested that certain dietary supplements and vitamins may be helpful in preventing recurring headaches, although different options seem to work for different people. Daily doses of butterbur (also known as Petasites root) were shown to cut migraine frequency in half in one Albert Einstein College of Medicine study; similar results were also found for vitamin B2, or riboflavin, in a German clinical trial. Coenzyme Q10, a vitamin found in meats and seafood, and the mineral magnesium have also been shown to decrease headache frequency. Before taking any new supplement, however, talk to your doctor to be sure it’s safe for your specific medical situation.