Guestpost by Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D
Although headaches can be caused by a wide variety of factors the end cause is stimulation of pain receptors in the head usually caused by dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the area. The Ayurvedic approach to removing the vascular and nervous system activity at the basis of headache is not symptomatic. Ayurveda does not attempt to dull the nervous system or suppress vascular activity with drugs as is the modern medical approach. Rather it aims to remove the true causes of headache and create a true and lasting healing rather just mere suppression of symptoms.
We need a more sophisticated approach to chromic headaches than mere pain suppression. We must remember pain actually has an evolutionary value as it tells us something is wrong. Can you imagine how confused our behavior would be if we never experienced pain when we put our finger on a hot pan or got hungry if we failed to eat. Nature uses pain to educate us and draw attention to mistakes that are damaging to us as an organism.
Pain is also part of a natural healing mechanism to draw attention to a specific area of the body. The flow of our mental attention to an injured area of the body creates a myriad of biochemical changes that help the body heal in that area. One of the oldest healing techniques in Ayurveda is that if you are injured you should close your eyes and let your attention be with the pain of the injured area. Doing this, especially at the first sign of injury, can have a strong healing effect on the body.
In terms of headache we want to remove the real bodily source of the pain rather than just dull the nervous system with drugs so it can’t experience pain. To understand how Ayurveda accomplishes this we need to appreciate its deeper and more profound view of how are bodies really function and heal. Ayurveda sees the gross physiology as an expression of biological intelligence. The biological intelligence creates the body and then stays in contact with it to guide its orderly functioning and development. Modern medicine treats the matter level of cells, tissues and organs. Ayurveda treats the intelligence level. Another way to say this is that modern medicine takes something from the outside like drugs and surgery to attack the disease. Ayurveda takes something from the inside to remove disease. It strengthens the body’s inner intelligence, it’s natural healing ability.
The Ayurvedic Headache Recommendation: Balance Vata
According to Ayurveda the division of biological intelligence called Vata controls nervous system activity and therefore the pain response. In order to reduce pain we must balance Vata. In my practice I have found the following Vata pacifying behaviors and diet can help people with chronic headache.
1. Go to bed early before 10:00 P.M. Nothing balances Vata and stabilizes the nervous system more than a good nights sleep. Conversely, staying up late aggravates Vata,
destabilizes the nervous system and can cause flare-ups of headache and migraine. It is also important to avoid excessively stimulating activity in the evening before bed. Exciting TV shows, even reading books can be too active for many people in the evening. Protect your evening. You probably work hard and are over stimulated during the day. Try to avoid work and excess stimulation in the evening. An evening walk after dinner is one excellent activity for calming and balancing the nervous system.
2. Have a regular routine of life. All of nature flows in cyclical rhythms. The body and especially the nervous system are much more balanced and healthy if we eat, sleep, work and exercise about the same time each day. Hectic routines of life where meals are skipped, exercise is avoided and sleep is minimal have a deeply Vat imbalancing effect and greatly exacerbate headache symptoms.
3. Eat warm foods and sip hot/warm water throughout the day. Heat is very balancing to Vata. Eating warm foods and sipping hot water can be very soothing to the nervous system. Cold drinks and cold foods depress digestion and aggravate Vata.
4. Perform Ayurvedic warm oil massage (abhyanga) in the morning before you bathe. Massaging the body with the proper herbalized oil is a wonderfully healthy regimen for the whole body and Vata in particular. Oil balances Vata and absorbing warm herbalized oil through the entire surface area of the body gives great resistance to becoming Vata aggravated as the day goes on.
5. Include high quality oils in your diet that have been sautéed with spices. In Ayurveda the nervous system tissue is called majja. Majja is composed primarily of oils and therefore it is oil that most nourishes the nervous system. Ayurveda holds that when high quality oils like organic ghee and organic extra virgin olive are sautéed with spices like fresh ginger root, cumin, coriander and small quantities of freshly ground pepper the spices help the oil be transported into tissues and nourish them more deeply. If nerves are depleted of the much needed oil component they are much more susceptible to a hyper-sensitized pain response.Note: Please consult your physician before making changes in your oil consumption.
6. Practice regular meditation, pranayama (Yogic breathing techniques) and yoga asanas. These three Vedic practices are balancing to the entire physiology and especially Vata. Traditional hatha yoga asanas are the most pure and authentic yoga asanas. TM centers include instruction in an excellent set of yoga asanas. The alternate nostril breathing pranayama technique is very simple and relaxing. Again TM centers contain good instruction. I do not recommend excessively fast or strenuous pranayama practice for people with chronic headaches. For meditation I recommend the Transcendental Meditation technique due to its ease of practice and scientific validation.
The ideal use of these practices is to perform the sequence of asanas, followed by pranayama followed by the TM technique twice a day.
Chronic headaches are very much influenced by, diet, behavior and the practice of Yogic rejuvenative regimens. The best approach is to be patient and focus on living a healthy, balanced life. Remember headaches are usually mere symptoms of imbalance that can be removed with proper lifestyle.
Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D
Named “one of the nation’s most prominent Ayurvedic doctors” by the Chicago Tribune, Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D. is an author, teacher and Ayurvedic specialist in women’s health issues. Dr. Lonsdorf is board-certified in integrative medicine by the American Board of Integrative, Holistic Medicine (ABIHM), has a private practice in Fairfield, Iowa, and teaches Clinical Ayurveda training courses for medical doctors at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California.
Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D. received her medical degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and did her residency training in psychiatry at Stanford University. She trained in Ayurveda with leading Ayurvedic physicians and scholars in India, Europe and the United States.
Dr. Lonsdorf has served as the medical director of The Raj Ayurveda Health Spa, an award-winning Ayurvedic treatment center, and The Maharishi Ayurveda Medical Center in Washington D.C., the first Ayurvedic medical clinic in the nation’s capital.
Dr. Lonsdorf has special expertise in women’s health and is author of The Ageless Woman: Natural Health and Beauty After Forty with Maharishi Ayurveda (MCD Century, May 2004), and co-author of a best-selling Ayurvedic health guide for women of all ages entitled A Woman’s Best Medicine: Health, Happiness and Long Life through Maharishi Ayur-Veda, published in 1995 by Tarcher/Putnam of New York.
Dr. Lonsdorf is the recipient of the Atreya Award for excellence in Ayurvedic practice given by the Association of Ayurvedic Pracitioners of North America. She has served as a consultant and grant reviewer in complementary and alternative medicine for the National Institutes of Health and currently serves on the editorial board of Natural Medicine Journal. She has lectured at leading medical schools including Johns Hopkins, Columbia-Presbyterian, NIH and the CDC, is a frequently quoted expert on Ayurveda and natural health in the lay press, and has been featured in numerous local and national TV and radio shows as well as the print media.