Jun 28, 2022 4:35:44 PM
Ramneek S. Bhogal, DC, DABCI
Long-term head discomfort is a leading reason for visits to the doctor. According to the World Health Organization, recurrent head tension is routinely underestimated, under-recognized, and under-treated in both children and adults.
Over the past two years, ongoing head discomfort has become even more commonplace, but this problem also has many other root causes. We often perceive discomfort and physical tension, but underlying causes must be addressed for sustained relief.
Supplements and herbs can relieve head discomfort for some people and are used in conjunction with specific foundational diet and lifestyle changes. While supplementation should always be personalized, products often used to address head discomfort include magnesium, butterbur, CoQ10, adaptogens, and topical essential oils.*
Stress, fast-paced living, modern lifestyle, and traumatic events are all potential contributors to ongoing head tension. Whether you’ve had an infection that prompted head discomfort, major life changes like a loss, a new job, a move, or you simply struggle to manage stress, any of these factors could be a root cause of head discomfort.
Tension-related head discomforts are most common. They typically originate from the muscles around the head and neck and are often linked to increased screen time and posture. An ongoing throbbing sensation or intense discomfort that is unilateral or originates in one eye is more often neurologically and vascularly driven, and can be amplified by stress.
Working with an integrative doctor to understand the underlying cause of your head discomfort is crucial for long-term alleviation.
Head tension and discomfort caused by physical factors such as posture, sleep position, or desk setup can be more easily supported by working with a chiropractor, physical therapist, or massage therapist to directly address the known issues. Severe long-term head discomfort often has a primary link to stress and its impact on the HPA axis.
One of the most critical communication loops in the body, the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), communicates top-down: your brain messages the hypothalamus, which signals the pituitary gland, which triggers cortisol output from the adrenals. When cortisol levels reach a higher-than-normal level, they suppress the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which inhibits the fight or flight response. Excessively high cortisol production can contribute to problems with concentration, focus, and proper control of the inflammatory cascade, including at a vascular level. This impact on blood flow can play a role in more severe cases of long-term head discomfort.
If high-stress levels are determined to be at the root of your head discomfort, finding ways to manage and lower stressors is essential. While not always easy, practicing techniques that work for you—and that you enjoy—can make a huge difference in alleviating head tension and other uncomfortable sensations brought on by stress. Some popular practices include meditation, yoga, and walking outdoors.
A high-sugar diet is another stressor on the body, and research suggests that people struggling with ongoing head tension may also have high blood glucose levels. Striving for a balanced, whole foods diet can go a long way in calibrating blood sugar levels. Be sure to include plenty of protein and healthy fats with each meal and snack, and make sure the bulk of your carbohydrates come from real foods like fruit, vegetables, moderate amounts of whole grains, and beans, instead of processed products.
Poor sleep is also linked with head tension. If you struggle to get enough sleep or don’t feel rested after a full night’s rest, speak with your provider to address the underlying causes of your sleep problems.
Studies show magnesium to be a safe and effective supplement for ongoing head discomfort.* Practitioners usually recommend magnesium glycinate for discomfort related to muscle tension, and magnesium threonate is more recently known for its neurological benefits.*
Butterbur is a plant that grows in damp forest soils, marshlands, and river banks. Its extract is taken from the root, and it’s historically been used for supporting normal inflammatory pathways. Its active ingredients isopetasin, flavonoids, petawalide B, and bakkenolide B are thought to be most effective for supporting a healthy inflammatory response, as they help to limit the body’s production of inflammatory molecules.*
Butterbur is also highly effective in changing the vascular tone of the head, keeping blood vessels pliable so that blood can flow smoothly.* For many people, healthy blood flow helps to relax recurring cranial tension.
Coenzyme Q10 (also known as CoQ10 or ubiquinone), is another supplement often used by providers for ongoing head discomfort.* This coenzyme supports normal inflammatory pathways and blood sugar levels, and is most widely known for its support of heart health and balanced cholesterol.* These same mechanisms might be why research suggests CoQ10 can help reduce the duration and frequency of head discomfort.*
High-quality essential oils are thought to support head discomfort and alleviate stress. Peppermint oil is most commonly used for its active ingredient, menthol, which is known to relieve muscle tension. Other essential oils used to support stress and head discomfort include rosemary, lavender, chamomile, and eucalyptus oils. Essential oils should never be consumed without direction from a knowledgeable practitioner. Instead, mix them with a carrier oil (like coconut or almond oil) and apply topically.
Adaptogens work as modulators of the body’s stress hormone, cortisol. These herbs work within the HPA axis to elevate low levels of cortisol, or reduce high levels, depending on what the body needs. In cases of ongoing severe head discomfort unrelated to muscle tension or postural issues, testing cortisol levels and other indicators of HPA axis imbalance and supporting with adaptogens can be helpful.*
Examples of commonly used adaptogenic herbs include ashwagandha, rhodiola, ginseng, and licorice.
Long-term head discomfort comes in various forms. It is commonly related to muscle tension, postural issues, or a non-ergonomic desk setup. More intense recurrent head tension could have its root in HPA axis imbalance, leading to vascular mechanisms that trigger head discomfort.
Good sleep, whole foods, a blood sugar-balancing diet, and the five herbs and supplements discussed in this article are a solid baseline for addressing your head discomfort.* As always, speaking with your doctor about possible testing to uncover root causes is also a helpful step toward wellness.
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 Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(1), 188–224. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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