Headaches sufferers know that this is no way to live yet most don’t know the cause of their debilitating condition. I frequently hear “dehydration,” “too much sugar,” and “stress,” mentioned as common triggers. While dehydration may seem like an easy fix, many don’t understand the effects of long-term dehydration resulting from depletion of deep yin fluids. Making the effort to correct a yang driven, stress filled lifestyle doesn’t always come easy when living in a driven society. Headache powders and pills can keep us going most of the time and for those severe migraines, forced down time can result in loss of work and productivity. We frequently push ourselves to keep going even when our bodies are crying for us to slow down. This pattern, especially when reinforced with toxic mimics like caffeine, can be incredibly depleting. The question that comes to mind is: Why has so much value been placed on the human doing while neglecting the human being and at what cost? It’s a story as old as time, but that story is changing. The human potential movement has us demanding new answers and new solutions. The paradox is that answers have been here all along. They are no further than we are right now. We are standing on our medicine.
Orthodox medicine considers the underlying cause of migraine to be unknown. What we do know, and what migraine sufferers are constantly aware of, is that there are triggers that generally precede the onset of a migraine headache. Headaches in general are the most common health problem and the most common side effect from prescription or over-the-counter drugs. All prescription medications are yin depleting, or in other words, drying to deep yin fluids necessary to not only cool the liver and keep it from overheating, but also to lubricate the entire body. In a society where it is easy to simply take a pill for a headache, we have not thought to differentiate between types of headaches as is done in Chinese Medicine according to the meridians and specific symptoms. Just like the Eskimo have many words to describe snow, there are many different ways to describe headache. The two most common types are vascular headaches (dilation of blood vessels) and tension headaches (muscle spasms).
The most common triggers for migraine headache are stress (physical, emotional or mental) and fatigue. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an elegant system that describes patterns of disharmony through its Five Element Theory. We all know that stress affects hormones. In the energetic model of TCM the Liver, or the Wood Element, is largely responsible for regulating hormones. The Wood Element is responsible for holding and releasing substances at the proper time including hormones and emotions. Disharmony in the liver disrupts these processes and is almost always implicated in any kind of headache, especially cyclical or seasonal headaches. Other triggers can include environmental and dietary. In all cases, migraines are the result of disruption of liver qi.
When liver qi or energy is disrupted due to liver congestion and stagnancy, liver heat rises, causing a turbulent inner wind. This is a ‘wind’ that smacks us upside the head, so to speak. Migraine symptoms like light sensitivity (Wood Element sense organ correspondence is the eyes) nausea (rebellious liver qi, energy moving up instead of down) or a migraine provoked by anger (repressed or otherwise) along with an increasing frequency of migraine episodes in the spring, all implicate the liver’s role in migraine headaches. We see this through the Wood Element’s correspondences of eyes (sense organ), anger (root emotion) and spring (season.)
Relieving liver congestion is fundamental to improving headaches of any kind and can be achieved with proper diet, rest, nutrition, and nourishing and tonic herbs. Tonic herbs are herbs that are taken over a period of time usually from 3 months to a year. The longest lasting result from herbs is seen in their tonic ability to restore bodily systems. Some of the better know hepatic tonics include: dandelion, burdock root and yellow dock. Herbs that help to restore the yin fluids that cool the liver are: licorice root, reishi mushroom, schizandra, nettles and red clover. Eating a lighter diet that includes the bitter flavor and lots of spring greens with herbal vinegar dressing or fresh lemon is helpful in clearing liver heat (see recipe link below.) Full sweet (whole grains, legumes, sweet potato, winter squash, etc.) is harmonizing to the liver and increases liver qi (energy for the liver to do its work.) If you suffer with migraines you may do well to work with an alternative medicine practitioner (herbalist, naturopath, chiropractor, acupuncturist) who understands and uses these concepts in their practice.
Adaptogenic herbs become a very important consideration when helping the body adapt to environmental and internal stress. They help restore balance and are another strategy to increase the body’s resistance to stressors and provide a defense response to acute chronic stress. Adaptogens are unique in their ability to restore balance of endocrine hormones, modulate the immune system, prevent and reduce illness while strengthening the body. In TCM adaptogenic herbs are considered qi tonics that strengthen and stimulate the immune and defense functions of the body. Some examples of adaptogenic herbs are He shou wu, Ashwaganda, Licorice, Schisandra and Reishi. By normalizing neurotransmitter levels in the brain adaptogens are used to prevent and treat neurological health problems including headaches and migraines.
The more we wake up and realize that increased productivity actually comes from replenishing and nourishing ourselves at the deepest level the more we realize our human potential. Nourishment comes in many forms including wholesome foods and the herbs listed above as well as creative expression and a life filled with purpose and meaning. The good new is: There is hope for headache sufferers in every season.
Learn more in Thea Summer Deer’s class, Love Your Liver: Spring and the Wood Element, a work at your pace, online class at Wise Woman University. For an edible spring weed recipe visit: Thea’s Kitchen. Visit Thea Summer Deer: www.theasummerdeer.com
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