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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?

7 Ways Yoga Benefits You, Body & Soul

Have I mentioned how much I love yoga? I recommend yoga so often to patients, I’m almost getting tired of hearing myself gush about it. But really, if you’re looking to improve your health–physical, mental, or emotional–it’s hard to go wrong with yoga. Here’s my roundup of all the beautiful ways yoga can help you:

1. Chronic Back Pain. Studies have shown the benefits of yoga when it comes to the bothersome, and often debilitating, problem of chronic low back pain. A randomized study done recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that yoga was superior to regular care for treating chronic back pain. Hello, cat pose.

2. Depression. In 2010 The Journal of Psychiatric Practice published a review of all the research examining yoga as a treatment for depression. Here’s what they said:

Yoga may be an attractive alternative to or a good way to augment current depression treatment strategies. Second, aspects of yoga-including mindfulness promotion and exercise-are thought to be “active ingredients” of other successful treatments for depression. Third, there are plausible biological, psychological, and behavioral mechanisms by which yoga may have an impact on depression.

There are many reasons yoga is a wonderful adjunctive treatment to conventional treatment for depression, by helping with stress, insomnia, physical pain, etc. We’re only scratching the surface in terms of using yoga to treat depression, and I suspect many more studies will come.

3. Heart Health. Yoga has been shown to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. It’s helpful for stress. It just may reduce cholesterol. And there may be other physiologic benefits, like anti-oxidant activity and anti-inflammatory properties, that we’re starting to understand to be major factors in preventing heart disease. And who’s not interested in a healthier ticker?

4. Rheumatoid Arthritis. If you happen to suffer this autoimmune type of arthritis, yoga could be especially good for you, too. There have been some (typically small, early) studies (like this one, and this one) that have shown improvement in symptoms when patients participate in a yoga program. Psychological benefits (decreased stress and depression) as well as physical benefits (decreased pain and disability) were some of the outcomes.

5. Insomnia. Can’t sleep? Several studies have shown yoga to be beneficial in improving sleep–even for people with insomnia-ridden conditions like menopause and osteoarthritis. How yoga works, exactly, to improve sleep is not fully known, but it probably has a whole lot to do with the body’s stress reaction. Chronic stress and sleep are not good, um, bedfellows.

6. Menopause. Yoga appears to help with a whole bunch of the symptoms associated with menopause: insomnia, mood changes, and maybe even hot flashes. Nice, since hormone therapy is such a hornet’s nest of potential trouble these days, to have non-medication alternatives to these vexing symptoms.

7. Stress. This is probably the biggest reason I regularly “prescribe” yoga. There is plenty of evidence, both research-based and anecdotal, for the stress-fighting benefits of yoga. The meditative aspects of yoga, the fact that it incorporates breathing exercises, the relaxation and the physical movement…it all helps to explain why yoga is the bomb for stress. 

So get your butt down to that yoga studio. A little downward dog, a few sun salutations…voila, you’ve worked your body and your psyche. Now that’s multitasking.

Ohhmmmm……

Yoga: So Good For You, But Who’s Got The Time (And Money)?

I love yoga.

There are so many reasons yoga is good for you. And it’s interesting that physicians are increasingly “prescribing” it as a therapeutic intervention for their patients. Count me as one of those physicians! Yoga has been shown to be beneficial for a wide variety of health concerns. Not to mention the somewhat less tangible benefits of improved stress and a better sense of well-being.

I’ve dabbled in yoga from time to time over the years. With my first pregnancy I attended a prenatal yoga class that was the highlight of my week. I loved it, and was convinced that it was a reason why my pregnancy went so well and was such a pleasure.

But then life intervened and in recent years I’ve found it very challenging to get my butt down to a yoga studio. Who, exactly, has the time (on any sort of regular basis to make it meaningful) to travel to a studio, change, do a 90-min class, change back, travel back…hello, 3 hours later!) Not to mention the cost.

But after a recent health crisis, of sorts (…that I will talk about soon. But not yet.) I turned to yoga again. This time, I knew I needed to get creative. I had to squeeze it in somehow, but in my life right now (with 2 young boys, plus work and everything else), free time is pretty scarce. And I’d rather not spend $15 per class! I tried reading books and magazines with diagrams and explanations of poses…but this is just not the same. I love the class atmosphere: the music, the guidance from a teacher, all that. There’s the DVD option, of course. But I’ve done yoga videos in the past, and doing the same video workout over and over and over…well, it gets a bit dull.

I found an awesome solution. Online yoga.

Now I can do brief yoga tidbits (12-15 minutes, if that’s all I’ve got!) or a longer class if I find myself with a larger chunk of time. And I can do it at home, whenever I can fit it in. They’re real guided classes, including Savasana at the end (the delicious meditating bit where you lie on your back in corpse pose). The instructors are fab, and there’s tons of variety. And they’re always posting new workouts. So forget about the boredom factor. And it’s only $10 per month! You can’t even do one real-life yoga class for that. (And in case I sound like I’m selling this a bit hard, I have no connection whatsoever with myyogaonline.com and am not being compensated in any way for this post. I’m just a fan.)

But as much as I love yoga, I’m gonna play devil’s advocate a little, here: yoga is not a magic bullet. It’s absolutely fantastic, make no mistake, but it is merely part of a healthy lifestyle. If it were the only thing you needed to do to stay healthy and happy, there would be no unwell or stressed-out yoga teachers, right? Well let me tell you, in my line of work I’ve encountered many a yoga teacher who’s struggling with stress and illness just as much as the rest of us.

So what do you think? Are you a yoga fan? How do you get your yoga in? Has it made a difference in your life?

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.

How to De-Stress, Improve Brain Function, Decrease Pain, Boost Mood, and More (In Just 10 Minutes a Day)

It’s true. There’s this little thing you can do to bring all of the above benefits into your life. What is this magic pill, you ask?

Meditation.

Now before you groan/roll your eyes/click back to facebook…just hear me out. I know meditation may seem a bit flaky to you, or maybe too spiritual, or maybe too “soft” a practice to actually bring about real change. But research is piling up about the health benefits of meditating regularly. So much so that it’s really worth paying a little attention here.

I recently went wading through the literature. Studies have shown meditation to:

  • counter the impact of stress
  • significantly reduce depression relapse
  • slow immune system decline in HIV patients
  • reduce pain sensitivity
  • help reduce drug addiction, smoking, binge eating, and anger
  • improve insomnia
  • reduce anxiety and panic attacks
  • increase empathy
  • improve the ability to work under pressure
  • improve mental sharpness and information processing

And these are just the highlights! Needless to say, I frequently recommend meditation to my patients.

So you might well ask: do I meditate? And my answer? Um…(blush) no. But I hasten to add: not yet. My main resistance? The main reason I’ve hesitated making a regular practice of meditating? No time, people.

Of course it would be lovely to be able to devote a big chunk of my day to sitting peacefully, at one with myself, meditating in silence and peace (a la Eat, Pray, Love).

But who has the time for that?

In my life it’s hilarious to think that I can just “start my day on the right foot” with a nice peaceful, hour-long meditation session. My day starts when my 12-month old says it does. And usually involved diapers and sundry other messes and putting out fires from the get-go.

The question is: does one really need to do the whole enchilada (incense and Zen music, and just the right space, and a meditating cushion, etcetera…) to benefit? If you can’t do all that, if you can’t do it “properly”, should you bother at all? Is there a way to squeeze meditation into a busy life….and will it help you if you do it like that?

Here’s what I’m looking into: I recently read this NYT article on a meditation guru in Britain named Andy Puddicombe (young cool guy, plus former Buddhist monk). He’s on a mission to bring quick & easy, religion-free meditation to the masses. In particular, the busy professional masses. Sounds good, right?

He says yes, in fact we can benefit with just 10 minutes a day. And he says you don’t have to buy into the whole incense-thing to get into meditation. Here’s a quote (from his website getsomeheadpace.com) that I think is cute:

We know that lots of people are put off meditating because they think it’s something ‘spiritual people’ do, but that’s like not liking music because of yodelling – that’s just one thing some people like to do with it.

So I signed up for his (free) starter program. And we’ll see how it goes! I’ll keep you posted. 

In the meantime, here’s my question: do YOU meditate?

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.

Need an Energy Boost? 3 Ways to Rev Up. (Part One)

A frantic workday sends you to the brink of collapse…but it’s not just that.  A stack of ironing drains your energy, but still, it’s not just that (because let’s be honest, can anyone finish the ironing without fading?).  The thing is, last weekend you were too exhausted to meet your girlfriends for brunch.  And yesterday you actually skipped a shoe sale in favour of a nap.

Now, if those aren’t signs something’s got to change, I don’t know what is.

If you’ve been feeling sluggish lately, you’re not alone.  Fatigue is very common among modern, busy women.  So many errands, so little time.  And that time becomes even shorter if you simply can’t get off the couch.

If you need a little more oomph, what can you do?

Help is here.  Read on for my tips to punch up your vitality. I’ve got lots of advice on this particular topic…but for now, let’s start with three tips. 

1. Eat Breakfast

 Skipping breakfast is a sin that’s easily committed.  But your body needs fuel (especially in the morning), and then throughout the day, evenly dispersed.

 In our culture, the small (or nonexistent) breakfast and lunch, followed by a huge dinner is absurd.  You need energy at the beginning of the day, when you’ve got all those tasks ahead of you, not at the end when you’re winding down.

 Start your engine with a hearty breakfast.  But we’re not talking doughnuts here.  Feast on a combination of complex carbs, protein, and simple carbs.  Bagels, yogurt and fruit, for example. 

Research has shown that making a habit out of eating breakfast improves academic function, lowers stress levels, and imparts a greater sense of physical and mental health.  Not to mention the numerous studies that demonstrate an association between breakfast and a slimmer waistline.

Beyond breakfast, commit to refilling your tank at regular intervals throughout the day.  Many experts feel the five-small-meals-a-day approach is the best one.  Give it a try, and watch what happens to your energy level.

2. Hit the Sack

And not only for sleep.  Regular sex is an energizer.  Sexual activity revs your metabolism and increases blood flow.  It’s a fabulous de-stresser.  It can promote better sleep.  What’s more, it releases those feel-good endorphins that will restore your joie de vivre. 

Ironically, complaints of fatigue are an often-cited reason for skipping intimacy. But tangling the sheets may be exactly what you need to banish those sluggish feelings.  Too busy?  Make a date with your partner.  It may sound unromantic, but many people swear by the success of this strategy.

3. Meditate

 Research has repeatedly shown the myriad benefits of regular meditation. But do you really have the time/opportunity to find a nice quiet place, change into comfy clothes, light candles, turn on the perfect background whale music, etcetera?

If the answer is no, consider mini-meditation. Just about anybody can take a quick 3 minute time out, no matter where you are. With a little practice you’ll be amazed at how proficient you can become at sinking into a deep meditation in a short time. This little maneuver can help you calm and recharge…like pushing a reset button.

Practice this 2-3 times a day:

Step one: Focus your awareness. Take one minute to become aware of your current state: thoughts, emotions.

Step two: Pay attention to your breath. In the next minute, focus on breathing. Where in your body do you sense your breath the most? Your nostrils? Your chest? Your belly?

Step three: Reflect on sensations. Spend the third minute bringing your awareness to your physical body. Notice sensations: warmth, coolness, pain, tingling.

And there you go! Ohm…

Stay tuned for part two of my energy tips. Soon, you’ll even be ironing with zing.

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

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