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9 Natural Ways to Treat Headaches

I get a lot of headaches. Everyone manifests their stress in different ways (crappy sleep, for example, or an irritable gut…) but I carry mine squarely in my neck and shoulder muscles. Which, consequently, translates to frequent tension headaches.

I’ve also had the distinct displeasure, in recent years, of experiencing migraines. Now that’s some nasty pain. I have newfound sympathy for my sister, who has suffered migraines her entire life. During the first migraine I ever had, the pain was so bad I wanted to cut off my own head to make it stop. And that actually seemed like a rational thought at the time. Those of you who have ever had a migraine know exactly what I’m talking about, I’m sure.

At any rate, yes, there are meds for headaches. But is that the only way to go? Nope.

Here are some non-medication/natural ways to treat (and prevent) headaches:

1.Water. Insufficient fluid intake is a very common cause for headaches. How much to drink? Read this. 

2.Massages. Regular massage therapy helps with muscle tension, with stress…and so much more (here’s what I’m talking about).

3.A Headache Diary. To keep track of everything you eat, for potential food triggers. A detailed journal is the only way to sort out your own individual factors, but classic triggers include: red wine, chocolate, and cheese (I know, I know. All the good stuff, right?)

4.Caffeine. This can be both a plus and a minus. Caffeine does, indeed, treat headaches (it’s an ingredient in many headache pain relievers, like Excedrin), but caffeine withdrawal will also give you a headache. My advice: keep your intake moderate, and try not to vary the amount of coffee you drink, day to day.

5.Meditation. An excellent stress reliever, meditation has also been shown to reduce pain. (More about meditation, here.)

6.Sleep. Sleep deprivation is another classic, but under-recognized cause for headaches. Make sure you’re getting the amount your system needs (typically, for most adults, 7-8 hours). Trouble sleeping? Read this.

7.Magnesium. A few small studies have shown that frequent headache sufferers are more likely to be magnesium deficient, and that magnesium can help treat that pain. I’ve written about magnesium before, primarily as it relates to sleep and stress, but it’s worth considering for headaches.   

8.Stress Management. Speaking of stress, this is a biggie when it comes to headache factors. From an anecdotal point of view, I’d say it’s the biggest cause. But, though it might be easy to identify, it’s not so easy to deal with. Many people struggle with how to cope with stress. Start here.

9.Omega-3. This makes intuitive sense to me, as omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory, and now some early studies are showing benefit for headache sufferers. But, even if the evidence doesn’t pan out in terms of therapeutic benefit for headaches, there are so many other reasons to increase your omega-3 intake, I think it’s a good idea anyway.

Morning Rituals for Health

How many of us start the day running before our feet hit the floor? Are your mornings a frazzled mess? Instead of lurching into your waking hours and figuring things out as you go, maybe you need to consider a more…intentional approach.

Starting the day on the right foot has psychic repercussions that carry through the day. And by psychic I don’t mean palm-reading. I’m talking about what it does to your brain/soul/emotional center to begin your day the “right” way.

Now–to clarify–”right” will mean a different thing to everyone. The perfect a.m. routine, for you, honors your priorities for health and happiness. You want to initiate rituals that send a cue to your inner self that you are taking care of yourself. Nourishing yourself. You’ve rested, and now you’re beginning the day by turning on the lights in your brain, firing up the furnace, priming the pump. Even if it’s been a crappy night (the early years with a newborn spring to mind) you can still start each day fresh.

Your routine does not need to be lengthy. Few of us can devote a big chunk of time to drawn-out morning rituals (as much as we might like to!). But even a few minutes can make a big difference.

To get you thinking, some examples of things you might include in your morning routine:

  • drink water (it’s important to rehydrate after a night’s sleep)
  • move (stretch, or do a quick 5 minute yoga flow)
  • eat a delish breakfast
  • read (the newspaper, or a great book)
  • sip tea or coffee.
  • write
  • meditate
  • re-connect with the world on an aesthetic or sensory basis…look at something beautiful, dabble in aromatherapy, or listen to music
  • get some sunlight (send a signal to your brain that daytime has arrived & trigger a strong circadian rhythm)

You couldn’t include all these things, and they’re not all going to be your thing anyway. Which is okay. Choose your favorite 2-3 activities, then start crafting your own perfect morning ritual. Of course, you’re probably not always going to make them happen. Also okay.

So I’m wondering…what would you include in your perfect morning?

Why You Should Drink Tea

So I talk a lot about coffee. I love my Starbucks.

But what about tea?

Yes, I love tea too. At my house, 3 pm is definitely tea time. This is more a cultural thing than anything else, for me, having British parents and having spent two sabbaticals in the UK.

Most people have a vague sense that tea is good for you. But let’s dig into that a little.

Mountains of research link tea consumption to reduced cancer risk. Pretty much, name a kind of cancer, and tea has been shown to help prevent it.

Tea has also been demonstrated to reduce heart disease risk.

Diabetes? Yes, there are studies connecting tea intake with lower rates of diabetes.

Inflammation? Tea can help you beat it down. (read more about the anti-inflammatory diet here)

Green tea catechins have even been linked to weight loss, recently. Green tea just might increase metabolism–which is fabulous news, but the research is very young, indeed, and we’ll need to see how this one plays out.

Green tea, in particular, seems to get all the press. And I want to like it, I really do. But…I find so many green teas just taste, well, yuck. Too bitter, and overall kinda strange, like I’m drinking grass or something. I am on a hunt to find a green tea I like (and I’m narrowing in…the green tea I had when I went out for sushi last weekend was great. I had several cups and could have had more. I asked the waitress what kind of tea it was, exactly, and she said it was green tea with brown rice. So I’m looking for that. Anyone know any good sources?)

Meantime, though, how about my ordinary ol’ tea? Am I getting health benefits just from drinking my plain old orange pekoe? I know it’s not sexy and isn’t anything new. But…is it as good as green tea?

Well, looks like one confounding problem is that there are more studies on green tea than black. But, of the studies that have been done, the evidence seems to show that black tea is just as beneficial as green. We know that both green and black teas are rich sources of flavonoids. Black tea, however, has more caffeine than green does (although green tea certainly does have caffeine–something not a lot of people realize). Basically, until I find a green tea I like, I’m going to stick with my regular, boring old cup of tea.

And then there’s this: beyond the antioxidants, the catechins, the flavonoids…I think the de-stressing aspect of a nice cup of tea is significant. Is there anything more soothing? Ritual is a wonderful thing.

Want to know more? WebMD has a thorough primer on tea.

More of a coffee drinker? Check out what I’ve got to say about coffee here.

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Smart Cookie: 8 Ways to Boost Your Brain Power

A new study found that celery (specifically, luteolin, a compound found within celery) had brain-boosting power in older mice. Yes, celery.

So this got me thinking: are there other things you can do to upgrade your smarty-pants quotient?

You betcha.

Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known to boost brain function. This, in addition to all the other health benefits of omega-3, of course. Smarten up with fish like salmon and mackerel, walnuts, and flaxseed.

Caffeine. I know what you’re thinking–coffee only gives a temporary jolt to those neurons, right? Wrong. Studies have linked coffee with a decreased rate of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other forms of dementia.

Meditation. Making a regular practice of meditation has been shown to improve memory and cognitive sharpness.

Breakfast. Research backs up what your mama always told you. Eating that oh-so-crucial morning meal has been shown to improve short-term memory and attention. Students with a good breakfast under their belt tend to perform significantly better than those who skipped their Wheaties.

Nuts and Seeds. Vitamin E is a superb antioxidant, and antioxidants are associated with less “now where did I put my keys?” as you age. Nuts and seeds happen to have lots of vitamin E.

Chocolate. Specifically, dark chocolate. This yummy treat also has powerful antioxidant properties (plus a little caffeine–see above). Keep your daily intake limited to an ounce, however, or say hello to a nice new muffin top.

Blueberries. Animal research has demonstrated the benefits of blueberries: they appear to protect the brain from oxidative stress and may reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Plus, aging rats on a blueberry-rich diet showed significant improvement in learning capacity and motor skills.

Sleep. A multitude of studies show the link between lack of sleep and mental dullness: poor memory, crummy concentration, slow reaction time, inefficient learning….and on, and on. So hit the sack. Your brain (and body) will thank you.

Wicked Healthy: 7 Vices That Are Good For You

It’s this little thing I do: I like “collecting” things that, traditionally, have been considered bad for you…but turn out to be healthy. Girl’s gotta have a hobby!

Anyway. Here’s my lovely little roundup of vices you should be indulging in.

1.Shopping. Oh yes, it’s true. In a recent study, seniors who shopped every day had mortality rates 27 percent lower than their peers who rarely or never shopped. Every. Day. I’m sending this link to my husband as we speak.

2. Chocolate. Once considered the devil, chocolate turns out to be packed with antioxidants, flavonoids and phytonutrients. Dark chocolate is best. And just a square or two, please. Not a family-sized bar in one sitting.

3. Fat. Here’s another little demon we’ve become enlightened about. We know, now, that not all fats are bad–just the saturated stuff and the trans-fat nasties. Steer clear of those (fried food, etc) and instead savor olive oil, avocadoes and nuts, and benefit from body-lovin’ monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats (which improve your cholesterol profile, help prevent heart disease and cancer and a multitude of other health benefits).

4.The Sun. Personally, I have to admit to a certain sun terror. Wrinkles, age spots, and cancer? No thank you. Truth is, a little sun can do wonders for your mood, and for your vitamin D levels. You don’t have to be terrified of the sun. Go out every once in a while for a few minutes, without (gasp) sunblock, and enjoy the warmth on your skin. After all, we’re creatures of the earth; what’s more natural than a dash of sunlight?

5.Sleep. For those Type As among us, is there anything lazier than sleeping? Sleep when you’re dead, surely. I mean, teenagers sleep all day long and look at them. Useless! (Kidding. I love teenagers). Many of us feel guilty sleeping in, or going to bed early. Truth be told, most of us don’t get enough shut-eye. And we’re suffering for it. Inadequate sleep has been linked to depression, heart disease, and obesity. Yikes! Nighty-night.

6.The Spa. Pampering yourself at the spa: another guilty pleasure? Nope. That massage appointment? That dip in a mineral bath? That pedi with reflexology? More than just preening, more than just vanity and self-indulgence. There’s growing evidence that the spa is good for you. Pinch me.

7. Coffee. Feeling badly because you can’t get through your day without a trip (or two) to Starbucks? Fret no more. Evidence is building in favor of coffee. In moderation, not only is it not a vice, it looks like it’s actually healthy for you.

So there you go. Permission granted.

And just when you thought achieving a healthy lifestyle would be no fun.

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Trouble Sleeping, Princess?

As a general guideline, if there’s something in life that allows me to embrace my inner princess, I’m good with it. And sleep is one of those things. Think about it: have you ever noticed how often fairytales feature people sleeping?  Snow White falls into a deep sleep after tasting the poisoned apple.  Elves cobble shoes while the shoemaker dozes through the night.  Sleeping Beauty slumbers for a hundred years. 

See what I mean?

Trouble is, sleep doesn’t always come easy. Insomnia is a plague in our busy lives.  It’s been estimated to afflict about 30% of adults. If you’re one of them, read on…

Insomnia is a major drag, make no mistake. But the real problem? Consequences of sleep deprivation spiral beyond simple fatigue.  It can affect you in ways that can’t be fixed with a double espresso.

People who are sleep-starved have difficulty remembering and concentrating.  Irritability peaks and sense of humour evaporates.  Work absences and injuries spike.  The risk of vehicle accidents increases.  And if all that weren’t bad enough, recent research has connected chronic insomnia with depression, hypertension and obesity. A study published last week , in fact, found that one of the factors that affected success at losing weight was getting sufficient sleep.

So, if you suffer insomnia, what can you do?  Luckily, there’s a wealth of tricks to help you achieve restful, rejuvenating sleep.  And you won’t need a golden goose or magic beans.

1.  Establish rhythms.  For sound snoozing, you need a regular sleep schedule.  Turn in at the same time each evening, and arise the same time each morning.  Yes, even on Saturday.  And, avoid napping—tends to mess with your internal clock.

2.  Create a haven.  Transform your boudoir into a place that cultivates restful nights.  Reserve it for sleep and sex only—no television, no exercise and, especially, no work.  Your bedroom should be a comfortable temperature and well-ventilated.  Invest in a high-quality, supportive bed.  Run a fan at night if you have noisy street sounds, or unnerving silence. 

3.  Harmonize with daylight.  Work with your body’s response to light and dark cycles.  Exposure to sunlight—as little as thirty minutes, early in the day—encourages sleep onset.  At night, keep things nice and dark; wear an eye mask if necessary.

4.  Limit caffeine.  If you simply can’t imagine your day without your venti nonfat latte, make it a morning treat only.  Restrict other stimulants, too, like cigarettes and cola.  And curb alcohol in the hours before bedtime.  Although it may help you drop off, you’ll pay the price with increased wakefulness later in your sleep cycle.  Unless you have plans for 3 a.m. activity, best skip the nightcap.

5.  Exercise.  Here’s just one more reason to stay active: Regular exercise promotes sounder sleep.  But don’t exercise just before bed—you’ll be extra-alert.  In particular, try yoga.  With its blend of relaxation, focus and stretching, yoga eases your passage to la-la land.

6.  Drink your milk.  Avoid heavy meals before bed—all that churning and digesting tends to keep you awake.  A light snack, however, may help you sleep.  Or, even better, follow your grandmother’s advice and sip a cup of warm milk.  Milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid demonstrated to enhance sleepiness.

7.  Wear socks.  Recent research has unearthed some interesting findings on sleep and body temperature.  Improving blood flow to the extremities at night keeps them warm, and the body’s core relatively cool, and this pattern appears to benefit sleep.  Keeping those toes cozy might be just the ticket to the land of nod.

8.  Don’t toss and turn.  If you’re not asleep after 20 min, get out of bed and do something relaxing, like reading or listening to soothing music, until you feel sleepy.  Then, back to bed.  Tossing and turning only serves to increase anxiety and rumination, making sleep all the more unattainable.

9.  Meditate.  Studies have suggested that regular meditation nourishes sleep.  Experiment with various meditation techniques: mindfulness on breathing, focusing on a candle flame, or counting meditation…sheep, perhaps?  If meditation doesn’t work for you, try other relaxing activities, such as reading, knitting, or soaking in a nice warm bath. 

10.  Drink tea.  There’s nothing like a soothing cup of tea to charm the sandman.  But make sure it’s herbal tea—no caffeine.  Certain botanicals, like chamomile and valerian, have a sleep-inducing effect.  Worth a try.

It takes time and dedication to restore healthy sleep habits.  Blending multiple methods usually brings the most fruitful results. 

Take heart—good sleep is an achievable dream, not just a fairytale.  You’ll soon be drifting off, happily ever after.

Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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