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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.

7 Health Benefits of Massage

I’m a big fan of the spa.

And my all-time fave spa treatment? Massage therapy.

I’ve long been convinced that it’s more than just an indulgence. A professional, therapeutic massage is so relaxing and feels so great…there just has to be health benefit, right?

Right.

In case you’re in need of a little justification, here are 7 reasons to treat yourself to a massage:

1.To improve your sleep.

A number of studies have looked at the connection between therapeutic massage and sleep, and indeed, there has been demonstrated benefit for people who suffer insomnia–due to a variety of reasons, like menopause. Studies have shown particular benefit with massage using essential oils, especially lavender. (Need more help with sleep? Read this ).

2.To better recover from a hard workout.

A recent study confirmed what many trainers already practiced: that a short, 10 minute swedish massage post-workout reduces inflammation in muscles, which can help your body recover.

3.To manage anxiety & depression.

Again, multiple studies have looked at massage therapy’s ability to alleviate anxiety and improve mood. And there have been encouraging findings: massage therapy appears to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and increase serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that help reduce depression.

4.To reduce PMS symptoms.

A couple of small-ish studies have shown promise in the PMS-relieving department. Women treated with reflexology, in one study, and therapeutic massage, in another, showed decreased premenstrual symptoms, like mood changes, cramping and bloating.

5.To boost brainpower.

Typically, we think of a massage as hypnotic, relaxing, and slowing us down…but this study showed that it can increase alertness and make you a little sharper, cognitively. Subjects performed math calculations faster and more accurately after receiving regular 15-minute chair massages (twice weekly, for 5 weeks) than those who didn’t get a rubdown. (Here’s more on how to give that brain a boost).

6.To jack up your immunity.

Sick of getting one cold after another? Studies have connected massage therapy with improved immune system function. A randomized trial in 2010 took blood samples of research subjects and those who had received massage therapy had improved white blood cell number and function.

7.To ease headaches.

Several years ago I found myself in a stressful work arrangement, and the way my body showed its displeasure? Frequent headaches. But I had to stick things out for several more months…so one of my coping strategies was to get regular massages. It helped me big-time. Research back this up, too. Multiple studies have shown that massage therapy can help reduce the frequency and severity of both migraine and tension headaches.

Justification? Check.

Most excellent.

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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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Prescription for a Day at the Spa

One of my all-time fave indulgences is going to the spa. To me, it’s heaven. It’s relaxing, it’s pampering, and it’s rejuvenating. Are you with me on this? Well, it gets better. Researchers are starting to discover that spa treatments have bona fide health benefits.

The origins of spa reach back to our earliest civilizations: ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures (among others) regularly engaged in ritual purification and bathing in hot or cold springs. The practice of bathing in–and drinking–mineral waters for health and wellness has played a role in many societies. Health spas and resorts became a fashionable trend in the 17th and 18th centuries (think Bath, England). At various points in history, physicians routinely prescribed spa attendance and mineral bathing practices. 

But somewhere along the way we’ve lost the health connection. North American spas today seem to focus on esthetics, pampering, and relaxation. But not exactly on preventive health or medical treatment, per se. In contrast, European spas have retained the health aspect. In fact, spa treatments are often covered by the national health insurance plan in France. (Sigh. Yet another reason to come back to this life re-born as a French woman, no?)

Anyway.

For years, I’ve believed there are true physical & health benefits to be gained at the spa. Didn’t matter to me that we hadn’t quite “measured” it yet. That there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove it. (Beyond the thousands of years of use, that is)

But now—turns out, a little research is starting to stack up showing health benefits of various spa treatments.

‘Bout time, I say.

So what are the studies showing?

A recent study compared groups receiving deep-tissue massage vs. light massage, taking blood samples before and after the massage. Participants with deep-tissue massage had post-treatment decreases in cortisol levels (a key stress hormone), and increases in white blood cells (important for the immune system). This might indicate a role for massage in treating inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

Another study looked at the effect of massage on women with breast cancer. Following massage, the women showed improved scores in a perceived stress questionnaire and had lower serum cortisol levels.

Massage has also been shown to benefit people in the workplace. In one study, the group that received workplace-based massage therapy had significant reductions in blood pressure than those who didn’t get massages.

A recent French analysis of research on spa therapy and hot-water balneology (the therapeutic use of mineral baths), unearthed several small studies showing benefit for the following conditions:chronic low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis.

Reflexology has been shown to decrease PMS symptoms in women.

Aromatherapy has been shown to improve insomnia and depression among female college students.

Anyway…I could go on, as this is just a sampling of the research that’s beginning to surface.

A day at the spa because it’s good for me? Bring. It. On.

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

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