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Headaches as a Sign of Homeostatic Imbalance: Why You Need Balance

Compelling advertisement slogans such as Excedrine’s “The Headache Medicine,” Aleve’s “All Day Strong, All Day Long,” and Tylenol’s “The Pain Reliever Hospitals Use Most” draw the attention of consumers seeking over-the-counter options to alleviate one of life’s annoyances: Headaches. Manufacturers of nonprescription painkillers continue to sell and enhance their products to treat something that may be a deeper issue. The human body is highly adaptive to external stressors, whether it be biological, environmental, or cultural, that any disruption can throw a person off balance. Having this balance refers to the topic of homeostasis – the tendency for stability.

In normal conditions, you have an average body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). If you are sick, you would likely have a fever with a temperature of 100.4 °F or greater, which is part of the immune response working to fight infection. In the case of headaches, if a person is continually taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications and escalating to prescription drugs, but without getting long-term relief, then this is a sign that there is possibly an underlying health issue.

First, there are many types of headaches, including migraines, tension, cluster, and medication-overuse triggered by stress, hormonal changes, head injury, substances, or unknown causes [1]. For this article, we will consider a person having a headache and focus on a self-care treatment plan depending on symptom severity and duration.

An interesting case is medication overuse headache defined as symptoms appearing for more than 15 days out of a month, treating with medications for more than three months, and worsening of symptoms with continual treatment with prescription drugs [2]. This finding provides an example of how an individual can become physically dependent on medication for relief, but that is not to say there are signs of addiction, which refers to mental dependence instead. For example, a person suffering from chronic migraine headaches depends on daily doses of powerful prescription drugs to reduce suffering. This case deserves a step back and investigation of other causes of the headache in question.

It’s easy to think up of over-the-counter or prescription medication options to treat headaches. After all, a search of medical literature on this topic predominantly results in mentionings of first-line drug therapy, recommended drug dosages, and neuroimaging for severe cases. There is one article worth mentioning that touched on methods to manage migraines through lifestyle factors, which is the crux of our topic of discussion and wellness movement. This article pointed out the following factors to avoid making a habit of [3]:

  • Skipping meals or eating irregularly
  • Having an inadequate or irregular sleep
  • Leading a life of stress
  • Consuming caffeine in excess
  • Lacking exercise

If more than one of the items above applies to you, particularly the first two lines, then you are more than halfway through with developing a self-treatment plan by realigning your habits with better health outcomes.

The list above appears to have a common theme in regards to homeostasis, which has to do with having something too little, too much, or too irregularly: Physical activity, food, and rest. These are things that are necessary for our survival. We are born to move, given our physical advantage to move about the world. One may think we don’t need much exercise, but your ancestors did during the times of hunter and gather society. We have not evolved quickly enough to adapt to a highly industrialized and advanced society.

The lack of bodily movement means a sluggish flow of blood throughout. Medical literature on headaches would suggest the cause of symptoms is related to disturbances of blood flow within the skull, or lack thereof.

An article from the Nutrients journal suggests the management of migraines through proper nutrition by first eliminating triggers such as food allergens and keeping salt and alcohol intake under control [4]. Again, having too much of something, especially if it causes allergies can lead to side effects. Having healthy foods and a balanced diet will be critical to slowly health thyself from migraines and chronic headaches. It is not what you eat but also a question of when to have adequate nutrition throughout the day. Plan three meals a day: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You may snack in between in case if you get hungry between meals. Block of time in the morning, noon, and evening hours and chow down.

Lastly, with all of the modern-day hunting, gathering, and feasting, a resting period is well-deserved to rejuvenate for the next day. Without that rest, you have not charged up the energy needed to tackle another day, which results in a greater likelihood to suffer from headaches. A review article has drawn from a body of literature showing evidence of an association between sleep disturbances and migraines [5]. As discussed from our previous post on the importance of sleep, this critical vital function serves as restoration physical, physiological, and mental state. It’s hard to continue when you have not recovered from yesterday.

With all of the suggestions of exercise, a balanced diet, and sleep as remedies for headaches, more severe cases require further examination from a physician or a healthcare specialist. For the new or milder cases, it’s highly worth considering lifestyle modifications before going down the road of drug therapy, potentially leading to overtreatment and an off-balance physiological state.

We natural beings inherently maintain homeostasis. Find that balance.

References

[1] Steiner, T. J., & Fontebasso, M. (2002). Headache. BMJ (Clinical research ed.)325(7369), 881–886. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1124385/

[2] Kristoffersen, E. S., & Lundqvist, C. (2014). Medication-overuse headache: epidemiology, diagnosis and treatment. Therapeutic advances in drug safety5(2), 87–99. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4110872/

[3] Becker, W. J., Findlay, T., Moga, C., Scott, N. A., Harstall, C., & Taenzer, P. (2015). Guideline for primary care management of headache in adults. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien61(8), 670–679. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4541429/

[4] Gazerani P. (2020). Migraine and Diet. Nutrients12(6), 1658. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7352457/

[5] Vgontzas, A., & Pavlović, J. M. (2018). Sleep Disorders and Migraine: Review of Literature and Potential Pathophysiology Mechanisms. Headache58(7), 1030–1039. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6527324/

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