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Headache Relief Made Simple with Neuroscience 🧠
15 Neuroscience-Backed Tools to Defeat Headaches (10min Read)
Nearly 90% of survey respondents report headaches negatively impact their quality of life.
Types of headache relief include lifestyle changes, supplements, and alternative treatments.
Lifestyle improvements (mind, sleep, nutrition, exercise, social connection, play) should be addressed before trying other remedies.
Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen provide relief for some but can be hard on the liver and may reduce exercise benefits.
Caffeine can help with headaches, depending on sleep quality and individual response.
Supplements for headache relief: Omega-3s (EPA/DHA), creatine monohydrate, and magnesium.
Alternative treatments: red light therapy, Botox, essential oils (peppermint/menthol), acupuncture, and herbal remedies (turmeric, feverfew, butterbur).
It's important to consult with a healthcare professional before starting new treatments or supplements.
In a survey conducted by the American Headache Society, nearly 90% of respondents reported that headaches negatively impact their quality of life, with over 25% reporting that they miss work or school due to headaches.
That being said, this week is all about tools! If you didn’t check out the headache origins post already, I suggest you do before diving into this one.
Today, we will dive into tools tailored to the specific types of headaches we talked about last week and their origins.
Before you dive in, this is a long post, feel free to skim through and take what you need.
Or bookmark this for a rainy day when you’re struggling with a headache!
Alright, without further adieu…
Tools for Headache Relief
Alright, now that you know where headaches come from, how do we get relief from them?!
There are a few different sections I’d like to cover because there are lots of cool remedies out there.
We’ll talk lifestyle first, supplements, and then “alternative” treatments as well!
This wouldn’t be the Mind, Brain, Body Digest if I didn’t mention the Heroes Body!
For those of you who may not know the framework, here’s the blog where I break it down:
The Sparknotes is that some of the best ways to prevent any type of headache are to have balanced habits & routines in these 6 areas:
By checking these boxes, you’re setting up your brain for success and far fewer headaches in the future.
Sleep is especially important, when you don’t sleep well, inflammation builds in your brain, which as you now know can cause headaches.
Again, check out my whole blog on this topic for ideas, ideal habits, and much more if you have questions about this!
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have this foundation before trying any of the tips below.
I see so many people try miracle cures for anxiety, headaches, joint pain, etc before doing the work to establish healthy habits & routines in these areas!
Please, try these lifestyle improvements before anything else, I promise you (and your brain) will be surprised by the results.
Alright, I’ll get off my soapbox now 😅
Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
Let’s address the elephant in the room right up front.
One of the most common and mainstream cures for headaches are NSAIDs, but do they work?
I’m sure you’ve heard of them:
These are the top 3 in the US, and you can get them over the counter at most stores.
If you’re wondering where Acetaminophen is on the list, you might be surprised to learn that it isn’t an NSAID.
Acetaminophen lacks the anti-inflammatory effect of NSAIDs, but does help with pain relief, and is also commonly used for headaches!
The issue with these kinds of drugs is that they don’t consistently work for everyone, you quickly build a tolerance to them and they can be hard on the liver.
Meaning, they might help, but if they do, over time you’ll need more and more of them to get the same level of relief, and the more you take, the worse it is for your liver…
As if that wasn’t already bad enough, new research is also showing that NSAIDs may offset some of the benefits you get from exercising.
The benefits of exercise come from inflammation, but remember, not all inflammation is bad.
In relation to exercise, inflammation is what cause your body to adapt after working out, which is why you get stronger or can run longer over time.
NSAIDs reduce this inflammation, which leads to less adaption, meaning the benefits you thought you were getting, you may not be.
So, NSAIDs can be useful, but there are better options!
Caffeine Lore & Timing
Caffeine is another common tool for treating headaches, there’s lore out there that when you get a headache, you should get some caffeine right away, no matter the time of day.
This is misguided advice and not quite that simple.
This probably comes from people who are experiencing caffeine headaches, ingest some caffeine and feel better.
This is true, and probably pretty obvious, but it isn’t the same for non-caffeine headaches.
The issue with caffeine is that it is both a vasodilator and a vasoconstrictor.
It can have construction effects when blocking adenosine.
Adenosine buildup in your brain is what makes you sleepy, and it is also a vasodilator.
That being said, caffeine can also act as a vasodilator by acting on a nitric oxide pathway in the brain, we don’t have time to go in-depth here, just know that nitric oxide is a vasodilator, and caffeine increases it!
So, does it help or not?
Yes… and no…
I wish it was simpler, but science rarely is.
First of all, sleep has a huge impact on caffeine’s effect on the body.
When you sleep well, your adenosine levels are lower, meaning caffeine isn’t as likely to lead to vasoconstriction.
After nights of bad sleep, the opposite is true, you have lots of floating adenosine.
This means that ingesting caffeine is likely to lead to vasoconstriction, leading to relief from headaches.
Outside of this, the research suggests that caffeine’s ability to provide relief for headaches varies from person to person, and more research is needed in this area!
So, if you’re the type of person who caffeine helps, good for you.
I’m lucky to be one of those types of people!
You might not be, and that’s alright too. One thing that’s for certain, is that whichever you are, it’s not likely to change over time.
You can bet if it helps now, it will in the future, and vice versa.
So, when you’re considering using caffeine to help with headaches, think about how well you slept the night before, and if it’s helped in the past and you’ll be on the right path.
Supplements for Headache Relief
If there is 1 thing you should take away from this blog, it’s to start taking some type of Omega-3 (EPA/DHA) supplement.
It has been shown to dramatically decrease the frequency and intensity of every single type of headache we have talked about.
It is also one of the best-studied & safest supplements of all time. If you could only take 1 supplement, this would be the one I suggest.
These fatty acids literally make up the membranes of your cells, including neurons/nerves.
They decrease inflammation and decrease pain associated with all of the types of headaches we’ve talked about so far.
People that see the best effects of Omega-3’s are people who not only increase the amount of Omega-3’s they are getting but also decrease the amount of Omega-6’s they’re ingesting.
Omega-6’s can be found in nut & seed oils like soybean oil, corn oil, canola oil, and cottonseed oils.
Common types of foods that are high in Omega-6’s are highly processed foods like packaged snacks, frozen pizza, and fast food.
If you’re looking for my personal recommendation, I take Performance Lab Omega-3’s daily, here’s a link to the exact ones I take.
The other supplement that has been shown to help with headaches is creatine.
You may have heard about this in relation to building bigger muscles, but there’s some cool research supporting the use of creatine for headache relief, especially after TBI.
Creatine can be stored in brain tissue and helps with action potentials, which are how nerves send signals to one another & the body.
In 1 pilot study on humans, participants that supplemented with creatine saw an 80% decrease in the likelihood of experiencing headaches!
In this study, the subjects were taking .4 grams per kilogram of body weight, so if you way 100kgs or 220lbs that would be about 40 grams.
Creatine monohydrate has been around for a long time and is considered safe to use generally.
Some of the biggest concerns you’ll hear about are liver function, but most of the studies done have shown this adverse effect to not be an issue to healthy people.
Dehydration is one of the toughest negative effects I’ve experienced, creatine causes you to retain more water in your muscles & cells.
This means it’s easy to get dehydrated and cramp, but drinking plenty of fluids & electrolytes can help with this.
Also, as always, creatine may interact with certain drugs you’re on, so be sure to consult an MD if you’re worried something you’re on might interact with it.
A blog isn’t medical advice… I will repeat this multiple times today, more for your safety than mine, ha!
If you’re looking for a suggestion you can trust, I’d suggest Momentous Creatine.
Magnesium is involved in over 300 neurological processes but is the mineral that most Americans are low in.
There is almost nothing it doesn’t do… It plays a critical role in maintaining healthy bones, brain function, heart function, regulating circadian rhythms, and blood sugar levels.
There is also a lot of research that supports its benefits for migraine treatment & prevention.
This may be because of the effect it has on blood vessels, which as we now know, is one of the main origins of headaches!
I suggest LifeForce Magnesium if you’re looking for a recommendation.
In our blog last week we talked about the phenomenon of Aura & photophobia.
Photophobia is caused by neurons in the eyeballs that connect to pain receptors in the meninges.
If you remember last week, this is a part of the brain that has nociceptors and can experience pain!
These nerve cells in the eyes take in green and blue wavelengths of light, and signal pain receptors to activate in the meninges, which is what makes bright light painful.
Red wavelengths of light don’t trigger this same mechanism, however.
So, if you are starting to experience Aura or photophobia before the onset of a headache, turning your lights to red light by getting cheap red bulbs, can decrease the painful effects of photophobia.
There are also some interesting ideas in this field that suggest that if you can offset Aura/Photophobia with red light, you may be able to decrease the risk of getting a headache!
To be clear, a lot more research is needed to validate this, but it’s interesting nevertheless.
I’m sure you’ve heard of this in relation to reducing wrinkles, but Botox is actually extremely effective at relieving tension headaches!
Remember, tension headaches come from tight or tense muscles, and it’s nerves, specifically “neuromuscular” nerves, that cause muscles to tense up like this.
Botox is a neurotoxin that acts on these nerves. It blocks them from communicating with the muscles they are attached to.
This causes your muscles to relax which leads to relief from tension-type headaches!
While it may sound scary at first, Botox is an FDA-approved treatment for many things, including, headaches, cervical dystonia, overactive bladder, and even excessive sweating.
There is also considerable research on its safety and long-term health effects, which support its usage in small doses.
I’ve linked the research down below if you’d like to check it out!
Before you roll your eyes, I implore you to bare with me… I know essential oils are touted for everything nowadays, but you might be surprised to learn about the science behind them for headaches.
That’s because when you look at the research, there are many oils & herbs that far outperform NSAIDs for the treatment of headaches!
As if that wasn’t enough, they also don’t have the same side effects that we talked about earlier in relation to NSAIDs.
Research has shown that peppermint oil can significantly reduce the pain associated with headaches, and increase cognitive performance while experiencing a headache as well.
It has also been shown to relax the muscles in the areas that it’s applied, like on the forehead or temples.
How is this possible? To understand this, we need to talk about hot/cold & pain/pain relief in the brain.
Neurologically, heat/pain share similar pathways, and cold/pain relief do as well.
So, when you apply peppermint or menthol to the skin, it activates sensory neurons in the cold pathway, and because the cold pathway & the pain relief pathway are so closely connected, you experience relief!
This makes these oils one of the most potent tools for relieving tension headaches!
Many insurance companies will cover acupuncture today, I mention this because it’s a seemingly fringe tactic to get relief from pain, but there’s plenty of science to back it up!
This practice has been around for thousands of years, but we are just now learning about the science behind it.
I will dive deeper into this modality specifically more in-depth in its own blog, but overall, the needles are activating specific types of neurons.
Generally, it’s thought they are deactivating sensory-motor nerve pathways, which as we’ve talked about can relax muscle tension.
In some cases, acupuncture can even deactivate or modulate the activation of cells and organs that create inflammation inside of us.
Meaning it can be useful for headaches that stem from tension and inflammation!
This comes from a root and has massive anti-inflammatory effects on the Mind, Brain & Body.
The effect is so powerful in fact, that some athletes won’t supplement with it because it decreases the gains that can get from their exercise.
This is for the same reason that NSAIDs might lessen the positive effects of exercise.
Besides Omega-3’s, this is one of the supplements that I suggest over all others, and it has been shown to be safe for most people.
All that being said, it’s been shown to help a ton with migraine-type headaches especially!
The 1 caution I’ve seen is with blood coagulation, so if you take medicine for anticoagulation, be careful and consult your doctor before adding this to your regimen!
That being said, I use Momentous Turmeric personally, here’s a link.
These last two herbs are less studied than some of the other things that we’ve talked about today, but they continue to appear in conversations about headaches, so I thought I would at least mention them.
The first is feverfew which is an herb that has been traditionally used for headache relief, migraines, fever, and inflammation.
Some studies have shown that it may help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, but more research is needed to confirm its effectiveness.
Butterbur is an herbal supplement that has been studied for its potential to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.
This herb is native to Europe, Asia, and parts of North America. It has been used for things like fever, pain, and respiratory conditions like asthma.
As I mentioned earlier, recently it’s made a debut as a potential treatment for migraines.
Several clinical trials and reviews have investigated the effectiveness of butterbur extract for migraine prevention, with some promising results, but further research is needed to draw any real conclusions.
Again, these substances can be very powerful, don’t let them coming from nature trick you into thinking they are safe in all situations.
It’s important to consult your doctor before trying them, especially if you’re on existing medications!
These are two of the most research-intense and tool-focused blogs I’ve written…
I hope they’ve been helpful and can be looked at as resources for you to use over and over again!
Please feel free to reach out and ask any further questions you have. Substack has a new feature called “Notes” which is kind of like a Twitter feature.
If you enjoyed this blog, why not try out Notes and mention us while you’re at it?!
And as always, until next time… Live Heroically. 🧠
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Prevention of traumatic headache, dizziness and fatigue with creatine administration. A pilot study: https://bit.ly/3Y8lKLU
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and headache in the U.S. population: https://bit.ly/3X5lRXw
Dietary alteration of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for headache reduction in adults with migraine: randomized controlled trial: https://bit.ly/3Y4SXaZ
Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on premenstrual syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis: https://bit.ly/40uX5Tu
Effect of Peppermint and Eucalyptus Oil Preparations on Neurophysiological and Experimental Algesimetric Headache Parameters: https://bit.ly/3wZegiu
Herbal treatments for migraine: A systematic review of randomised-controlled studies: https://bit.ly/40uXbuk
Mauskop, A., & Varughese, J. (2012). Why all migraine patients should be treated with magnesium. Journal of Neural Transmission, 119(5), 575-579. doi:10.1007/s00702-012-0790-2
Diener, H. C., Pfaffenrath, V., Schnitker, J., Friede, M., & Henneicke-von Zepelin, H. H. (2005). Efficacy and safety of 6.25 mg t.i.d. feverfew CO2-extract (MIG-99) in migraine prevention: a randomized, double-blind, multicentre, placebo-controlled study. Cephalalgia, 25(11), 1031-1041. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2982.2005.00950.x
Lipton, R. B., Göbel, H., Einhäupl, K. M., Wilks, K., & Mauskop, A. (2004). Petasites hybridus root (butterbur) is an effective preventive treatment for migraine. Neurology, 63(12), 2240-2244. doi:10.1212/01.WNL.0000147290.68260.11
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Murphy, J. J., Heptinstall, S., & Mitchell, J. R. A. (1988). Randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial of feverfew in migraine prevention. Lancet, 332(8604), 189-192. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(88)92205-3 In this study, the authors found that feverfew reduced the frequency and severity of migraines in participants compared to the placebo group.
Palevitch, D., & Earon, G. (1997). Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) as a prophylactic treatment for migraine: A double-blind placebo-controlled study. Phytotherapy Research, 11(7), 508-511. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-1573(199711)11:7<508::AID-PTR153>3.0.CO;2-M This study also showed a reduction in migraine frequency and severity in participants treated with feverfew compared to those who received a placebo.
Diener, H. C., Pfaffenrath, V., Schnitker, J., Friede, M., & Henneicke-von Zepelin, H. H. (2005). Efficacy and safety of 6.25 mg t.i.d. feverfew CO2-extract (MIG-99) in migraine prevention: a randomized, double-blind, multicentre, placebo-controlled study. Cephalalgia, 25(11), 1031-1041. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2982.2005.00950.x This study found that feverfew extract was not more effective than a placebo in reducing the frequency or severity of migraines.
Pittler, M. H., & Ernst, E. (2004). Feverfew for preventing migraine. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1, CD002286. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002286.pub2 This Cochrane review found that feverfew is likely more effective than a placebo in reducing the frequency of migraines, but the authors noted that more rigorous studies are needed to confirm these findings.