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Persistent Headache Causes That Might Surprise You


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Years ago, when I was in high school looking to the future as a pre-med undergraduate in college, I perused a used bookstore with college textbooks and found a big orange and black book on diseases of the digestive system and proctology, in the throw-away bin. It was one volume of a set and since it was free, I decided to take it home. I never read the book cover-to-cover, but I did open it every now and then and read little snippets of information. One key piece of information that has been useful to me is the fact that digestive problems can cause headaches.

When I first met my husband, he had chronic, painful headaches. He also had problems with diarrhea and constipation, alternating. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed him with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), but we never accepted that as a suitable diagnosis since there was no treatment for it. IBS seemed to be the type of disease that doctor’s diagnose when they don’t know what’s wrong with their patient, but can’t admit it.

My husband and I went through a period of poverty following 9/11 and as a result, our eating habits changed. Since meat was expensive, we stopped eating so much of it. Instead, we ate a lot of beans and rice (or occasionally rice and beans). One day, we both looked at each other and realized that John’s IBS had all but disappeared.

With some experimentation, we discovered that my husband was sensitive to beef. If he merely ate something that had touched beef, he would experience abdominal cramping and days on end of diarrhea alternating with constipation. Getting rid of the beef, changed his life.

We became vegetarians.

We paid more attention to how different foods and ingredients affected us.

Over time, we discovered that trans fats (also known as mono- and di-glyerides as well as fractionated oils and a variety of other names meant to dupe consumers) caused both of us days of grief including stomach issues and headaches. After we discovered the woes that trans fats caused us, we cut them out of our diets, but occasionally, some would still sneak in. Then, we would have about 5 days of lethargy, headaches, tummy aches, and even a little depression.

Little did I know, there were trans fats in my ibuprophen. I would take Advil (aka ibuprophen) to relieve my headaches. But the brand of ibuprophen that I bought contained the very thing that caused my headaches in the first place. Ironically, when we ate a lot of trans fats, we didn’t really notice the side effects. The less we ate, the more we noticed the headaches and stomach problems. We reasoned that trans fats must be addictive.

Many years of experimentation and paying attention to our diets has shown us that when our digestive system is upset, usually we also have a headache. Although I’ve had sinus headaches before, most of my headaches, I believe, are associated with tummy issues. Because the digestive system traverses the entire body from mouth to rectum, if there’s swelling in the intestines or stomach, it pushes on other organs and nerves that are nearby which can cause “referred pain” in the neck, shoulders, and head.

The idea that a digestive upset could take place in isolation from the rest of the bodily organs and functions is silly to say the least. If you eat something that causes profound bloating in your intestinal system, all of the organs in your abdomen are affected by proxy. Imagine how a swollen large intestine could push on the large arteries and veins in the abdomen and how this extra pressure in the body could, theoretically raise one’s blood pressure. The higher blood pressure alone could lead to headaches and other symptoms. But doctors will rarely mention a digestive problem to patients suffering from persistent headaches.

Gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, sensitivity to dairy products, and other food-related sensitivities can all ultimately be at the root of chronic unexplained headaches. Pharmaceuticals can also cause headaches. Even over-the-counter medications can cause digestive turmoil and related head pain. But doctors are trained to think about the human body in terms of discreet and separate systems that don’t interact very much. Implicating the digestive system as the underlying problem behind headaches would be a threat to pharmaceutical companies that make their profits off of drugs that are consumed by mouth.

If you have chronic, unexplained headaches, start a food journal. Look more closely at the ingredients in the foods you eat and how these ingredients impact you. Or, take a month and go on a strictly fruit and veggie diet with a little meat here and there. See if your symptoms change in some way in response to a change in diet. Even if the symptoms get worse, that tells you that your diet is somehow related to your symptoms (perhaps you’re going through a Healing Crisis).





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