The Ayurvedic Approach to Treating Headaches
This ancient medical system suggests diet and lifestyle solutions for naturally easing tension, sinus, and migraine headaches.
By Dr. Somesh N. Kaushik
As we know, Ayurveda identifies mind-body disorders as an imbalance in one or more of the bodily systems, or doshas: pitta, vata and kapha. Headaches can often present as a combination of imbalances of all three doshas. While conventional treatments may sometimes alleviate headache symptoms, Ayurveda offers a complementary approach to their care.
Commonly lifestyle-related, tension headaches are often associated with a pitta or vata imbalance, or a combination of both. Pitta (representing the elements of fire and water) and vata (space and air) can become unbalanced due to mental or emotional stress, overwork, digestive issues, irregular eating habits, inadequate sleep, eyestrain, or overextended computer use. Following a pitta-vata diet will relieve symptoms and also help to prevent a recurrence.
Choose warm cooked foods like soups or stews and avoid cold, dry, light foods such as dry cereals and crackers. Also avoid spicy, bitter or astringent foods, and stay with sweet, salty ones. Avoid caffeine, which is drying.
Slow down your lifestyle and add peppermint or lavender oils to a diffuser, as they are relaxing and cooling. Regulate eating and sleeping patterns for consistency, and consider adding a yoga or meditation practice to harmonize and balance your life.
The Ayurvedic treatment Shirodhara, in which warm oil penetrates the pineal gland on the forehead, calms the nervous system and may be quite beneficial.
Often more prevalent in the spring, sinus headaches might be associated with a kapha imbalance or a kapha-vata imbalance. Kapha represents earth and water and the spring season. With the cool, wet weather predominating, an imbalance could occur if a proper diet and lifestyle have not been followed. Sinus congestion could result from overeating; eating heavy, rich or deep-fried foods; consuming cold food and drinks; accumulated toxins; sluggish elimination; and lethargy.
To counteract, choose warm, light, dry foods, with bitter, spicy, or astringent tastes. Avoid cold, heavy foods with sweet, sour, or salty tastes. You might also try cooking with stimulating spices such as cinnamon, ginger, basil, and black pepper.
Physically, move more! Get outside and take a walk.
Sinus-clearing essential oils such as eucalyptus, menthol, rosemary, or peppermint can also help if used with at-home steam treatments. Ayurvedic Nasya oil nose drops, used with Shirodhara, can also be beneficial.
Migraines, characterized by a severe pulsing or throbbing pain on one side of the head, along with nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to sound, light and odors, are debilitating and can signify an imbalance in all three doshas. Pitta, associated with the fire element, can lead to inflammation when out of balance, and the heat buildup can put pressure on blood vessels, leading to a migraine. Vata (air) can trigger sensitivity to sound, light, or odor and excess worrying or anxiety, which could lead to a migraine. Kapha (earth and water) can bring on migraines from congestion resulting from cold, moist air. Doshas out of balance manifest with a myriad of symptoms; it is important to consult with a trained Ayurvedic practitioner to determine a correct approach.
While the exact cause of migraines is unknown, they are generally classified as a neurologic disorder. Ayurveda believes that digestion is often the root cause of migraines and that, in fact, there is a close correlation with stomach disturbances. Therefore, diet is the first line of defense when formulating a course of action.
Depending on the particular combination of symptoms, an Ayurvedic practitioner can suggest a specific diet to rebalance the doshas. And diet adjustments can be suggested during onset of symptoms as well as when orchestrating prevention plans. While certain foods can trigger a migraine reaction—particularly chocolate, caffeine, aged cheese, alcohol and MSG—it is advisable to check with an Ayurvedic practitioner regarding your particular sensitivities.
Along with a proper diet, Ayurveda believes that a gentle detoxing of impurities and toxins will alleviate symptoms, and a practitioner might recommend a course of panchakarma along with certain herbal supplements. Ayurvedic herbs traditionally used to calm the nervous system are ashwagandha and Brahmi along with feverfew, which has been scientifically studied for the treatment of migraines. Shirodhara may also be suggested to relax the nervous system, or hydrotherapy to calm the digestive process.
Ginger tea can also be used for digestion and nausea. In addition, ginger root blocks prostaglandins, which stimulate the muscle contractions that cause headaches.
Relaxing aids such as the essential oils of rosemary, lavender, peppermint and jasmine used in a diffuser or steam pot is also beneficial. Rosemary helps with hormonal imbalances, one of the causes of migraines in women. Peppermint has anti-inflammatory properties, soothes the nerves, and can be used as a tea as well.
As the body has its own natural cleansing cycle—primarily from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.—it is important to establish a regular sleep pattern. And since digestion is strongest at noon, try to eat your main meal at mid-day and lighter fare at breakfast and dinner, preferably eating before 8 p.m. to allow for digestion prior to sleep.
Adopting a lifestyle of balance which includes exercise, meditation, and therapeutic yoga will go a long way to preventing all forms of headache—migraine, tension, or sinus related.
Somesh N. Kaushik, an Ayurvedic and naturopathic physician, owns Dr. Kaushik’s Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Clinic, open weekdays at 792 Route 35, Cross River, NY. For appointments or more information, call 914-875-9088, email [email protected] or visit DrKaushik.com.