In this Ask the Expert article, Vaidya Manohar explains the causes of three types of headaches and offers ayurvedic recommendations for creating balance.
Q: Many of us are plagued with moderate to severe headaches. How can Ayurveda help?
A: It's important to first determine the underlying cause. There are three mind-body operators (doshas) in ayurveda: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each of these is associated with a different type of headache.
In spring, when the cool, wet, heavy qualities of Kapha dosha predominate, many people suffer from sinus headaches, because these are caused by Kapha-Vata imbalances. Sinus headaches are characterized by congestion and a heavy, dull feeling. Sluggish elimination, accumulated digestive toxins, overeating, leading a sedentary lifestyle with too little exercise, exposure to environmental pollution, and eating too many heavy foods, cold foods and drinks can be the causes.
Tension headaches are caused by an imbalance in the dry, cool, fast-moving Vata dosha. This is the most common type of headache, and symptoms include sharp or fluctuating pain, as if a band is being tightened around the head. Causes can include mental and emotional stress, multitasking, eating and sleeping at different times each day, improper diet, irregular digestion, constipation, inadequate sleep, eyestrain caused by computer use, and suppression of natural urges, especially when controlling tears.
Migraines are caused by a Pitta-Vata imbalance. An imbalance in the hot Pitta dosha manifests as a burning, searing, sharp pain — which can be associated with visual sensations and light sensitivity. Often exacerbated by heat, migraines may be triggered by eyestrain from using computers and watching television. Causes include digestive imbalances; the accumulation of digestive toxins; exposure to environmental pollution and toxins found in food, air and water; and excess stress as expressed in anger, frustration, and mood swings.
For all three headache types, the key is to follow the diet and lifestyle that will pacify the predominant dosha that is causing your headache. For instance, in the case of the sinus headache, follow the Kapha-Pacifying diet. Favor more astringent, bitter and pungent foods, and avoid sweet, sour and salty tastes, especially in spring.
For tension headaches, favor a Vata-Pacifying diet. Add more sweet, sour and salty foods and avoid bitter, astringent and pungent foods.
And for migraines, favor a Pitta-Pacifying diet most of the year, which means adding more sweet, bitter and astringent foods and avoiding acidic, pungent, sour and salty foods. Tomatoes are a food to be avoided, as eating them in excess can create migraine symptoms.
Since an imbalanced digestion is at the root of most headaches, it's wise to eat lighter foods for the first few weeks, then gradually add heavier foods that are considered balancing in the dosha-pacifying diet, later on. Favor freshly-cooked, whole, organic foods that are served warm and are easy to digest. In general, a lacto-vegetarian diet is recommended, with light dairy products, pulses, nuts and seeds for protein. Be sure to eat your main meal at noon, when the digestion is strongest, and eat lighter at breakfast and dinner.
For all three headache types, avoid eating heavy foods such as aged cheeses, butter, yogurt, red meat, leftovers, and processed, frozen, canned and packaged foods. These foods have one thing in common — they are difficult to digest and contribute to the digestive disturbances that are the cause of most headaches.
Finally, it's important to follow a lifestyle that helps eliminate stress, strengthens digestion and balances the doshas. Avoid exposure to strong sun (if you suffer from migraines), wind (if you suffer from tension headaches) and fog, cold, or wet conditions (if you suffer from sinus headaches).
If you are experiencing chronic stress, take steps to change your lifestyle to eliminate those factors. Avoid foods that create digestive disturbances when eaten together, such as milk combined with most other foods except rice and wheat. Drink your milk separately from meals, and boil it first with a pinch of cardamom, turmeric or saffron. Never suppress natural urges such as urinating, moving the bowels, or sneezing — and do not hold back tears. At the same time, ayurvedic texts warn against forcing any of these natural urges, as that, too, can cause strain on the body and result in headaches.
Other lifestyle habits that can contribute to headaches include staying up late at night, working with computers or watching TV for extended periods, and exposure to environmental noise, noxious fumes or chemicals.
To prevent headaches and help bring the body back into balance, plan a regular daily routine, with regular rising, sleeping and eating times. Make a habit of rising early, by 6:00 a.m. The morning routine should also include a daily oil massage (abhyanga) to help improve circulation, boost digestion and purify toxins from the tissues and organs.
Research shows that regular practice of the Transcendental Meditation® program is the most effective technique available for dissolving stress-aggravated conditions, allowing people to manage tension to the extent that headaches or other pain-aggravated conditions are reduced or eliminated altogether.
Daily exercise, such as walking for half an hour a day, is essential to keep digestion and elimination regular. Yoga asanas (poses) are known to help increase blood flow to the brain and relax tensions in the mind and body.
And of course, in order to rise early you need to get to bed early. Falling asleep before 10:00 p.m. has an added advantage — it allows your body to gain the most benefit from its natural cleansing cycle, which takes place during the Pitta time of night, from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. During this time the digestive system purifies itself of toxins. To prepare for deep sleep, eat a light dinner before 8:00 p.m., shut off the TV and computer early and listen to soothing Maharishi Gandharva Veda music before bed.
To discover your constitutional type, identify underlying imbalances, and receive an individualized program of dietary, lifestyle and herbal recommendations for your body type and imbalances, schedule a Vedic Health Assessment with a Maharishi Ayurveda expert (vaidya).
Please note: This ayurvedic information is education. It does not replace medical advice or treatments.
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