How to Stop Headaches: A Review of the Huberman Lab Podcast Episode

“Headaches are something everyone will suffer from in their lifetime. Unfortunately, headaches can be incredibly debilitating,” states Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine and host of the Huberman Lab podcast. His latest podcast, How to Stop Headaches Using Science-Based Approaches, covers everything from the biology of a headache to how to treat different types of headaches. We’ve summarized the entire 2.5 hours for you here.

Key takeaways:

Huberman hosts a popular medical podcast touching on several health-related issues, from weight loss to ADHD. In the episode How to Stop Headaches Using Science-Based Approaches (2023, February 6), Huberman discusses types of headaches and how to treat them depending on their origin and type. Below, we review the podcast and summarize the main points to help you better understand the types of headaches and how to treat them individually.

The “ache” in headache

Huberman starts the podcast by discussing the main types of pain causing the ache in headaches.

  • Muscular pain. Muscles around the head and neck.
  • Meningeal pain (meninges). The tissues surrounding the brain.
  • Neural pain. Nerves around the head and neck.
  • Inflammatory pain. Inflammation in the blood vessels surrounding the head.

Types of headaches

Most people suffer from headaches, at least occasionally. However, why a person gets headaches, the time they last, and how severe the pain varies by individual. So, let's take a look at the causes of common types of headaches from which people suffer.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are common and can cause a halo-like effect around the head and sometimes down the back of the neck. Some people may experience the pain “climbing” up the back of the head, or even pain in and around the jaw.

Tension headaches are caused by the meninges, the tissues surrounding the brain. The tension in this tissue causes pressure on the brain and causes increase sensations of discomfort.

Cause of tension headaches:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • High levels of stress
  • Increased intake of caffeine
  • Bacterial infections
  • Lifestyle issues

Migraine headaches

Migraines are reoccurring headaches that people experience frequently — sometimes multiple times per week, and can be debilitating. Women are three times more likely to experience a migraine headache than men. However, there is no direct relation between migraine headaches and hormones or the female menstrual cycle.

Photophobia (light sensitivity) and aura are the main distinctions of a migraine headache, and sometimes, people who experience them can “feel a migraine coming on” due to light sensitivity and feelings of a halo (or aura) of light surrounding them. This sensitivity is caused by the blood vessels in the eyes dilating, causing more light to be absorbed and making the person experience over-absorption of light.

Causes of migraine headaches:

  • Unknown; however, they are believed to be of neurological origin.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches generally occur on one side of the head or the other. Typically, people experiencing cluster headaches will have pain behind the eye, ear, or nose, and it feels like it’s coming from deep inside the head. Cluster headaches can have a sudden onset, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours, and occur numerous times throughout the day and night. This type of headache can occur during sleep, and the pain can wake someone up.

Cluster headaches are also known to cause a droopy eyelid or nasal drip. Cluster headaches seem to occur more often in men than women; however, it is unknown why.

The pupils will not dilate when provoked by light during a cluster headache.

Causes of cluster headaches:

  • Inflammation of trigeminal nerves (the nerve that lines the sides of the face).
  • Seems to be related to circadian rhythm disruption.

Hormone headaches

Hormone headaches seem to occur in women soon after the follicular and luteal phases of the menstrual cycle. This is generally 1–4 days into menstruation. Hormone headaches happen because of a decreased level of both estrogen and progesterone. Hormone headaches are very common and occur at some point in a woman’s life.

Causes of hormone headaches:

  • Low estrogen and progesterone levels.

Traumatic brain injury headaches

Traumatic brain injury headaches occur after a hit to the head. Commonly, the pain does set it until hours, days, or weeks after the injury occurs.

Surprisingly, over 90% of brain injury headaches are not caused by sports, as the media suggests. This type of headache is due to the swelling and tension of the meninges (tissues around the brain) and causes constant pressure and pain.

Causes of traumatic brain injury headaches:

  • Car accident head injury.
  • Construction or work-related injury.
  • Playground injury.
  • Sports injuries, including soccer, football, and boxing.

Headache treatment options

Increasing creatine and omega-3, introducing red lights, Botox, herbs, oils, or acupuncture into your routine may help with headaches.

Increase creatine

Creatine supplementation has been used in professional athletes to help with performance and increase water retention in the muscles. Interestingly, increasing creatine intake to 5–10 grams/day has been shown to decrease brain injury headaches due to its ability to regulate calcium. Calcium becomes dysregulated after a traumatic brain injury and can impact focus and attention, causing headaches and pain. Creatine is stored in the muscles, including the brain, and can help stimulate calcium production and absorption regulation.

Foods that are high in creatine:

  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Salmon

If there are dietary restrictions or someone is vegan or vegetarian, creatine supplements may be purchased over the counter in most pharmacies.

Increase omega-3 fatty acids

Eating more or supplementing with one gram of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids and decreasing omega-6 has substantially reduced the pain and frequency of migraine, hormone, and tension headaches.

Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. This can lessen the tension caused by headaches. In a recent study, pain from and frequency of headaches decreased substantially when people were given one gram or more of omega-3 and also decreased their intake of omega-6 fatty acids.

Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Fatty, ocean fish (salmon, herring, sardines)
  • Fish oil capsules
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Soybeans

Red light

Bright blue and green light can trigger an aura or photophobia headaches in those who experience migraine headaches. Instead of immediately turning off the lights and going to bed, Huberman mentions that this can be balanced with very orange or red lights, as these lights are known to shift photosensitivity and ease migraine symptoms. There is no need to purchase a high-cost red light therapy system, and something as simple as switching the lightbulbs to cost-effective red lightbulbs may do the trick. As a bonus, red lights can also increase cortisol levels (the “happy” hormone).

Botox

The process of injecting Botox into the muscle in and around the neck and head can prevent step-in neurotransmission and prevent communication between the neuron and the muscle. This prevents the muscles from contracting and causing tension and, therefore, relaxes the muscles and provides long-term relief from tension headaches. However, Huberman mentions that this is a long-term but expensive option.

Oils, herbs, and spices

Certain herbs and oils have been shown in many studies to be much better at treating and preventing tension headaches and migraine headaches than NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen. For instance, peppermint and eucalyptus oils have significantly decreased headache pain. Peppermint and menthol have been shown to decrease the intensity of headaches due to a cooling effect on the neurons. Turmeric is known to have very high levels of anti-inflammatory effects and can, therefore, very effectively relieve tension headaches.

Acupuncture

Strategically placed acupuncture needles can reduce head-related pain and tension headaches. This can deactivate sensory motor neurons, decreasing pain caused by headaches. It also can activate pathways that increase anti-inflammatory benefits.

Caffeine

Caffeine can decrease constriction of the vessels in the brain, causing less tension and, therefore, can lessen the tension causing a headache. It can also act as a constricting mechanism and increase awareness and prevent headaches if they’re specifically due to being overtired.

Andrew Huberman's podcast, How to Stop Headaches Using Science-Based Approaches, is packed full of useful tools to help combat headaches once and for all. His ability to take very complex information and share it in an easy-to-understand way is outstanding. If you would like more information on headaches or treatment options, take listen to the Andrew Huberman podcast.



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