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Headache: The Holistic Approach

by Michael Cheikin, MD

Headaches are one of the most common experiences of humankind, recorded in the Bible, and affecting children as well as adults. While all headaches have a commonality, pain in the head, the various dimensions of the pain, and the associated suffering and disability vary. While conventional medications can bring relief, they often have significant limitations and associated toxicity. The holistic approach often can find and remedy root causes.

There are several dimensions of headache that need to be explored, These include 1) the intensity of the pain, 2) the degree of suffering —i.e. how disabling the pain is, 3) the newness of the pain—i.e. is it a new pain or a recurrent pain, 4) the frequency of the pain—how often it occurs, 5) the duration of the pain, when it comes, as well as overall temporal pattern, 6) the variability of the pain—how much it varies in the timing, location, and other qualities, 7) exacerbating factors—what makes it worse. 8) relieving factors 9) associated factors, such as a specific—what makes it better and how much, and environment, food, or other triggers/stressors.

Based on these nine dimensions, as well as other historical information, laboratory studies and physical exam, a physician will classify a headache into one of several types. Certain patterns of headache, such as migraine, will guide treatment, such as the use of specific types of medications.

Holistic Evaluation

In holistic medicine there is a separation of “triggers” from the headache itself. Very often the headache is perceived as being random or has some variability that is not understood. However, any variability is a clue, and is monitored until a pattern, or a series of patterns emerges. Often the headache is multi-factorial, like a web, with a constellation of factors. Most patients, with the help of a practitioner, can identify such factors and patterns.

Logging the pain pattern(s) on a weekly and monthly basis sometimes reveals a pattern. Often there is more than one pattern or pain that may have not been apparent prior to tracking.

The holistic evaluation of headache is extensive. Food and sleep diaries, relationships, job, environment, and many other factors are explored in detail. Exploration of history often goes back to childhood and to the family lineage.

It is practical to think of the triggers/causes of headache in three interactive areas: 1) nutritional deficiency, 2) toxicities and 3) stressors. Most of the population is deficient in magnesium and vitamin D. Other common deficiencies include vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils) and sleep. Any of these deficiencies, and others, can be a trigger or cause of headaches. The most common toxicities include lead, mercury, mold/yeast, fluoride, plastics and pesticides and EMFs (Electro-Magnetic Fields).

Regarding stressors, is helpful to think of stress as of two types: physiological and psycho-spiritual. The physiological type has been already discussed and consists of deficiency and toxicity. The psycho-spiritual type is related to life stress. This can include relationships, health of self and family, economic and social/community (including wars, hurricanes and oil spills).Stress causes a host of physiological changes to the hormonal, neurotransmitter and immune systems that can easily trigger or perpetuate headaches.

The most important “alternative” tests are for heavy metals, halides, gut dysfunction, infection with yeast, parasites and spirochetes (including Lyme), hormonal imbalance and in some cases food allergy.

Holistic Treatment

Improving headaches at a root-cause level requires a multi-dimensional approach. Often there are important changes in lifestyle, which includes improved sleep hygiene (more consistent and quality sleep), regular stress reduction with a classic (not gym) yoga class, gentle walks, and other restorative activities. There needs to be a balance between work and play. These are not optional in most cases where a patient is seeking optimal results.

Lifestyle changes also often include changes in food choices, with the reduction of pro-inflammatory, highly processed conventional foods. Sometime, more formal and elimination and detoxification programs are required.

When lab tests demonstrate specific deficiencies or toxicities appropriate supplementation, detoxification, and treatment of offending organisms are important. Headaches often respond to supplementation with missing nutrients as well as traditional herbals such as feverfew and butterbur and lavender. Repeat testing is important to measure the magnitude and rate of response to interventions, since simply taking supplements or “doing a detox” for a few months may not solve some underlying deficiencies or toxicities. Often there are surprises. For example, after clearing a parasite, a bacterial imbalance might occur. Or after detoxification of mercury, fluoride begins to clear.

Some people hold energetic traces of past physical injuries, emotional traumas, and sometimes more obscure familial “karmic” traces in their bodies, which can include the muscles, joints, acupuncture meridians or yogic chakras. Working in the psycho-spiritual-energetic plane may be essential for optimal healing in such a situation. This plane can be approached by yoga practice, acupuncture, EMDR, Reiki, and other mind-body-energy techniques.

An organized multi-dimensional approach can often improve the quality of life for those who suffer from headaches, even if present for decades. The cost of this approach is usually recouped with reduction of medications, physician visits, and improved productivity and quality of life.


1. This educational material may not be used to influence medical care without supervision by a licensed practitioner.

2. These contents are ©2010-19 by Michael Cheikin MD and may not be reproduced in any form without express written permission.

3. Dr. Cheikin's website has related articles such as “FrankenFoods”, “Magnesium” and many others.

Michael Cheikin MD is a holistic physician, Board Certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation ("Physiatry"), Pain Management, Spinal Cord Medicine and Electrodiagnostic Medicine and licensed in Medical Acupuncture. Dr. Cheikin has extensively studied yoga, diet and metabolism, Ayurvedic, Chinese and energy medicine and other alternative modalities for over 35 years. He specializes in obscure, chronic and severe problems that have not responded satisfactorily to other methods of healing. www.cheikin.com

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