By Dr. John MacPhee
Recently a new client came in to see me – let’s call her Karri. Like a lot of people who come see us for help, Karri was suffering from chronic headaches… Or what she called “the unrelenting monster in her head.”
When I asked Karri to describe her headache, this is how she put it:
“Have you ever seen those old-timey pictures of men working on the railroad? You know those big hammers they use to drive those long spikes into the track? My head feels like the track.”
Whether you can relate to Karri’s description or not, odds are you deal with some variation of the brain-throbbing, energy zapping condition known as ‘headache.’
More than 50% of us suffer from headaches at least once per month, while 9% of the Canadian adult population are diagnosed with the most debilitating form – migraine headaches. For anyone counting – that’s almost 3 million people…
Having suffered from a grand total of 3 migraines in my life (the time, place and experience firmly etched into my brain), I have no idea how people deal with monthly, let alone weekly or daily headaches…
However, the most disturbing trend I’ve seen in my career is how much we normalize headaches… I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard something like:
“…well I get headaches now and then, but that’s normal, right?”
In fact, a headache is considered by the world health organization to be the most common disorder of the nervous system and this is probably why people think of headaches as normal. BUT when it comes to your health, there’s a big difference between ‘common’ and ‘normal.’
If you’ve made this mistake in thinking, I totally get it. It’s easy to do. But – and this is a big BUT – Getting pain in your head is NOT a normal, natural part of the human experience.
Every single time you have a headache, it’s a signal that something’s not right in your body.
The Pain is not the Problem
I know this may come as a shock to you, but the truth is your headache is not THE problem. Sure, its A MAJOR problem that you want to go away… and although I understand the short term, ‘band-aid’ benefit of reaching for the Advil bottle, it's fair to say your headache is not caused by a lack of ibuprofen in your body.
In fact, the best way to think of your headache is a secondary effect of a core problem in your body.
Take a hangover: I was at a wedding recently and apparently had too much to drink (I’m a total lightweight…). I woke up the next day feeling pretty terrible, including a throbbing headache.
In this case, It’s obvious what the core problem is – I ingested too much of a toxic substance (alcohol) that caused a change to my brain physiology (dehydration) and this change was serious enough to cause my nerve system to set off some alarm bells (headache) to let me know there’s a problem.
To deal with the headache I had 2 options: block the signals by introducing another chemical (advil) or address the underlying, core problem (drink lots of water, eat some nutrient dense food, have a nap etc.)
I realize that for a lot of you, the root problem is not so obvious… however, this doesn’t make the principle any less true. Imagine if, instead of simply searching for a solution to managing your headaches, you were able to resolve the core problem?
3 Primary Causes of Headaches you Probably Haven't Thought About
If you suffer from regular headaches or migraines, you’ve probably already spent countless hours researching all the possible triggers and trying to figure out what drives your headaches. Is it due to muscle tension? hormones out of whack? stress? environmental sensitivities? Sinus issues?
The confusing part is that a lot of these ‘triggers’ are not primary problem but in fact secondary issues themselves… but lets save that for another post.
Here are 3 core problems that often underlie headaches that may have flown under your radar.
1. Sleep Debt
There is a ton of research now linking a deficiency in sleep (quantity and/or quality) with headaches and migraines. Although there are several suggested mechanisms at play, the conclusions are very similar: When the sleep quantity/quality is compromised, people experience more headaches. When it is normalized, headache frequency and intensity often improve or resolve altogether.
The easiest way to know if you’re getting enough quality sleep is to take stock of how much energy you have when you wake up.
Picture a toddler when they wake up in the morning – from the time they open their eyes to them being alert, energized and ready to tear around the house is often only a matter of minutes. Believe it or not, that’s how we should feel when we wake up – assuming we’re getting adequate sleep. If you find you need to drag yourself out of bed every morning then you are almost certainly deficient in sleep.
There’s lots of reasons why you struggle with sleep. Check out this free download to learn what you are doing to sabotage your sleep.
2. Grain Brain
Did you know there’s a strong relationship between the health of your gut and health of your brain? Sounds crazy right? Here’s a great review by Neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter if you want to geek out…
It turns out several modern day foods – most notably grains – have a serious impact on your gut and lead to what’s called chronic, systemic inflammation. This is the type of inflammation that can have an impact on your brain and may be one of the core problems leading to your headaches.
While this area of research is essentially brand-new, what we do have is literally thousands – probably tens of thousands – of individual stories by individuals who have successfully cut out grains and other gut-irritating foods from their diet and have experienced dramatic improvements or resolution of their headaches.
The easiest test for this is to cut out all grains from your diet for a minimum of 30 days and track changes in how you feel. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be the primary cause of your headaches, your body will almost certainly thank you in other ways like weight loss, increased energy, better sleep and improved digestion.
“But what do I eat if I can’t have grains??” Believe it or not, there’s an easy answer… Join us for our next Eat By Design seminar to learn exactly what you need to eat for optimal health and the simple steps to make it an easy transition.
3. Problematic Posture
As a Chiropractor, my perspective may be a bit biased… but I will contend that the most under-recognized contributor to headaches is the structural integrity of your spine and associated tissues (like the discs, ligaments, joint capsules and muscles).
The logic is surprisingly simple: the primary function of your spine is to provide a flexible, functional structure that acts like armor to protect the vital wires (nerves) that run inside. These nerves literally carry all the messages from your brain and transmit them out to the body and then carry the vital feedback from the body back up to your brain – at a rate of billions of signals per second.
When there is distortion in this critical structure the wires inside become irritated and this can disrupt the way they communicate. While this process is often silent (you don’t feel it directly) it often leads to secondary problems like headaches (or neck pain, back pain, poor mobility, impaired energy, poor digestion and disrupted sleep to name a few).
One of the most common forms of structural distortion we see is what’s called Anterior Head Syndrome… This is when the head juts forward when it’s really meant to be stacked over-top the shoulders.
While the gold standard test would be to have a comprehensive Neuro-Structural Examination, there’s a couple easy tests that you can do in about 2min that can give you a better idea if this is a problem for you.
Click the link here to grab our Perfect Posture Self-Assessment Tool.
Are there other core problems that may be contributing to your headaches? Absolutely.
These are 3 that I think a lot of people overlook, and unlike other methods of managing your headaches, addressing these core problems will dramatically improve your health overall.
Blog re-posted from The Wellness Group