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Suffering from a pounding head? Learn how to diagnose, treat, and prevent headaches the Ayurvedic way.
Are headaches putting a damper on your Down Dog? You’re in good company. According to the World Health Organization, headaches are among the most common disorders of the nervous system. But while many of us pop over-the-counter painkillers to mask the symptoms, Ayurveda offers us clues to the causes and a holistic approach to prevention and treatment.
The most common three types of headaches—tension headaches, migraines, and sinus headaches—often arise as the result of specific imbalances in the doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha), says Wahneta Trotter, C.A.S., P.K.S., owner of The Satmya Ayurvedic Clinical Spa in Ketchum, ID. “If you look at a person’s daily lifestyle habits, patterns and routines, in the short term and the long term, that’s often what creates imbalances and disease pathology like headaches,” she explains. “In general, vata dosha is going to be the problem child for headaches, but it’s important to diagnose whether it’s a vata headache, a pitta headache, a kapha headache or some combination therein.”
Here, Trotter offers some suggestions for diagnosing, treating, and preventing headaches the Ayurvedic way.
The Dosha Imbalance: Pitta (fire/water), vata (space/air)
“Tension headaches are often very lifestyle-oriented,” Trotter says, “so what we want people to do is slow down, take more breaks during the day and really focus on self-care.” She also says that skipping meals can be a big contributing factor: “When you skip a meal, you’re increasing vata. And when you skip a meal and are working intensely you’re also increasing pitta.”
What a Tension Headache Feels Like:
According to the Mayo Clinic, tension headaches cause dull, aching pain in the head and potentially some tenderness on the scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles. People often experience tightness or pressure across the forehead or on the back and side of the head, as though they’re wearing a tight band around their head.
6 Steps to Prevent or Treat Tension Headaches
1. Make your diet consistent.
Eat three meals per day, at the same time each day.
2. Follow the pitta-vata diet.
Favor warm, cooked, wet foods like stews and soups; avoid cold, dry, light foods like crackers and dry cereal. Favor sweet, salty tastes and avoid really spicy foods.
3. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated. Avoid coffee and caffeine.
4. Make time for daily self-massage.
Trotter recommends giving yourself a daily abhyanga (warm oil massage) each day before bathing. Ideally, she suggests using traditional Ayurvedic massage oils designed to balance the doshas, such as AromaBliss’s vata oil. Vamakesi oil also helps to stimulate circulation, relax the nervous system and cool an overheated head. Another quick and easy treatment: make a paste out of sandalwood powder and rose essential oils and gently massage it into your temples. If there’s an Ayurvedic spa near you, you can also splurge on a professional abhyanga treatment.
5. Slow down your yoga practice.
“Restorative yoga and yin yoga are excellent for tension headaches, because they force you to slow down, cool down,” Trotter says. “Both types of yoga nourish the bodily tissues. They’re more oriented toward the nervous system, the endocrine system and the lymphatics. Yin works on the connective tissue in the body to soften it, lengthen it, and let it release, which in turn transfers to the muscles. When you’re having a tension headache, it’s almost like your muscles are paralyzed in a contraction.” In particular, she recommends seated forward bends and twists. “Twisting works asymmetrically in the body to bring balance.”
6. Diffuse peppermint or lavender essential oils.
A blend of peppermint and lavender essential oils can be very cooling for tension headaches. Also effective: sandalwood and rose. Trotter says it’s important to research essential oils before buying as so many are synthetic. She recommends organic, sustainably harvested oils, like Floracopeia.
The Dosha Imbalance: Vata (space/air)
Migraines tend to be a symptom of a “vata lifestyle,” Trotter says. “In other words, a very irregular non-routine. Vata constitution types are also more likely to suffer from migraines. The typical triggers are women’s hormone cycles, insomnia, hunger, barometric changes, toxicity in the body, excessive computer use.”
What a Migraine Feels Like:
Migraines can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on one side of the head, according to the Mayo Clinic. They’re often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
9 Steps to Prevent or Treat Tension Migraines
1. Follow a routine.
“The key is to go back to diet and lifestyle,” Trotter says. “Go to sleep at the same time every day, wake up at the same time every day, eat at the same time every day.”
2. Follow the vata-pacifying diet.
Favor warm, cooked foods and warming spices like ginger, cumin and black pepper. Favor sweet and salty tastes, while avoiding bitter and astringent foods. Cut back on caffeine, hard cheeses, and cold, dry foods. Drink warm water throughout the day to stay hydrated.
3. Slow down.
Take 10 minutes out of every hour to just slow down, do some deep breathing, go outside, get some fresh air.
4. Prioritize daily self-massage.
5. Make a neti pot part of your daily routine.
She also recommends cleansing the sinuses daily with a neti pot and following up with warm, moisturizing nasya oil that contains Ayurvedic nervine sedatives, brain tonic herbs, antibacterial oils and cleansing essential oils. Trotter’s go-to nasya oils are Aromabliss nasya oil for daily, preventive care and anu thailam by Tri Health for migraines. For in-spa Ayurvedic treatments, Trotter recommends nasya treatment, shirodhara, or shiro basti.
6. DIY an herbal headache treatment.
Trotter also suggests combining mahanarayana oil with equal parts of the herbs brahmi, shanka, pushpi and jatamamsi oil to make a “patty.” “Place it on the top of the head,” Trotter says. “It’s amazing how quickly this one works. I have used it several times for people who present with headache.”
7. Diffuse peppermint and lavender essential oils.
A blend of peppermint and lavender aromatherapy can help soothe the nervous system.
8. “Lay low and glow.”
“During a migraine, you want to do the ‘lay low and glow’ kinds of yoga,” Trotter says. “Restorative yoga poses, Legs Up the Wall, those kinds of things. Hip openers are also effective, because you want to create space for all that vata energy to move down and out of the body.” She also recommends doing gentle seated twists and seated forward bends, if they don’t cause discomfort. “Anything that’s more grounding in nature is going be beneficial.”
9. Take slow deep breaths.
Diaphragmatic breathing can also be helpful, such as sama vritti (inhaling and exhaling to the same count) and vishama vritti (pairing a normal inhalation with a slightly longer exhalation). “This kind of breathing switches you out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system, moving you from fight-or-flight to heal-and-restore mode.”
The Dosha Imbalance: Kapha (earth/water)
“Sinus headaches are kapha headaches, largely,” Trotter says. “They typically come in the spring, kapha season, especially among kapha types. If a vata person presents with a sinus headache, it’s because their sinuses have gotten too dry. Same with pitta.” Other factors that can cause sinus headaches are a moist climate and kapha-provoking habits—such as lethargy or a diet that emphasizes cold, moist, heavy, rich, or deep-fried foods.
What a Sinus Headache Feels Like:
With a sinus headache, you’ll feel pressure around your eyes, cheeks, and forehead, and you may think you have a sinus infection, according to The Mayo Clinic. While the symptoms of migraines and sinus headaches are similar, sinus headaches typically aren’t associated with nausea, vomiting, or light/noise sensitivity.
9 Steps to Prevent or Treat Sinus Headaches
1. Follow a kapha-pacifying diet.
Favor warm, light, dry foods over cold, heavy, or deep-fried foods. Emphasize bitter, spicy, and astringent tastes. Avoid sweet, sour and salty tastes. Cook with stimulating spices like cinnamon, ginger, basil and black pepper.
2. Get outside.
Head outside for some fresh air and sunshine.
3. Aim to move more.
Do a little exercise each day.
4. DIY steam treatments.
Trotter recommends regular at-home steam treatments for the sinuses. “Steaming is really important to keep those nasal passages and lungs open and moving,” she says. To give yourself a steam treatment, place a bowl of hot, steaming water on your kitchen table, cover it with a bath towel, and add a few drops of eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, and/or tulsi oil. Carefully slip your head under the towel, making sure the steam is not too hot. Breathe in the steam for 5–10 minutes with your eyes closed and covered by a protective cloth. Afterward, rinse the sinuses with a neti pot and apply nasya oil. If your budget allows, Trotter also recommends treating yourself to a nasya treatment at an Ayurvedic spa.
5. Give yourself a daily massage.
You can also do a daily massage with kapha oil before bathing.
6. Use sinus-clearing essential oils.
Eucalyptus, menthol, rosemary, peppermint and camphor can help clear the sinuses.
7. Pick up the pace of your practice.
Inversions are contraindicated for sinus headaches, Trotter says, but she does recommend doing vinyasas—especially heated vinyasa yoga. “The goal is to warm up the system and help move the kapha out,” she says.