Over forty-five million Americans get chronic, recurring headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation. Most of these people quickly self-medicate with one of the many over-the-counter remedies. While there’s no inherent danger in taking a painkiller, the trouble is that most of us aren’t doing anything to treat the cause of the problem—be it stress, food, muscle tension, or eyestrain. Therefore, headaches occur again and again. Ayurveda takes a different road: Figure out what’s causing the problem and treat that problem using a dosha-customized approach. If that doesn’t work, then see your doctor to rule out more serious problems.
While there’s no inherent danger in taking a painkiller, the trouble is that most of us aren’t doing anything to treat the cause of the problem.
Ayurveda classifies headaches into one of three categories, based on dosha types: vata, pitta, kapha. Here are some recommendations on how to treat the different types, taken mostly from ayurvedic expert Vasant Lad, author of The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies (Three Rivers Press, 1998). This chart provides guidelines, not rigid rules. A pittic person can get dehydrated and need to drink more water and put a few drops of ghee in their nose; a kaphic person can get constipated and benefit from taking triphala. Try solutions from all headache types before seeking a chemical fix.
Vata: Fear, anxiety, stress, nervousness, dehydration, hunger, travel, constipation, physical overactivity (exhaustion).
Pitta: Acid indigestion, getting overheated, eyestrain, a diet high in pitta-provoking foods (e.g., hot spices, deep-fried or salty food, sour fruits). Worsened by bright light, hot sun, high temperatures, spicy food.
Kapha: A diet high in kapha-producing foods like cheese, wheat, sugar, or fatty food. Colds, coughs, and allergies can also trigger these headaches.
Vata: Throbbing, pulsating pain in the back of the head or on the left side.
Pitta: Shooting, burning, or piercing pain in the temple or temporal area or behind the eyes, which may be associated with dizziness.
Kapha: Dull, deep-seated pain in the frontal and nasal areas of the head or sinuses that occurs in the morning or the evening.
Take triphala (a bowel tonic and cleanser) as either a tea or in capsules twice daily. To make tea, pour boiling water over one teaspoon of triphala powder and let steep for six to eight hours. Drink the tea, leaving the grounds.
Put three to five drops of warm ghee in each nostril to help reduce dryness.
Take one-quarter teaspoon of nutmeg in your palm, add water to make a paste, and apply to your forehead for half an hour. Then rinse off.
Drink enough water. Get at least eight glasses daily.
Take two tablespoons of aloe vera gel, up to three times a day.
Drink cool cumin-coriander tea (use equal amounts of each per cup).
Take one teaspoon of sandalwood powder in your palm, add water to make a paste, and apply to your forehead for half an hour. Then rinse off.
Eat something sweet. Try a piece of sweet fruit or ice cream.
Put ten drops of eucalyptus oil in boiled water, cover your head with a towel, and inhale the steam.
Take one teaspoon of ginger in your palm, add water to make a paste, and apply to your forehead, across the bridge of your nose, and over your cheekbones for half an hour. Then rinse off. (Caution: ginger can burn; be careful to avoid getting it into eyes, and don’t leave it on too long.)
Make a paste out of one-half teaspoon of cinnamon and water and apply to the sinus areas.
Wash excess mucus away with the Neti Pot (nasal irrigation). Daily rinsing keeps sinuses open and prevents infection.
Keeping your body in balance will help keep headaches at bay—no matter what headache type you typically get.
Stretch regularly. It’s easier said than done, but stress management is key to preventing tension-type headaches, which make up about ninety percent of all headaches. To do so, take frequent stretch breaks when working. (Hunching the shoulders and clenching the jaw while sitting at a desk or computer for long hours can trigger headaches.) And regularly look away from your computer into the distance to prevent headaches from eyestrain.
Give yourself a nighttime massage. A soothing massage before bed works wonders in relieving any pent-up tension or anxiety. Vata types should rub some sesame oil on the top of their head and the soles of their feet to keep vata under control; pittas should do the same with brahmi oil (coconut oil prepared with the cooling herb brahmi); and kaphas can use mustard oil, or give themselves a dry foot and scalp massage.
Do regular asana. Everyone can benefit by practicing yoga asana. For headache sufferers, the key is to include in that practice deep relaxation. Yoga expert Judith Lasater, Ph.D., in her book Relax and Renew suggests that a restorative pose held for five to ten minutes can help alleviate the tendency for headaches simply by allowing muscles to relax and the breath to deepen. She also suggests the use of an elastic bandage around the forehead and eyes.
Everyone can benefit by practicing yoga asana. For headache sufferers, the key is to include in that practice deep relaxation.
Maintain a consistent routine. Eating regularly, getting enough sleep, maintaining daily exercise, and getting enough water (a minimum of eight glasses daily) are critical to maintaining your body’s schedule and preventing headaches. Regularity is particularly important for women in the week right before or after their period, when fluctuating hormones can also trigger head pain.
A word about migraines. Migraines are generally considered a pittic imbalance. The treatments are similar to those suggested above for pittic headaches.