Thursday, January 17, 2013

Keeping your head in the game: Tips to prevent headaches

I have struggled with headaches since I was young. Playing soccer growing up, there were plenty of hot summer days with two long, draining matches - and my head was often pounding from the heat. Advil was a staple in my soccer bag. It was usually the only thing that helped. But there was a period, in late elementary and middle school, when I experienced frequent migraines. I was prescribed medication for when I felt a new one coming on, and I vividly remember spending an entire weekend, lights off, cold washcloth on my eyes, lying in bed, head throbbing.

While I don't experience migraines anymore, I do still get headaches from time to time - and still, mostly connected to exercising. But, I've found there are several easy dietary strategies to implement to help with headaches - and yes, I said dietary. For me, and many other people, headaches are the result of a pH imbalance in our body, specifically when it becomes too acidic. The body's blood pH is supposed to be slightly alkalinic (pH is on a 0-14 scale, with 7 being neutral; less than 7 is acidic, more than 7 is alkaline). In addition to stress and immune reaction, diet has a significant influence on pH.

Every food we eat, when digested, either has an acid-forming or alkaline-forming effect. A quick note, just because foods are acidic pre-digestion does not necessarily mean it remains that way after digestion. Here's a fairly comprehensive list of acid-forming and alkaline-forming foods. Generally, dairy, animal protein, vegetable oils, sugars, and alcohol are acid-forming, while vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and some nuts/seeds are alkaline forming. Some other little-known items that are alkaline-forming, which have also made their way into my diet, are apple cider vinegar, green tea, cinnamon, and kombucha.


Let me share a quick natural experiment on myself that has really shed light on the importance of dietary pH.

I generally swim about four times every week. During the week, these workouts are around 6am and before I eat breakfast. I'd come home, eat breakfast around 8am, then off to work. On some days, I would developed headaches later in the day - only on days when I swam that morning, and always around 3pm in the afternoon when I would get them. Over the past couple weeks I've experimented with a few different combinations of specific foods and the timing of when I ate.

Trial A: 1) Swam at 6:15am. 2) Did not include dark greens with breakfast. 3) Did not have apple cider vinegar. 4) Ate lunch (large salad and almonds) around 2pm. Result = headache around 3pm.

Trial B: 1) Swam at 6:15am. 2) Did include dark greens with breakfast. 3) About 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar with 8oz of water (half before/half immediately after). 4) Lunch at 1pm. Result = No headache.

Trial C: 1) Swam at 6:15am. 2) Did include dark greens with breakfast. 3) About 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar with 8oz of water before workout. 4) Lunch at 4:30pm. Result = No headache.

This is by no means a perfect scientific experiment. But, I do generally eat almost the exact same thing around the same time for breakfast and lunch, so it offers are fairly controlled situation. At the same time, it does allude to some interesting headache-preventions strategies.

Three Easy Changes I've Made to Prevent Headaches


1. Sufficient caloric intake post-workout. This wasn't something I specifically modified in my little experiment, but one major trigger for headaches post-workout (particularly long efforts) is simply getting enough calories down the hatch - and this is often not all done in one sitting, but over the course of a few hours. I find it helpful to think about refueling over time just because exercise can have an appetite-suppressing effect. Bottom line, insufficient calories (or fluid) post-workout could contribute to headaches, but it can't be the only piece to the puzzle. There were plenty of times when I ate sufficient calories after a 2 hour run workout, but I still had a headache later in the day. Why? This leads me to my second point.

2. Eat more alkaline foods, particularly post-workout.  In my little experiment I found that I don't usually develop headaches after swimming on days when I follow my workout with more alkaline-forming foods, such as kombucha, apple cider vinegar, and dark greens. The interesting part was that even on the day I ate a late lunch - almost 9 hours after breakfast (and after the time of day I would usually get headaches) - AND ate alkaline-forming foods at breakfast, I didn't develop a headache. When the time between meals was less (Trial A) I still developed a headache when I did NOT eat alkaline-forming foods with breakfast. So, the take-away seems to be that the type of food is the key factor, not necessarily the timing.

3. Use Apple Cider Vinegar. This has become a staple in my diet - and it's worked wonders so far. I've mostly used it post-workout, mostly 1-2 tablespoons with water or in a smoothie. But as I mentioned above, I've started to use it more and more pre-workout. Sure it takes a little getting used to the flavor, but I've found apple cider vinegar to be one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective things to help balance pH.


Many people suffer from headaches and there's a variety of reasons as to why they occur in the first place. But, if I've learned one major thing about headaches over the past several years its that diet can play a powerful role is balancing the body's pH and helping to prevent then from occurring in the first place. Let's just say, that bottle of Advil isn't a staple in my gym bag anymore.

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