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What Headaches Can Do to Your Productivity

Discover how to prevent and relieve headache pain.


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157 million—that is the number of workdays lost due to migraines. When relentless headaches come knocking, the days can become a blur. Along with the physical pain, the loss of ability to perform at work or participate in favorite activities can take a toll on our mental and emotional wellbeing, particularly when headaches are chronic. Does this sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. You are only one among the 39 million Americans reported to undergo fist-clenching headache symptoms every year. Globally, the prevalence of headache disorders is about 50 percent. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of the world’s adult population suffers headaches every year.

Fear of taking too many sick days also pushes up presenteeism, a term coined for people turning up at work even when sick. One study looked at the impact of migraine attacks on productivity by observing responses from 500 people who suffered at least two to eight migraines a month. It found that presenteeism actually leads to more loss of productive hours versus when people call in sick. Companies may do well to take care of the mental health of their personnel, particularly ones who report headaches owing to stress, anxiety, burnout, or other underlying physical conditions. Loss of work due to migraine costs the U.S. economy nearly $14 billion annually.

Headache disorders characterized by lingering or recurring pain are common and debilitating. They can be primary such as migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches, or secondary, headaches that are caused by numerous underlying physical conditions and environment and seasonal factors. In the latter, the headaches may be symptoms signaling a deeper health concern that needs to be looked into, such as seasonal allergies, eye strain, and food allergies, just to name a few. Certain types of headaches can also be caused by the overuse of some medications, including antibiotics.

Headaches—especially migraines—have a social cost too, as they threaten the family- and social-life of those suffering from them, as well as hinder their potential and employability. Studies have also shown that people with chronic headaches are more prone to mental-health disorders like anxiety and depression than others.

Types and Symptoms

Migraines that manifest as severe throbbing or pulsating sensations on one side of the head are more common among women due to hormonal changes and inflamed nerves and blood vessels in the head region. They can last from a few hours to a couple of days, leaving people drained and foggy. Migraines may be preceded by visual phenomenon such as seeing different shapes and colors, loss of vision, watering eyes, constipation, numbness in parts of the body, or stiffness in the neck. They can cause nausea, vomiting, and hypersensitivity to light and sound.

Tension headaches are the most common headache, reported by more than 70 percent of the global population. They are caused by stress, tension, or musculoskeletal stiffness or injury in the neck. Many causes of tension headaches have to do with a lifestyle that lacks routine, is excessively heavy on the mental faculties, with not enough sleep or rest, and perpetual stress accumulation.

Relatively less common is the cluster headache that is characterized by recurring headaches up to several times within 24 hours. These happen to be extremely severe and are located near the eyes. These headaches may be accompanied by a running nose and red or watery eyes.

Common Triggers

Headaches can be triggered by any of these factors:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Irregular eating habits
  • Poor sleep cycles
  • Mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety
  • Emotional stress
  • Overuse of medication
  • Poor posture or eye, back, or neck strain
  • Digital overconsumption
  • Bright lights and noise
  • Seasonal allergies

Going by the science of Ayurveda, a combination of imbalance in vata and pitta doshas can be the cause behind migraines or tension headaches. The good news is, while some of them may not be completely curable, headaches can often be quickly managed to a meaningful extent through alternative healing therapies; adopting a healthier lifestyle; incorporating a dosha-appropriate diet, with some herbs and spices; adding certain mind-body practices; and regulating your sleep cycle.

Ways to Manage the Pain

Here are a few things you can do to manage those painful bouts of headache.

Yoga. You can get much more than robust physical health from the practice of yoga. It can also relieve headache symptoms by dealing with their root causes. Yoga can help calm the mind, dissolve stress building in the system, relax the upper body muscles, improve flexibility, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, get endorphins flowing that improve mood and mental wellbeing, and regulate the release of stress hormones in the body. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest; it lowers heart rate and blood pressure to induce relaxation in the mind and body.

A 2014 study showed that the frequency and intensity of headaches were reduced significantly in regular practitioners of yoga, along with regular treatment. They also reported better vagal tone—a measure of how active the vagus nerve is. The latest neurological research talks about the vagus (meaning wanderer) nerve, which is said to be responsible for the mind-body connection. It reaches almost all of the important organs in the body—the brain, gut, heart, liver, pancreas, kidney, spleen, lungs, reproductive organs, and even the tongue, influencing their functioning.

The vagus nerve can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve digestive juice secretion, heart rate variability, blood glucose balance, bile production, and kidney function, but most of all, it can boost a sense of connectedness, mental and physical wellbeing, and even altruistic behavior.

Some yogasanas that can be practiced to reduce headaches include:

  • Hastapadasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)
  • Shishuasana (Child Pose)
  • Marjariasana (Cat Stretch)
  • Paschimottanasana (Two-legged Forward Bend)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose)
  • Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
  • Shavasana (Corpse Pose)

Hydration. Staying hydrated is among the top five things you must do to prevent headaches. Dehydration is known to be a common cause of some types of vata headaches. Studies have shown that dehydration can actually affect human behavior. It can affect how you think and feel. A recent survey showed that one in 10 participants reported a dehydration headache. Those who experienced the headache felt relieved within half an hour to three hours of having water.

Ayurvedic herbs and remedies. Herbal teas can provide hydration while also letting you experience the full benefit of the herbs, such as peppermint, chamomile, and lavender. Studies, for example, found that ginger tea had almost the same effect in reducing migraines as over-the-counter medicines.

Ayurvedic texts recommend specific herbal formulations that address the specific dosha imbalances that manifest as headache disorders, such as

  • Triphala Churna. This is a powdered blend of three dried super herbs—haritaki or myrobalan, bibhitaki or beleric, and amla or gooseberries. Having Triphala in the form of powder or juices can help you cleanse your respiratory tract, improve breathing, calm the body, and clear sinuses and nasal passages. It relieves migraines caused by respiratory infections. Here’s everything you need to know about the benefits and usage of triphala.
  • Milk and clarified butter. A glass of milk combined with clarified butter, also called Ksheera Ghrita, is an instant remedy for reducing mild headaches. It has healthy fats; key nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and E; and proteins that improve your mood, help de-stress your mind, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, and increase the flow of feel-good chemicals in the body like tryptophan.
  • Pouring a few drops of warm ghee into the nostrils can relieve vata headaches, according to Ayurveda.
  • Brahmi or Bacopa monnieri. This cooling herb is very effective for those dealing with painful and throbbing headaches. The herb, used in various Ayurvedic formulations, helps treat mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and even memory loss. You can take this in the form of supplements or with ghee for nasal cleansing.
  • Sandalwood paste. Applying sandalwood paste is a timeless remedy from the pages of Ayurveda for treating pounding headaches. The cooling properties of the sandalwood combined with hydration available in water or milk can calm the pitta dosha if the headache is being caused by pitta aggravation. Inhaling sandalwood oil also helps fight respiratory infections and blocked nasal passages. Do make sure you source the sandalwood from authentic places. It must be taken only on recommendation by Ayurvedic practitioners.
  • Rock salt and water. Drink a glass of lukewarm water with a pinch of rock salt to feel better for kapha headaches that usually occur in winter or spring.

Nasya. Nasya therapy is an essential part of a panchakarma cleanse. Nasya karma refers to administering medicated herbal oils through nostrils for clearing out sinuses, relieving migraines and other types of headaches. Nasya is done in three steps. The first is a facial massage to activate specific pressure points on the face. That is followed by steam and then herbal oil is administered into the nostrils by seasoned therapists. It clears out accumulated mucus and releases toxins in the chest and head region.

Sleep. A regulated sleep cycle plays an important role in staving off chronic headaches. An improper sleep cycle can exacerbate vata headaches. Listening to soothing music, taking a nice hot shower, giving yourself a nice warm-oil foot massage or a full-body abhyanga—these can all help you sleep better at night. Good sleep is also important for managing mood, and anxiety. Insomnia has been closely linked to more severe and frequent headache episodes. According to a 2015 study, less than the required amount of sleep can overwork the nociceptive proteins that will eventually reduce one’s threshold for pain.

Meditation. Certain mind-body practices such as pranayama (alternate nostril breathing and bumblebee breathing) and meditation can go a long way in calming down an overworked nervous system, of which headaches can be an indicator. Meditation can also help significantly with tension and stress headaches. Along with breathwork, meditation also helps to flush out toxins from the system. Such toxins can manifest as aches and pains.

Yoga Nidra or yogic sleep. This is a powerful technique that gives you meditative rest by helping you to be aware through various parts of the body. Though you may be fully conscious, it is as—if not more—restorative than sleep. This technique can release stress and tension from the nervous system through mindful engagement with the body. It also improves REM sleep and helps regulate emotions.

All these measures can help reduce the intensity and frequency of headaches caused by vitiated doshas and the accumulation of ama, the toxic buildup of improperly digested food, in the body. Consider scheduling an examination by a senior Ayurveda practitioner to learn the exact doshas that are vitiated, the course of action you need to follow to bring them into a balanced state and rejuvenate your body and mind in the process.

Posted with permission from Art of Living Retreat Center

About The Author
Ruchira Roy Chowdhury

Ruchira Roy is a former business journalist turned health and wellness writer, meditation teacher, Ayurveda practitioner, and Art of Living volunteer. A New York University journalism graduate and an Asian College of Journalism alum, she is a pacifist who loves to create, entertain, meditate, and tell stories.