Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
A headache sufferer’s medicine chest often tells the story of once-promising treatments abandoned. Sedatives, beta-blockers, and narcotics represent just some of the high-octane prescriptions people use to quell extreme pain. And there’s a lot of pain around.
The heavyweight champions of headaches are migraines and clusters. Migraines affect more than 26 million Americans, according to the American Medical Association, and are three times more common in women, especially those in their 20s and 30s.
Migraines cause moderate-to-severe pain and last anywhere from four to 72 hours, often on one side of the head. They frequently include symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and acute light and sound sensitivity.
Clusters are less common; only 1 percent of the population is affected, and 80 percent of those are men. Clusters cause brain-throbbing pain often described as a “poker in the eye.” They traditionally occur daily for periods of weeks, months, or even years, with each headache lasting on average less than one hour.
The menu of drugs used for either type of headache does bring some relief but not for everyone and not all the time. Many ayurveda practitioners believe the greatest flaw of these drugs is they seldom get to the root of the problem. “Often practitioners of Western medicine only detect the last two stages of disease development, the point when the problem manifests and bears clinical signs,” says Swami Sada Shiva Tirtha, D.Sc., founder of the Ayurveda Holistic Center and the School of Ayurveda in Bayville, New York. “But problems start long before that.”
Looking beyond the immediate pain, you’ll find several contributing and relatively manageable factors. The first place to check, suggests Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D., medical director at The Raj Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Center in Fairfield, Iowa, is the balance of doshas. “People who are stronger in pitta, or the fire element, will often be more prone to migraine,” she says. “Pitta governs digestion and metabolism, and for them eating pitta-aggravating foods, such as red wine, aged cheeses, or acidic fruits like tomatoes and citrus, can make things worse. When diet, stomach, and liver get excessively acidic, the blood can get some quality of that, which provokes aggravation of nerves and then blood flow to the head.”
See also Quiz: What’s Your Dosha?
In addition to dietary precautions, Lonsdorf recommends cooling the nervous system by applying a small amount of pitta-pacifying ghee (clarified butter) daily into the nostrils and sniffing. Also try a mixture of one part powdered ginger with four parts rock sugar or organic turbinado sugar; put one-quarter teaspoon in a half cup cool water and drink. This activates purification of the digestive tract and prevents nausea and vomiting.
Clusters also reflect the digestion problems of pitta, says Lonsdorf, along with an imbalance in vata, the air element that governs nerves and circulation. “To calm vata, go to bed early and give yourself regular self-massages with organic sesame or olive oil.”
Clusters’ signature traits—teary eyes, facial sweating, and stuffy nose—signal the body’s attempt to flush out toxins. So Lonsdorf suggests regular purifying, such as a daily 10-minute eucalyptus steam inhalation.
See also Slow Down with Yoga for Vata Balance