Headaches can present in a kaleidoscope of ways, and the underlying causes can be even more numerous. There are cluster headaches, tension headaches, migraines, and more, not to mention more rare forms like chronic or exercise headaches, plus secondary headaches that branch out from an underlying condition like an infection, or panic attacks (source). But the variety of possible types and causes can be boiled down to one common root: headaches are painful.
And depending on the type of headache and the underlying cause, you can sometimes find relief with the simplest of natural remedies before you ever have to reach for a bottle of acetaminophen or make a doctor’s appointment. Why go through all that trouble when a simple pinch of salt, capsule of probiotics, or a few drops of essential oil will do the trick? My philosophy is that when faced with an ailment, natural remedies should be the first course of action to consider.
So…let’s look at all the possible natural remedies in five parts! Today’s topic: minerals. Later installments will also discuss essential oils, body tension release, pain relief, and digestion.
Remember: when you use natural remedies, they are best viewed as the first line of defense, not the only line of defense. There seems to be an expectation in the natural community to use only natural versions of everything, like it’s a badge of honor to not “have” to use modern medicine. But it’s silly to not utilize ALL of the options we have available to us in this day and age. There’s nothing wrong with using modern medicine and alternative methods to treat your headaches! In my opinion, natural remedies are the initial place to default to when you get a headache. If they don’t work, you can always move to conventional and modern solutions: using over the counter medications, prescription medications, seeing your doctor.
Part One: Minerals:
How do you find out if you are chronically mineral-deficient? You can start by asking yourself a few questions.
Are you thirsty but water doesn’t quench your thirst? Do you crave salty foods? Do you feel better or even sleepy when you eat unrefined salt with more trace minerals, or supplement with minerals like magnesium or calcium? Do you crave coconut water? Are your muscles prone to being sore, or twitchy?
All of these can indicate that you have some kind of chronic mineral deficiency. Minerals and trace elements in the body play a vital role. The major mineral needs of the body include: calcium, salt (sodium), magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, and selenium.
And how do you know if your mineral deficiency is related to your headaches? Well, try getting to the root of the problem by improving your mineral intake! By increasing your consumption of mineral-rich foods, and maximizing the likelihood of absorption, you will be able to tell if it helps with your headaches when they stop happening!
Calcium is probably the most well-known of all the minerals, alongside salt. Because many people these days believe that dairy isn’t healthy, so they resort to calcium chews, fortified soy or nutmilks, and added calcium to other foods. Calcium deficiency can result in chronic headaches (source) among other symptoms, so our concern for calcium levels are certainly legitimate. However, there is more to the story when it comes to properly obtaining and absorbing calcium in your diet.
According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans (source) calcium is best consumed from these sources:
- Most foods in the dairy group: milk and dishes made with milk, cheeses, yogurt.
- Canned fish with soft bones such as sardines, anchovies, and salmon or the tips of chicken leg bones.
- Leafy greens of the cabbage family, such as kale, mustard greens, and turnip tops, and bok choy.
- Tofu, if processed with calcium sulfate.
- Tortillas made from lime-processed corn.
The real question for a traditional foodie like you or me is to ask if these are the same sources that we have eaten for thousands of years. And honestly, I think that my traditional foods list is very similar to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans above, but with a few caveats. Another good question is to inquire after the quality of these recommended food sources. Let’s take a look at them:
First of all, make sure that your dairy is full fat and not skim. This is because the vitamins in milk, cheese, yogurt, and dairy products are generally fat-soluble. If you drink skim milk instead of whole, chances are that you won’t absorb the calcium nearly as well, and your bones, teeth, and head may suffer! And don’t just stop at whole milk. Make sure your milk is organic, and preferably grass-fed and raw. You can find good sources in your area here.
Leafy greens like kale, mustard greens, turnip tops, and bok choy are all sources of calcium, but are not as nutrient-dense as raw, full fat dairy. And these greens are definitely more digestible and easy to absorb when cooked, rather than eaten raw.
Tofu is something that is a little controversial in WAPF-land, but I don’t personally have much of a problem with it. I like to buy organic non-GMO tofu, preferably like this one, but I tend to not eat it too often. I prefer to rather eat naturally fermented miso, tempeh, nama shoyu, or natto, when it comes to soybeans!
Tortillas are another interesting source of protein, and I love that even on the mainstream Guidelines page they make a point of saying that the corn in the tortillas must be processed with lime. Yes! A traditional practice! So look for organic, non-GMO corn tortillas that are sprouted or processed with lime, and you are on the right track.
Plus,there are many studies that show that reducing fat consumption (like reducing caloric intake) actually does not help with long term successful weight loss, but rather contributes to “transient weight loss”, which comes back eventually.
The bottom line? You need to be able to absorb your calcium if you are going to retain it and avoid calcium deficiency. And it’s not just about your bones. It can cause headaches! So instead of reaching for that pain reliever for the rest of your life, try these more calcium-rich foods and see if it makes a difference. Food is medicine!
Salt of the earth. Salt is life-giving and essential to our health. And yet it is so often maligned that we see salt blamed for high blood pressure, poor heart health, and many other ailments.
Funnily enough, I think it’s more likely that we tend to be salt deficient in our current state of eating. Yes we might get enough sodium, but are we getting all the mineral aspects of salt that we need? The answer is probably no if you get most of your salt from processed sources like fast food or frozen food. You need to be using unrefined salts full of naturally occurring trace minerals. (See sources below this section.)
Commercial salt is sodium chloride, a chemical that is made by processing natural salt at high temperatures which changes the molecular structure and strips other vital minerals that salt naturally contains. Commercial salt also contains additives such as anti-caking agents, iodine, and even sugar. Because it’s not in its natural form, salt as pure sodium chloride is excessive and the body must work to excrete it. Table salt therefore, creates a heavy burden for the body, and excess consumption can certainly contribute to health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and fluid retention.
Because of the widespread use and abuse of processed salt, we have been told for years to avoid salt all together. Following this advice can lead to even more problems. We are all salty on the inside– our blood, sweat, tears, and even our urine contain salts. It’s important to replenish the minerals in our bodies, but using the right salt is key. The best way to put salt back into your body is to use high mineral content, minimally processed salts. (source)
And while there is conflicting evidence of the effect of low salt diets on cardiovascular health, even in mainstream sources, the conflict is clear:
Too much sodium appears to be bad for health, and health organizations generally recommend that people reduce their dietary intake of salt. High salt intake is associated with a greater risk of stroke and total cardiovascular disease in susceptible people. Direct evidence; however, is unclear if a low salt diet affects overall or cardiovascular related deaths. In adults and children with no acute illness, a decrease in the intake of sodium from the typical high levels reduces blood pressure. A low salt diet results in a greater improvement in blood pressure in those with hypertension than in those without. (source)
My personal opinion based on all this information boils down to what it usually does: what did my ancestors do? They used salt for preserving meats, fermentation processes, and seasoning. Liberally. And they lived near the ocean and ate plenty of seafood and fishes. So I’m not afraid of using salt. I think it’s essential for vibrant health.
On top of everything, I also have my own personal evidence, which is that when I listen to my body, I know when I am craving salt, and it’s pretty often! And when I listen to my body’s craving, I almost always feel better. I have noticed a pattern with my body specifically that is I usually get a headache when I am salt deficient, not when I haven’t had enough water to drink (which is the usual suggestion people give tom combat a headache.) But remember, your body, on the cellular level, is made up of salt, sugar, and water. I have noticed that I usually need more salt, not more water, and my headache will go away. You can read more about why that works here.
I like these culinary salts, and keep them on hand at all times:
- RealSalt: fine everyday salt I keep next to my stove for grabbing (out of my beloved bird salt cellar that my sister got for me!)
- Celtic Grey Salt: I usually buy this in the course variety, so I can put it in my ceramic grinder (I love this set, and have used it for almost 3 years)
- Himalayan Pink Salt: I go back and forth on this salt, because I don’t think it’s sustainable (it’s a finite ancient salt), but I also love how it makes me feel and how it tastes.
The bottom line? Your headache might just be from an imbalance of salt, sugar, and water in your body. Try a pinch of salt under your tongue, or even a pinch of half salt/half sugar to help restore mineral and blood sugar balance. Your headache may disappear from just this simple trick! Read more about why that works here.
Magnesium is a very popular topic in the slow food and green community. The argument is that we have depleted our soils from not using sustainable farming practices that feed mineral content back into the ground, and as a result our produce and crops do not have the mineral content that they used to in the vast majority of human history. And so then we are unable to remain properly supplemented with magnesium from our modern diets. You can read more about that here.
Magnesium plays roles in bone mineralization, protein synthesis, muscle contraction, enzyme activity, transmission of nerve impulses, healthy immunity and healthy teeth. (source)
- Min-col: My favorite mineral supplement, and very easy to absorb. You can also use the powder to add to your homemade or storebought toothpaste to increase tooth health!
- Natural Calm with stevia: This magnesium supplement is tasty and kid-friendly because it’s sweetened with stevia.
- High Absorption Magnesium: I haven’t tried this supplement, but it’s one that I intend to try soon. It looks good to me as an option!
- bath salts and skin treatments:
- Magnesium Flakes: These specific magnesium flakes from Ancient Minerals are perfect for soaking up some extra magnesium in the bath, or a foot soak.
- Magnesium Oil: If you don’t like the flakes above, you can also spray this oil directly onto your skin and then wipe it off after a few minutes. It’s a little itchy, but it really works. I think it’s worth it!
- Epsom Salt: This basic epsom salt is one of my favorite go-to’s for a soak in the tub, and it’s really lovely
- Bath Salt: I like to also have this bath salt on hand, so I’m always giving my skin different salts and trace minerals to soak up.
- Dead Sea Salt: Dead sea salt is so wonderful! Use it to luxuriate in the tub or put your feet into a soak for a few minutes after a long day.
The bottom line? Your headache may be the result of chronic magnesium deficiency, which tends to affect many of us in our modern society. With insufficient magnesium it usually presents as muscle spasms and tightness that leads to tension headaches (source). But even if you don’t have headaches to alert you to your magnesium intake, still be aware of it and strive to pay attention to how you feel when you do take in more magnesium. You may be surprised to find that your headaches dissipate or are at least more infrequent.
Potassium: Potassium is an electrolyte as well as a mineral, so it behaves a little differently than the other minerals that we have talked about.
Potassium plays roles in the body’s electrolyte and fluid balance, cell integrity, muscle contraction and transmission of nerve impulses. (source)
To get more potassium, try eating these foods (source):
- Produce Sources: bananas, avocados, mushrooms, dried apricots, cooked greens (spinach)
- Bone Broth and Savory Sources: white beans (soaked and cooked in stock), beef, chicken, and shellfish stock, baked potatoes, baked acorn squash, salmon, nuts and seeds (pepitas, sunflower seeds, almonds,
- Drinks: coconut water, orange juice
- Dairy: homemade yogurt
- Herbs, Spices, Other: parsley, paprika, chili powder, spirulina, dates, dried figs
Zinc: Zinc is essential to our health, and has been linked not only to the health of our immune system, but also to the possible root cause of headaches. Make sure you take enough fermented cod liver oil and eat lots of seafood and organ meats for proper vitamin A and D levels!
Plasma zinc levels have been found to be dependent upon vitamins A and D. This suggests that a Vitamin A or D deficiency could cause a secondary zinc deficiency and that for treatment of zinc deficiency one should ensure adequate vitamin A and D intake. (source)
Additionally, you can go to the health food store and purchase zinc lozenges to suck on as needed. My kids love them! When you start to get a cold, some studies show that zinc can help shorten the cold by one or two days. So yay!
Food sources for zinc are closely related to iron-rich lists, and include red meat, seafood, and whole grains. See the Iron section below.
Watch out for muscle pain or weakness. To protect against selenium problems, make sure that you get plenty of vitamin E. Some animal studies show that a selenium deficiency responds to vitamin E supplements. (source)
The link between Vitamin E and selenium is an interesting one, and one best approached from a traditional foods perspective as, again, akin to those foods that are iron- and zinc-rich: red meat, seafood, grains, and leafy greens. See more selenium-rich foods here.
Iron: Iron deficiency is one that you have probably heard of, and is called anemia. There are many solutions to the problem of iron deficiency, but for most people they are linked to fortified boxed cereals that contain iron! Instead, I like to simply make a habit of using cast iron in most of my cooking. I love my cast iron skillets, griddle, and other cast iron fun items like these.
The bottom line? Make sure you include these foods into your diet regularly. Just because you don’t need much of a trace mineral doesn’t mean it isn’t important! Small, consistent changes make all the difference. Buy a cast iron pan. Eat a banana every morning with your breakfast. Take daily cod liver oil and zinc lozenges when needed. Your headaches may be linked to these simple fixes, and you may find one day that you haven’t had to reach for the bottle of aspirin in a while. Happy day!
(But seriously, if you are going to use a pain reliever, consider using it sparingly, or just get white willow bark capsules instead of aspirin! You can also take a little peppermint essential oil and rub it on your temples. But don’t let me get too ahead of myself for next time when we talk about the healing power of essential oils!)
Tune in for the next installments, going up soon!
Part Two: Essential Oils
Part Three: Body Tension Release
Part Four: Pain Relief
Part Five: Digestion