Back Pain, Headaches and Stress

It isn’t very often that a true insight into our own health hits, but I believe I had one a few weeks ago.

Long time readers of this blog know that I tackled and overcame my back pain issues years ago. After I admitted that I didn’t understand what caused my back pain, I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that the pain was rooted in stress.

The back pain was most likely to flare up when I tried unsuccessfully to control something beyond my control. Once I saw the pattern I was able to learn how to release control and the back pain went away. Then for a few years, I rarely got any back pain. When I did, I would reflect on what I was trying to control, change my response and the pain would go away.

After tackling the back pain, I went after headaches. After 3.5 years of quantified self tracking, I came to the conclusion that stress was likely the cause of my headaches. It that case, it was the tracking that made things worse. My Last Post on Headaches goes into more detail on my thoughts.

Some Questions

Earlier this month the back pain started up again. This wasn’t a concern since I was confident that I could address it in a way to make it go away. But some interesting questions popped into my head.

  1. I believe stress is the root of both my back pain and headaches. Yet I can’t recall a single time where I had both back pain and a headache simultaneously. Why?
  2. Is the stress associated with back pain different from the stress associated with headaches?
  3. My headache pain typically starts very early in the morning (~3 AM). My back pain would most likely hit in the early afternoon (~ 3 PM). Why?

I chewed on these questions for a few days and I think I discovered the answers.

stress pencil

Photo by Light Collector

Back Pain = Stress Triggered by Environment

The back pain was triggered by an environmental or external stress. It was me pushing against the world and not getting the response I desired. From my January 2011 post How I Figured Out the Cause of My Back Pain:

Every date that I wrote down was during a period that I didn’t feel in control. The stock market went against me or I got stuck in traffic or something similar.

The two examples that came to mind the quickest were stressful events triggered by something external and outside my control: the stock market and traffic. Earlier this month I was forced to leave my both my home and venture off into an area of the country unknown to me. This explains the back pain as my response to an external stressor.

Headaches = Stress Triggered By Self

The headaches were frequent when I was trying to force an internal change. Primarily and ironically, getting rid of the headaches. Endless n=1 tests compounded the stress that I was failing at solving the riddle of the headaches. Once I gave up the pressure to the solve the headaches, they almost completely went away. And this is why I rail against Quantified Self.

Headaches were common when I was trying to change myself. They occurred when I didn’t see an external barrier. Like the back pain, the roots were the inability to accept things outside my control. The solution lies in acceptance.

Just a Theory

This is my first pass at a theory to explain the differences between stress induced back pain and headaches. It might be incomplete or wrong. I’d love to hear for others that have dealt with both back pain and headaches and if they’ve noticed a pattern. I’m also interested in neck pain, as it doesn’t line up neatly with either side.

As for the first question. Why don’t I ever get both at the same time? Just a guess but I’d bet that my subconscious is assigning a primary source of blame and pursues the path of pain that accomplishes its goal of distracting me from what it sees as a greater pain – which is the feeling of being powerless.

My Last Post on Headaches

An interesting thing happened last week after my post Quantified Self and False Pattern Recognition. In that post I mentioned the benefit I have received from ending the daily tracking.

I don’t think I’ve had a single headache this entire year that has woke me up in the middle of the night that was intense enough to prevent me from returning to sleep. During the 2.5 year Quantified Self experiment, I averaged 7.5 bad headaches a month.

Guess what happened next? I started getting headaches. Just a few nights, but they seemed to come out of the blue. The last time that happened was in November. From the post Life After Quantified Self.

For three weeks after I ended the daily data collection, I didn’t get a single headache. That is a record. Even in my month with no coffee that never happened. In fact I didn’t even get my first headache of the month until someone asked how it was going and then I became aware that I was having a record month.

Stress is likely the cause of the headaches. Posting about headaches is stressful. Responding to comments about headaches is stressful. Talking about headaches is as well. So I am done. This is the last post I will be doing on my headaches. I will also be closing out the comments on all the older headache posts.

Perception of Pain

Right now I am reading the book Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It by Gabor Mate M.D. If that name sounds familiar it is because he also wrote the book The Stress Disease Connection, which I blogged about in December 2012.

In Scattered there is a passage describing how we perceive pain varies depending upon the environment. In situations where you aren’t alone, pain can be more intense. The book uses the example of a skier that breaks her leg. If the break happens when the person is with someone the pain will likely be higher than if the person is alone. If the hiker is alone, the risk of freezing to death could dampened the pain enough to mobilize the skier to move.

Although my headaches were never an emergency situation, the passage stuck with me. This blog and the data I exposed publicly via Quantified Self created a situation where I was never alone with my pain. Daily quantification of pain makes one hyper focused on pain. Only when I stopped Quantified Self, stopped blogging about headaches and stopped talking about headaches did the pain go away.



Stress As a Cause or a Symptom?

I hesitate to say to that stress was the absolute cause of the headaches. I don’t know, nor do I think I ever will. And that is OK. I do know the headaches were unrelated to diet and weather. Focusing on reducing stress and improving my response to stress is the way forward and that can’t be quantified.

So this is the last post I will be doing on headaches. I will no longer be responding to any ideas or suggestions related to headaches. Thank you for following this journey. Maybe you got something of value from it.

Quantified Self and False Pattern Recognition

I was watching Episode 3 of the new Cosmos show when Neil deGrasse Tyson said something that reminded me an awful lot of the Quantified Self movement.:

The human talent for pattern recognition is a two-edged sword. We’re especially good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t really there — something known as “false pattern recognition.”

The show was speaking about how our distant ancestors looked up into the night sky and tried to draw meaning from what they saw when a comet passed overhead. But this quote could easily apply to a modern man tracking a few points of data in a spreadsheet trying to find some hidden meaning.

I tracked my headaches, sleep quality and coffee intake for 2.5 years trying to find patterns. The single pattern I found was a decrease in headache frequency when I sharply reduced coffee intake. Look at the chart below.


This was my comet in the sky. And guess what? The pattern was false.

From the moment I stopped doing Quantified Self my headaches plummeted and I didn’t change my coffee intake. With the exception of the month where I was playing Candy Crush, the headaches have almost all but disappeared. I don’t think I’ve had a single headache this entire year that has woke me up in the middle of the night that was intense enough to prevent me from returning to sleep. During the 2.5 year Quantified Self experiment, I averaged 7.5 bad headaches a month.

Why have the headaches disappeared? And how did they disappear all while consuming high levels of coffee? I don’t have a spreadsheet to tell you the answer, but I’ll speak from the gut. The headaches came from stress. One huge source of the stress was Quantified Self. Tracking something daily that I was failing at publicly clearly played a role.

How did I deal with stress? The dopamine hit of another espresso always made me feel a little bit better. But the fact I couldn’t control my coffee intake also made me feel worse. So when I was able to better manage stress and reduce my coffee levels, my headache levels dropped. Coffee was likely a symptom and not the cause.

Today I am drinking a fair amount of coffee. My sleep is perfect and my headaches seem to be gone. Had I not rejected Quantified Self, I never would have learned that coffee intake was a false pattern recognition. I also suspect a lot of the conclusions others are drawing from their Quantified Self experiments are false pattern recognitions.

The rest of the quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of some special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others.

I May Have Finally Found a Headache Cure

Last December I reframed my headache question. After almost 3 years of trying to prevent headaches, I decided instead to look into how to eliminate the headache once it arrived. The full list of things I’ve tried is on the post Headache Remedies That Work?, but the takeaway is that the things that work for others have no affect on me. That includes aspirin, Tylenol, Aleve, Ibuprofen and numerous anti-histamine sinus medications.

Before I reveal what I’ve found that has been helping, I want to say that since I quit playing Candy Crush, my headache levels have dropped considerably. Candy Crush headaches have been reported by a number of people online. I am not sure if it head position, the fast moving game layout or some form of screen apnea. Screen apnea is a term coined by Linda Stone that means to have shallow breathing or unconsciously hold your breath while in front of a screen. It is also called email apnea. I know I sometimes have this problem.

What has helped reduce headache pain? Baking soda. I mix a teaspoon of baking soda in water and drink it. Within two minutes, my headache intensity drops. It is unbelievable. At that point the headache usually just fades away. Sometimes the baking soda trick only lasts for a short period and then the headache intensity increases. But it never goes back to where it was, so I have a follow up baking soda and water drink.

This headache hack isn’t perfect, but for me it is the only thing I’ve tried that works. And it works quickly and it is dirt cheap. I also think I could stack this hack with the Amazing “Back to Sleep” Hack, which includes a pinch of sugar and salt mixed together.


Why is baking soda working? Ray Peat and his followers like baking soda as a supplement for increasing CO2. From the article Protective CO2 and aging.

An adequate supply of calcium, and sometimes supplementation of salt and baking soda, can increase the tissue content of CO2.

If this is right then increasing the amount of CO2 in the tissues is a clue. When I was working on this post I found the page How Do You Increase The CO2 Level in The Blood? on the Peatatarian forum. User kasra posted this:

When I asked Ray if carbonated drinks could increase tissue CO2, he replied “In a crisis situation, it (or baking soda in water) can be helpful, but it’s more effective to rebreathe in a paper bag.”

I’ll test the paper bag idea out next, but the good news is my headache level has been super low lately, so it may be a away before I can try it.

Candy Crush Headaches

I hesitate to post this, but I need to hear from others. As some of you know I sometimes experience night headaches that wake me up in the early hours of the morning. When I stopped quantified self, my rate of headaches dropped considerably. For a few months things were going OK.

Then I read about how the Candy Crush Saga game was sweeping the country in popularity.

Normally I don’t play video games, but I like to have some awareness of popular pop culture. For example, I watched an episode of Jersey Shore just so I would know what a Snooki was. With video games, I watched my nephews play Call of Duty and I myself played a few rounds of Angry Birds. So I decided to see what Candy Crush was all about.

Candy Crush headache

Candy Crush Saga – The crack of video games

Candy Crush turned out to be the most addicting game I’ve ever played. And I don’t even like video games. When I installed it, I figured I’d knock out a few levels and then never play again. Like I did with Bejeweled a decade ago. That was the plan. But this games gets in your head. I couldn’t stop playing. Thankfully, I never connected the game with others on Facebook.

During the month of December I installed and uninstalled the game three times. I watched video tutorials on YouTube to guide me through levels. I was seeking out Candy Crush tips from friends and family. And I was getting way more headaches. I was fully prepared to blame the increase in headaches on the season. Shorter days means I tend to consume more caffeine and caffeine in high levels is a known trigger for me. But I uninstalled Candy Crush two weeks ago and my headaches have dropped all the way down to pre-Candy Crush levels.

The article 13 Surprising Headaches Triggers by Diana Vilibert provided a clue.

If you’you’ve ever found yourself slouching over your phone playing Candy Crush for hours, you may want to give it a rest. The brightness of your screen activates the retina and the nerves behind the eye, which can cause eye strain and head pain—and the same goes for your laptop.

I was playing Candy Crush from my iPod, which is a device I mostly use for music and only look at briefly. I was suddenly spending an hour or two, often before bed bent over playing. During the time I was playing the games the most, I got what I am calling Candy Crush Elbow. Crushing candy is tough work. ;)

I’ve been clean and Candy Crush sober for two weeks now and am feeling better. Anyone else get headaches from this game or others?

Headache Remedies That Work?

Some of you know that I spent 2.5 years quantifying data to eliminate my late night headaches that wake me up. In the end, I was unsuccessful on finding a single cause, although I learned caffeine plays a role. During that entire experiment, I solely focused on preventing the headache, not on eliminating the pain once it arrived. The reason is I have very poor luck with painkillers.

Before I ask for ideas on how you would address the pain, I’m going to describe the pain and what I’ve tried already.


Below is my wonderful drawing. The red areas are where my headache pain comes from. More info:

  • My headaches are around and behind the eyes. They often feel sinus in nature, but there is never signs of a sinus infection.
  • The pain is equal on both sides.
  • I am not light or sound sensitive.
  • Lying down does not help and often makes the pain worse.
  • I sometimes get a tight neck upon waking, but most of these headaches do not have a tight neck.

What I’ve tried:

  • Aspirin, Tylenol, Aleve, Ibuprofen and numerous anti-histamine sinus medications. Nothing works.
  • Tiger Balm. Fine for muscles, does nothing for headaches.
  • Sitting upright reduces pain intensity during the early stages. This sucks, because the pain wakes me up and I have to get up.
  • Eating or not eating doesn’t seem to make a difference.
  • Coffee reduces pain sometimes. It could also be a combination of time and sitting upright that helps.
  • L-Tyrosine. Nada.
  • L-Glutamine. Nada.
  • Cold and Warm compresses. Comforting and distracting, but doesn’t reduce pain duration. I usually don’t bother with them.
  • Neti Pot. Makes no dent in pain and sometimes amplifies headache.

My headaches are getting worse again. More frequent and longer duration. My post quitting Quantified Self honeymoon appears to be over. I know caffeine is a player, but I am not in position to reduce it too much at this time. But this post isn’t about prevention. Been there done that. I’m interested in ideas that will knock the pain out quickly. So far nothing has worked for me. If you can solve this riddle, I’d be very grateful.

Life After Quantifiable Self

On September 1st, I quit my Hunting Headaches quest. After 2.5 years of tracking, I’m now 2 months free of the daily quantifiable self habit. Did taking my eyes off the data make things worse? Nope. I guessed that ending my daily data collection would have no effect, which is why I ultimately decided to quit tracking. But I was wrong.

For three weeks after I ended the daily data collection, I didn’t get a single headache. That is a record. Even in my month with no coffee that never happened. In fact I didn’t even get my first headache of the month until someone asked how it was going and then I became aware that I was having a record month. My coffee levels were still elevated.

The obvious explanation is that although my time commitment to quantifiable self was small, the stress of daily tracking and trying to affect an outcome was likely a cause of the headaches. Early on in the project when it was clear that I wasn’t able to solve the riddle of night headaches, I regretted posting on the experiment. I became the experiment and for over two years I was failing at it and doing so publicly.

The past two months I’ve had a noticeable decline in both headache quantity and intensity. Even lower than the two months where my caffeine levels were extremely low. And I had a higher than normal level of coffee during this time. My sleep quality was also excellent. Stepping away from the daily tracking was a wise move.

Is Quantifiable Self a form of Journaling?

The book 59 Seconds makes a strong case that writing about our problems is more effective than thinking about them.

Thinking can often be unstructured, disorganized and even chaotic. Writing encourages the creation of a storyline and structure that helps people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution. Writing is a systematic solution based approach.

59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot (Borzoi Books)
59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot (Borzoi Books) by Richard Wiseman

Is numerical quantification of our experiences a form of journaling? It is a question I don’t know the answer to. In a comment that I can not find (there are 9,000 on this site), I recall someone (probably Glenn) saying something profound that has stuck with me. Data is the opposite of human relationships. In other words, what makes us human are those things that can’t be quantified.

I wish I had an answer on when QS is a tool for good and when the act of data collection becomes a problem. I’ve clearly gotten some benefits from tracking, but I still need to find that balance.

The site The Unquantified Self has thought a lot more about this than I have and has a few excellent posts on this topic. Be sure to read Why This Blog and Think Before You Track – the Uncertain future of Quantified Self. One line I really likes was:

If you are going to track, focus on testing interesting hypotheses using simple experiments lasting a relatively short time.

Although my Hunting Headaches experiments were simple, the collective duration was too long and it stopped being interesting once my confidence in solving the riddle was diminished.

Yesterday I had a lot of coffee. More than normal. It was a level that my 2.5 year dataset would have predicted a good probability of having a night headache. But I’m not looking at the data anymore. Slept a perfect 8 hours with no headache.

Hunting Headaches – Ending the Hunt

On March 24, 2011, I began tracking my headaches in a project I called Hunting Headaches. For over two years, I’ve started every morning by dropping numbers into a spreadsheet. Headache intensity, sleep quality and number of coffees. I also tracked numerous other metrics from shorter term experiments, such as weather and supplements.

On September 1, 2013, I ended the hunt. I’ve given up for now. It is time to take a long break from this experiment. I have enough data to know MANY things that aren’t causing the headaches. Besides obvious headache triggers such as gluten and alcohol, which I avoid completely, I know that caffeine plays a prominent role in my headaches. Collecting more data isn’t going to change that.


Red is the average daily coffee. Blue is average headache intensity. Whenever I make a serious attempt to reduce coffee, headache intensity drops. The opposite isn’t always true. I also earned that consuming coffee in the late afternoon IMPROVES my sleep quality, which reduces headache intensity. This is counter intuitive to most people. For me coffee plays a complicated role.

Now I am going to learn what happens when I stop collecting data. Perhaps the missing piece of this experiment has been that I’ve been under pressure to solve something that might be outside my control.

I have zero plans to see a doctor. If I’m not willing to fully detox from coffee, then throwing money at a doctor is almost certainly wasted. And walking away from coffee while I live in Seattle is not likely at this time. Also, I am OK with my current state. The past 2 months I have worked on accepting my headaches. If things get worse, I can always change my mind.

The perception of pain is subjective. I’m sure some malcontent with more math skills than me will be quick to tell me that my experiment was flawed or that I did something wrong. To them I say STFU. I did the best I could and I learned a lot about myself in the process.

Once again I am not asking for new ideas to test. It is time to quit and move onto something else.

One Confusing Month: My June 2013 Experiment Wrap-Up

A month ago I posted June 2013 Experiments. Using a few strategies my plan was to reduce headache frequency/intensity and lose 5-7 pounds. Well I succeeded on the first goal and failed on the second and I’m clueless to explain either outcome.

This month has completely stumped me. Maybe you can help me make sense out of it?

Headaches Down, Sleep Quality Up

I’ve been tracking headaches on a spreadsheet since March 2011. I added Sleep Quality later. Along the way I’ve tracked coffee and other variables. Heading into June I was certain that caffeine was a major trigger for headaches. More coffee equals more headaches. Now I am less certain.

My plan was to reduce caffeine levels, but actually they went up. I’ve been playing with my Clever Coffee Dripper too much. My average intake was 2.73, up from 2.13. The other goal was to minimize AM coffee. There I was good. On most days I restricted myself to a single coffee before lunch.

Before I get into the coffee data, I wanted to say the only grains I consumed in June were white rice and corn. No sorghum, millet and definitely not any wheat. This may have helped a little, as it did in September 2012.

Pushing my last coffee back to later in the afternoon seems to be helping. It is counter intuitive as many people would have trouble getting to sleep when they drink coffee in late afternoon, but I never have a problem falling asleep. My challenge is staying asleep. I’m a morning person. If I wake up at 4 AM, it is often tough for me to return to sleep. Interestingly, I did this test in 2011 and came to a similar conclusion.

Average headache intensity was 0.70, which is tied for the second best month ever. Each night I assign a headache score of 0 to 5. Zero meaning no headache and 1-5 measuring intensity should one occur.

  • Oct 2012: 0.58 (no coffee the entire month)
  • Nov 2012: 0.70 (1.13 average coffee per day)
  • Jun 2013: 0.70 (2.73 average coffee per day)

I also only had 2 bad headaches, which was the lowest ever.

Average sleep quality was 4.23 (out of 5). This was the best month ever! And I typically have worse sleep quality during the longer summer days. My sleep quality for June 2012 was 3.57. One factor I need to mention was I did daily sauna and steam room visits the first 8 days of the month. My sleep quality was 4.75 those days and 4.11 the 8 days that followed. Probably not enough data to draw a conclusion, but I thought I’d mention it.

What happened? Is the key to drink coffee later in the afternoon? The only other change is I switched from unfiltered coffee (French press) to filtered coffee (Clever). Maybe it was just a string of good luck and the data isn’t statistically significant?

Less Sugar + More IF = Weight Gain?

As stumped as I am about the headache data, I’m really puzzled about my weight. I thought by returning to Intermittent Fasting and reducing my sugar intake that I’d lose 5 pounds. Nope. I gained 5 more. Interestingly, I actually look 5 pounds leaner in the mirror. Maybe that was from getting a little tanner?


My average IF was a little on the low side (13.9 hour average), but it was still higher than the previous months. Maybe I needed to add an additional hour? Exercise levels were constant. I didn’t introduce any new foods and I would estimate my sugar consumption was 50% less than the prior month.

I’m now all the way back to 210, which is where I was in early 2008 when I began my recent nutritional journey. The difference is I look a lot better now. Then I was puffy and inflamed, not anymore. Although I am happy with the way I look, I’d still like to be leaner as I feel my mobility was better at a slightly lower weight.

Now What?

I’m hoping to have out my July Experiments post later today or early tomorrow. If you have any theories on my June experiment results or tips for July, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: I’ve decided to keep the same experiment and goals for July 2013.

June 2013 Experiments

When I’ve done experiments in the past, I focus on one thing. For June 2013, I’m going to mix some past experiments together to see if I can get a synergistic effect. I’m also going to try a new idea, which I couldn’t previously test.

My goals this month:

  1. Reduce headache frequency and intensity.
  2. Drop 5-7 pounds.

First the headaches. My past experiments have turned up 3 ideas that measurably help.

  1. No grains, except white rice. Corn seems to be OK, but I will minimize it as well this month. Although I am excellent at avoiding gluten, this month I will be just as diligent avoiding what I call the secondary grains (sorghum, millet, etc). This means no Gluten-Free treats or anything that even looks grain dominant. I learned last year that I have a secondary grain intolerance, which I posted about in Results From My 30 Days Without Grain Experiment. Because the effects are less severe than gluten and random, I haven’t initiated a no grain policy. For June I will. 
  2. Reduce caffeine levels, especially coffee. The data is clear. When I went an entire month without coffee, my headache intensity dropped considerably. When I added coffee back, it increased lock and step with consumption.
  3. Minimize AM caffeine. I have noticed that my sleep is better when I have a single coffee post lunch or early afternoon. Having the coffee post meal should be better for my body than slamming coffee in the AM on an empty stomach. Plus I am a natural morning person. I jump out of bed with no alarm by 6 AM most mornings.

So in summary, avoid most grains, have some tea in the AM and a single coffee post meal in the early PM. This might be the secret sauce. It combines results from 3 previous experiments. By the way, I am not looking for new ideas at this time or yet another request that I see a doctor. Those comments will be ignored.


For the fat loss, I have 3 ideas.

  1. Return to IF (Intermittent Fasting). I’m going to stop screwing around with trying to increase my body temperature by eating early in the AM. All it does is make me hungry all day long. Plus it isn’t working. I have more thoughts on that, which I’ll save for a future post. For the IF, my target will be 12 hours minimum, with most days between 14-16 and a random 20-22. In the past, I’ve used excessive caffeine to blast through IF, but I can’t do that this time (see above), so this will take some adjustment. 
  2. Only consume sugar rich foods on days where I lift weights or hike at least 2 hours. Those foods would be ice cream and pudding. On days over 80 F, maybe a single Mexican cola.
  3. Back in 2011, I reviewed the book The Shangri-La Diet in the post Flavor Signaling and The Shangri-La Diet, but I could try the ideas because I was already an optimal weight. I also was eating a super clean diet that had none of the foods that are considered hyper palatable. Well after a year of eating ice cream, I developed a sweet tooth, which I never had prior. So I will play with his ideas to consume foods with calories and no taste, such as Extra Light Olive Oil or diluted sugar water.

Exercise will stay the same. One to two machine based brief weight lifting sessions using a combination or slow movements and static holds. I’ll also continue urban hiking through Seattle.

The challenge for June will be the morning. Dealing with hunger with low caffeine is going to be tough.

I Woke Up Today and Wished For Tomorrow

Slowly I could feel myself waking up. Yet another headache. And just like every other morning when a headache wakes me, I peek at my watch. I hope it reads 6 something. 5 something at the worst. This morning I wasn’t so fortunate. 3:40 AM. Intensity a 4 out of 5, which means falling back asleep was not going to happen. My neck which was feeling fine since I had a two hour massage on Sunday was now feeling worse than ever.

Another wasted day in front of me. The headache will vanish in a few hours, but I’ll be exhausted the rest of the day. And although I’ll attempt to take nap, there is a 90% chance I won’t be able to fall asleep. My body will crave coffee to fight the brain fog, but it is the coffee that is most likely suspect that caused the headache.

Taking a Break

I’m going to take a week or three off from blogging. Trying to tame my coffee and sugar addictions with brain fog and headaches makes it hard to put together posts. I’m certain I’ve forgotten a few topics that I said I would blog about. If you have any suggestions or reminders, please leave a comment.

MAS Fishing

Blog break time. Not really going fishing though. 

Post title is from the Marilyn Manson song Use Your Fist And Not Your Mouth.

Hunting Headaches – 2 Years Later

Two years ago I began tracking headache data. Fresh off of other health victories such as getting lean, curing my rosacea and ending back pain, I was confident that with enough data and experimentation I could eliminate or greatly reduce my night headaches.

I never thought this experiment would go on for two years.

The good news is I’ve eliminated so many suspects. The bad news is I haven’t won this battle and it appears that the one variable that I’ve found is most correlated with the headaches is my good friend coffee.

When I dropped my caffeine levels super low in October, my headache levels dropped to an all-time low. Since then I’ve been gradually increasing my coffee levels with a plan to cut back again once the sun arrived to Seattle. The reintroduction of higher coffee levels would also provide more points of data. I’m not a statistical guru, but this pattern seems clear.

MonthDaily Coffee AverageDaily Headache Average
Oct 20120.000.58
Nov 20121.130.70
Dec 20121.771.10
Jan 20131.711.03
Feb 20132.711.07
Mar 20133.251.46

As the average coffee level increases, so does the average daily headache intensity.


This chart shows 2 years worth of data. On three cases when my average coffee intake spiked, my average headache intensity increased. And the two cases where I drastically cut back on coffee, average headaches intensity noticeably dropped. Now before someone says correlation does not imply causation, this is all I have to work with. Weather patterns, food restriction or taking a battery of nutritional supplements showed zero correlation.

Espresso Endgame

Why did I increase my coffee levels so much recently? The primary reason is that I pulled my espresso machine out of storage and placed it back on the kitchen counter. Espresso has less caffeine than brewed coffee, but is far more addicting. When you nail a perfect espresso shot, it provides a flavor stimulus that brewed coffee can’t even come close to hitting. As my flavor stimulus increased, so did my consumption level. When I did the detox, I intentionally used a flavor deconditioning strategy which I described in the article A Month Without Coffee.

This sucks, but I’m now convinced I need to sell my espresso machine. I’ll save my espresso drinking for the cafes. Let us hope that is enough. If not, I may have to move away from Seattle. My guess is having an espresso addiction in Seattle is like having a gambling addiction in Vegas.

Low Caffeine Weight Gain

Beginning in late September I scaled down my caffeine intake. Then in October, I went the entire month without coffee and 21 days without any caffeine. This month I have been on a very low caffeine intake, averaging just 1 cup of coffee a day. I covered that experiment in the article A Month Without Coffee. Well, today I confirmed a side effect that I suspected was occurring: weight gain.

I am now 7 pounds heavier than when I started my caffeine reduction experiment (was 187, now 194). And it isn’t muscle. Although I am still lean, ab definition is now gone. I’m not concerned though, because reducing caffeine has resulted in fewer headaches. I’ll take that trade any day. Plus I know how to lean out with minimal effort, so I can always get back to my normal weight – if I can do it without increasing headache frequency.

Why did I gain weight during this period? Some thoughts:

  1. Caffeine is an appetite suppressant.
  2. Seattle weather was terrible during this period. My non-exercise movement (walking) was minimal. This means I was home near my food supplies for a high percentage of the month.
  3. I had strong sugar cravings when I came off caffeine.
  4. When I did go to the gym to do my High Intensity Training, my focus was off. Either I went to failure faster than normal or I didn’t have the grit to push myself as hard. Although I strongly believe exercise plays almost no role in fat loss, I do think HIT has some fat loss applications, provided it really is high intensity and you aren’t just going through the motions like I was doing.
  5. Less morning fasting. I had less discipline on delaying my first meal without caffeine.

Photo by Länsmuseet Gävleborg

I’m even more convinced than before that my next caffeine detox will be in the summer. Then I will be able to distract myself with hours of low intensity movement away from my kitchen. But for now, I’m gradually adding back more Intermittent Fasting. My gym intensity is still below normal, but that just might take more practice of learning how to generate high intensity without getting jacked on espresso. If those strategies don’t work, I might increase my average daily coffee intake to 2, which is still half of what it was before I started reducing my caffeine levels. Of course I’ll only do that if it doesn’t result in more headaches.

Hunting Headaches – A Favorable Trend

In the last installment of Hunting Headaches, I reported that I finally appeared to be making some progress on solving my night headaches. By wearing a mouth guard, I was able to reduce my headache intensity by 45%. For those new to the site, I use spreadsheets to track health metrics. This allows me to figure what experiments work for me and which don’t.

During the month I went without coffee, my headache intensity dropped again to just 0.58. Even though my sleep quality was actually worse, it was my best month ever. To the data!

Headache Intensity is measured from 0 to 5.

My headache intensity using a mouth guard with normal caffeine was 0.82. This covered August and September. Since adding a little caffeine back, my sleep has started to improve a little without an uptick in headache intensity. But I’ll need more data to confirm that. My average headache intensity for my lower caffeine period of October and November is just 0.57. That is another 32% decrease. I now suspect that excessive caffeine is a factor in my headaches. I hope I’m on the right path. I should know in another month or two.

Hunting Headaches – Progress?

I haven’t posted about my night headaches since May. There are many posts about headaches on this site. When I started the project in March 2011, I was confident that I could figure it out quickly. But I didn’t. I tried many things and nothing seemed to help. Thousands of words have been written so far on this project, but all I’ve learned is what doesn’t work. Well, that is until recently.

In May I did a month test where I eliminated all fermented foods. The results were nothing. It had zero impact on my headaches. Then I decided to take a break from all tests to see if my stressing out about finding the answer was causing more headaches. So for a over a month, all I did was record 30 seconds of data each morning and not study patterns or run experiments. The result was still no change. Nothing was working.

Then things got better.

Headache by Rob Sheridan


I was chatting with a friend about waking up with ear pressure. She had the same issue and told me it could be related to jaw clenching. She suggested trying a mouthguard. There was no dental evidence that I clenching my jaw, but I had a retainer that I stopped wearing years ago. I decided to give it a try.

  • 1.36:  Average headache intensity (out of 5) for the 16 months without mouthguard.
  • 0.75: Average headache intensity for 2.5 months with a mouthguard.

That is a 45% reduction. At first I was concerned that this reduction took place during a long period where Seattle got no rain, but the trend has held up since the rain has returned.

Sorghum and Millet

Although not as bad as wheat, I have learned that I have an issue with either sorghum, millet or both. I covered how I discovered this in the post Results From My 30 Days Without Grains Experiment.


I can’t drink beer, wine or cider. They crush me. So taking the advice from one of those headache books I read earlier this year, I decided to experiment with gin. Gin and vodka are supposed to be the cleanest alcohols for people prone to headaches. I bought a bottle of a local award winning gin. Gin is distilled from wheat. My test involved having just 1/2 a shot around 6 PM with food. The data was clear. It showed an over 50% chance of getting a headache and usually they were intense.

Since gluten doesn’t make it into distilled liquor, I am now wondering if my issue is with wheat or was it the alcohol? Since then I’ve had rum twice, which is distilled from sugar cane and had no issues. Clearly not enough data, but something I will be testing further. In the meantime, no more wheat distilled alcohol.

Cleaner Ice Cream

This year I ate a lot of ice cream. When I first started this experiment, all I did was make sure the ice cream didn’t have gluten in it. As the summer progressed, I selected brands that were more clean. I made sure they didn’t have carrageenan or corn syrups and favored brands with minimal ingredients. I include this on the list because it may have been a factor.


I have learned that my headaches are caused by more than one thing. I hesitate to get excited, but I am pleased that headache intensity has dropped by 45%. Going without caffeine is the current test. There isn’t enough data to comment on that yet, but the downward trend has been maintained this month so far. Note that October 2011 was my absolute worst month for headaches, so this isn’t a seasonal bump.

The Migraine Solution

Last week the book Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain had me rethink the root cause of my headaches. It made a strong case that the roots of my headache were migraine. So I decided to read up more on migraines. I selected the new book The Migraine Solution: A Complete Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Pain Management. Now I am really confused.

The Migraine Solution: A Complete Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Pain Management

This book contradicts almost every major point from the book Heal You Headaches. Both are written by doctors and both are well reviewed.

 Heal Your HeadacheMigraine Solution
Are My Headaches Migraine?YESNO
Create headache DiaryNOYES
Importance of Food TriggersHIGHLOW
Caffeine OpinionEVILMIXED

The Migraine Solution doesn’t discount food triggers, but makes a case that unless you can find obvious links, one shouldn’t drive themselves crazy trying to connect dietary triggers with headaches. Regarding the benefit of food restrictive migraine diets, The Migrain Solutions says:

…headache clinics like ours often recognize that for many patients, the considerable effort involved to start and maintain one of these diets is not worth the typically meager results. Furthermore, good-quality research studies often fail to back up specific claims of benefit from these diets.

Heal Your Headaches makes the opposite case which is a highly restrictive diet one must follow for 4 months before reintroducing trigger foods.

Who is right? I have no clue. If I knew that my headaches were migraine in nature, I’d likely pursue the more aggressive Heal You Headaches program. However, I’m not convinced they are. The Migraine Solution lists the POUND acronym as a way to determine if a headache is migraine.

  • P – Pulsating pain
  • O – one-day duration
  • U – unilateral (one-sided) pain
  • N – nausea and vomiting
  • D – disabling intensity
None of those apply to me. Nor do the symptoms of being light and sound sensitive apply. Meanwhile Heal your Headaches makes the case that migraines need not have classic migraine symptoms. I’ll continue researching.

Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain

I just finished reading a book that provides a new framework for understanding my headaches. Since March 2011 I have been diligently trying to track down the cause of my late night headaches. I’ve had them for many years, but only recently decided to seriously pursue their cause. I’ve done many tests and tried numerous supplements, but haven’t found the cause. At times I felt I was getting close, but the data hasn’t shown that I’ve made any improvements.

Part of the problem I discovered when trying to research headache causes is that there is a web page out there for every suspect. You can go mad trying to figure out and weigh true risk factors from the extremely rare conditions. Heal Your Headache has a clear message about the roots of headaches and what steps we need to take to fix the problem.

Heal Your Headache

Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain by David Buchholz, M.D.

It’s Likely Migraine

The first thing Heal Your Headache explains is that most headaches are migraine in nature and that a lot of misunderstanding stems from that label. A headache with migraine roots need not have classic migraine symptoms. A migraine can manifest as sinus pain or neck stiffness or tension headaches. The author makes a very strong case that what I’ve falsely labeled as a sinus headache is really migraine in nature. A good chunk of the book goes into this labeling and why other explanations for headaches are often false.

The 1-2-3 Program

The 3 steps of Heal Your Headache are:

  1. Avoid the “Quick Fix”
  2. Reduce Your Triggers
  3. Raise Your Threshold

The Quick Fix

This section deals with how we respond to pain. What medications we take. The author states that some of the medicine we use to alleviate pain can actually makes things worse once the drug wears off. This section was the least relevant to me since I find almost no comfort from any over the counter pain medicine for headaches. I do medicate a little with caffeine, which I’ll discuss later in this post.

Reducing Triggers

A headache occurs when the cumulative triggers exceed our pain threshold. That makes sense. Triggers can be dietary, weather and/or stress based. They can also come from medication we are taking. Headaches may or may not occur at the time those triggers are present or they may occur later when the triggers aren’t present. This makes the testing approaches I’ve taken so far pretty much worthless, because removing a single trigger (or class of triggers) may not be enough.

Heal Your Headache advises a strict dietary approach that removes the major triggers and then after being 4 months in the clear, start adding back foods to see if specific triggers can be isolated. Four months is a lot longer than any test I’ve done so far.

Raising your Threshold

I didn’t understand most of this section. It talked a lot about specific medications taken in small quantities that could raise our pain threshold once we’ve removed our triggers. This seems like a nice place to be. My take is that I need to focus on finding and reducing triggers first. If I win that battle, I can always revisit this section later.

Dietary Triggers

The good news is that if I accept the premise of this book and remove the dietary triggers that my headaches could be cured or greatly reduced. The bad news is the #1 trigger for migraines is caffeine. Caffeine also paradoxically can make the migraine pain go away in the short term. The author states that this help in the short term increases headaches in the long run.

Other dietary triggers include:

  • Chocolate
  • MSG
  • Processed Meats and Fish (bacon, sausage, ham, etc)
  • Cheese, Yogurt, Sour Cream, Buttermilk, Kefir
  • Nuts
  • Alcohol and Vinegar
  • Certain fruits and juices (citrus fruits, bananas, raisins, raspberries, plums, avocado, figs, dates)
  • Certain Vegetables (onions, sauerkraut, lima beans, lentils, navy beans, fava beans, pea pods)
  • Fresh Yeast-Risen Baked Goods
  • Nutrasweet
  • Maybe List – Fermented soy, tomatoes, mushrooms

This book does give me hope that solving my headaches may be possible. However, the idea of living without caffeine in Seattle may be too much of a challenge even for me. Coffee isn’t just a drink for me. It is an important component of my social network and a core hobby. If caffeine is the culprit, I may need to move away from Seattle. Heal Your Headache has given me a lot to think about.

The Low Histamine Diet

Well the day finally arrived. Yesterday morning my refrigerator had no ferments at all. For the past few weeks, I have been finishing up all my sauerkraut and kimchi in preparation for my latest dietary test. For the next 30 to 60 days, I will go on a highly restrictive low histamine diet. I’m trying to determine if histamines play a roll in my late night headaches.

There are two groups I will need to restrict. Group one are foods with high levels of histamines, which are primarily fermented foods. Group two are foods that stimulate the body to release higher levels of histamines. The full list is quite extensive. I’m going to tackle the foods that have high levels and that I consume the most. I’ll probably screw this test up a few times, but if I can achieve a 95% or greater reduction, I think I’ll have solid data.

Foods HIGH in Histamines to AVOID

  • Fermented vegetables (kimchi, sauerkraut, etc).
  • Fermented dairy (cheese, yogurt, kefir)
  • Fermented meats (sausage, salami, etc)
  • Fermented alcohol (beer, wine, cider)
  • Fermented soy (natto, miso)
  • Vinegar, Ketchup, Mustard
  • Yeast Food (Marmite, Vegemite)

My kimchi will be missed.

Foods to AVOID that Stimulate the Release of Histamine

  • Bananas
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Pineapple
  • Kiwi
  • Spinach
  • Eggplant
  • Chocolate

The Questionable List

I believe the heavy histamine problems are on the two lists above. These are ones where the consensus was less certain. As the test proceeds, I can keep an eye on these as well.

  • Avocados
  • Shellfish
  • Egg Whites
  • Peanuts
  • Nuts (other than almonds)
  • Canned Fish – This appears to get high histamines from storage, but if consumed upon opening is OK.
  • Spices: cinnamon, chili powder, cloves, anise, nutmeg, curry powder and paprika
  • Black tea
  • Sunflower seeds

This will be the toughest test ever for me, as I consider kimchi and sauerkraut to be essential foods. It doesn’t help that The Art of Fermentation just arrived in my mail.

Chlorine Shower Filter: 3 Month Update

Back in February I started a test I called Chlorination Elimination Experimentation. I wanted to see if using a shower filter that removed chlorine could positively impact my skin. I was a bit skeptical, but it was too cheap of an experiment not to try. So do I have the skin of angel now? Nope. Everything is still the same. I still get a slightly dry spot above my right eyebrow. Nothing has changed.

I also speculated in the post update that the chlorine in the water could be a factor in my headaches. My average headache intensity for the 75 days using the filter is 1.4/5.0. The 75 days prior to the installing the filter it was a little lower at 1.1/5.0. So this experiment showed there is no measurable connection between chlorine and my sinus headaches.

My results are just that – my results. Two weekends ago I met a guy that is super sensitive to water and soap. He uses a filter and swears by it. His skin gets red and inflamed without his shower filter. So perform your own tests. I will continue to use the filter. Maybe the benefits take longer than 3 months to see?

Photo by Steven Depolo

Hunting Headaches – Xylitol Hell

It has been a few days since my last post. I have tons of ideas for blog posts, but I’ve been in headache hell since March 24th. That is when I started putting Xylitol up my nose. Let me back up a little. For those new to the site, I often get headaches that wake me up in the middle of the night. For over a year now, I have experimented with many ideas. So far none have worked. Recently, I have begun testing the possibility that I have a chronic infection.

Photo by Cristiano Oliveira

Now normal people surrender to doctors at this point, but I’m not a fan of doctors and I still believe that I’ll be able to figure this out. I’ve got a decent track record when it comes to solving health riddles. Plus every test I do tells me more about myself. There is no failure, only feedback. Anyway, my first strategy for tackling the headaches as if they were a chronic infection was to put baby shampoo up my nose via my Neti Pot. It didn’t work, but I got some comments regarding Xylitol.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that was discussed on the same Revolution Health Radio podcast that mentioned the baby shampoo method. From The Highly Effective (But Little Known) Treatment For Chronic Sinusitis:

But unlike steroid sprays, which are often used in nasal sprays, xylitol doesn’t dry out the nasal passages, and it doesn’t inhibit the immune defense of the body. Instead, it acts more as a lubricant, which makes it easier for natural mucus secretions to occur that kind of eliminate the pathogens. I mean, the way it should work is that the mucus forms, and then you blow your nose and it carries the pathogens out of the nasal passage, and xylitol helps that to happen by lubricating them and acting as a surfactant that allows the nasal passages to clear.

One thing I didn’t do during my baby shampoo test was change my diet. I got a comment from Enrique C. that my daily intake of fermented food should be suspended.

Leave fermented foods for a week, also dairy.

Your ferments are a rich source of fungal and bacterial toxins and LPS. Switch to high quality probiotics for a while. Vitamin A is essential for mucosal immunity (brutally overlooked).

I stopped eating all fermented foods and dairy on March 16th. JamesK suggested I look into Xyitol and Ahrand also provided some tips, including one warning.

Take into account some serious headaches in the first week.

He wasn’t kidding. Unlike the baby shampoo which actually felt soothing in my nasal passages, the Xylitol mixture in my Neti Pot stung. It hurt. And like Ahrand predicted my headaches got a lot worse. I followed the Xylitol protocol for 10 out of the last 11 days. At 2:30 AM this morning, I awoke to the worst headache of the year. It lasted for several hours.

I’m ending the Xylitol Neti experiment and I started eating kimchi again. I’ll just wait and see if this helped. I’m going to start plans for my next experiment later this month, which will be doing a 30 day elimination of all nightshades. And I still have that coffee detox to do. The hunt continues.

UPDATE August 2012: Turns out the Xylitol was not the cause of the pain. It was the combination of baking soda and Xylitol. Once I removed the baking soda, the burning pain went away. Using Xylitol with sea salt causes no discomfort.

Hunting Headaches – Side Sleep

One of the jobs I had in college was loading trucks for UPS. It was the most exhausting job I’ve ever had. It made Army Basic Training seem like working at a library. One night I came home so worn out that I couldn’t even turn to my side to go to sleep. After an entire childhood as a side sleeper, I became a back sleeper. And until recently I remained a back sleeper.

Me as side sleeper (2 days old)

On the night of January 23rd I woke up with a severe headache and discovered I was having trouble breathing. I was alarmed enough to spend a few hours researching sleep apnea. I had always assumed that because I am lean and do not snore that sleep apnea wasn’t possible. Turns out that was a false assumption. One of the things I learned was that you can increase oxygen flow by sleeping on your side. From the Wikipedia page on sleep apnea:

For mild cases of sleep apnea, physicians often recommend sleeping on one’s side, which can prevent the tongue and palate from falling backwards in the throat and blocking the airway.

I wasn’t even sure I had even a minor case of sleep apnea, but this was worth trying. I had assumed it was going to be a hard habit to switch from being a back sleeper to a side sleeper. Well, it took just 3 nights to break the habit. I must be getting good at this self experimentation stuff. I never thought I could break such an ingrained habit in less than a week. Anyway, some interesting data appears to be surfacing. I hesitate to get excited about this though, because I’ve been burned by initial trends too many times already.

Measuring Sleep Quality

Starting last August 21st, I began tracking sleep quality independently from headaches. Although they are correlated, that correlation is not 100%. Sleep quality can be improved by improving a response to a headache of a given severity. A poor response results in poor sleep quality. A good response results in an improved Sleep Quality score even at the same severity. Side sleep – so far – seems to be having a positive impact on Sleep Quality. To the data!

 AVG Night HAAVG Sleep Quality# Bad HA (3+)# Very Bad HA (4+)
APR 20111.07-62
MAY 20110.71-51
JUN 20111.37-95
JUL 20111.94-137
AUG 20111.68-96
SEP 20110.903.8752
OCT 20112.133.26146
NOV 20111.453.7686
DEC 20111.264.0695
JAN 20121.353.8152
FEB 20121.034.1462
BACK SLEEP (161)1.463.7047 (29%)24 (15%)
SIDE SLEEP (35)*1.064.148 (23%)2 (6%)

* The Side Sleep numbers uses 5 days worth of March 2012 data. AVG=average, HA=Headache, Headaches are scored on a scale of 5, with 0 representing no headache and 5 being the most intense. Sleep Quality is also ranked on a scale of 5, with 5 being perfect sleep. 

Looking at the data, it appears that there was some improvement when I went from being a back sleeper to a side sleeper. I hesitate to get excited, because I may just not have enough data to draw a true conclusion. My hunch tells me that sleeping on my side is increasing my sleep quality by delaying the headache until later in the night. And maybe by delaying the headache, it surfaces with a lower intensity.

Trading One Problem For Another?

Since I started side sleep, I have noticed many mornings that I wake up with pressure in my right ear. Almost like the first few times I flew in an airplane. It isn’t painful, but it is annoying. I’ll happily take a few hours of ear pressure over a sinus headache any day, as I don’t feel it until after I wake up. This might even be a clue to the root causes of the headache?

I’ll continue sleeping on my side and collecting more data. The hunt continues.

Hunting Headaches – Shampoo Up My Nose

It is time for a status report on my Hunting Headaches project. For the new readers, almost a year ago I started a quantified self project to track down the cause of my late night headaches. Many ideas have been tried and so far the headaches continue.

A few months ago I got an idea that my sinus headaches may have roots in some form of chronic infection. This troubled me, because I can run all sorts of self experiments, but if it was based upon some infection then I’d need to see a doctor. And you know how I distrust doctors.

The infection idea seemed weak, but at this point I’m running out of ideas. Then I heard a Chris Kresser podcast that gave me a bizarre yet effective idea for eliminating chronic sinus infections. You add a small amount of baby shampoo to your Neti pot. Yes, baby shampoo! The science is explained in the transcript and podcast titled The Highly Effective (But Little Known) Treatment For Chronic Sinusitis.

So I tried this Neti nose cocktail three nights in a row. My recipe was 8 ounces of warm filtered water, 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt, 1/3 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of J & J baby shampoo. As crazy as it seems the first time you use a Neti Pot, it is doubly weird to knowingly put shampoo up your nose. But I did it. It actually had a pleasant feel to it.

Did the shampoo up the nose trick work? No. In the week following this experiment, I had zero decrease in sinus headaches. I’m glad I bought the travel size portion and not a full bottle. I could see using this trick again if I exhibited sinus symptoms other than headaches. Oh well, the hunt continues. I do have an interesting development in Hunting Headaches that I’ll save for my next post.

UPDATE: I no longer use baking soda in the mix. Stings too much.

Hunting Headaches: Remaining Suspects in Early 2012

Last March I decided to finally figure out the cause of my late night sinus headaches. I started a headache journal, ran numerous tests and tried several supplements. Nine months later and I still haven’t figured it out. The good news is that many of the things I suspected might be an issue were cleared. Also I have learned how to better respond to the pain, so even though my headaches haven’t decreased, my sleep quality is gradually improving. I’m not ready to give up and surrender to a doctor. Partially because I don’t trust them, but also because I still have a few more ideas to test.


Photo by FunkyPancake

Innocent Suspects and Useless Supplements

Before I list the new ideas, I will cover what I already tried and tested that didn’t reduce the frequency or intensity of my headaches.

  1. Seasonal Patterns – Headache frequency is the same throughout the year.
  2. Allergy Markers – Headaches have no correlation to pollen or allergen levels.
  3. Tyramine Restrictive Diet – Tyramine is often a problem with migraine suffers.
  4. Aromatherapy (ghetto) – I tried a cheap lavender fragrance dispenser. It did nothing. I might need to test an essential oil model.
  5. Dairy Free – I did a 30 Day Experiment without dairy. No difference.
  6. Nut Free – I also did a 30 Day Experiment without nuts.
  7. Chocolate Test – Could not detect any difference when removing chocolate.
  8. Netti Pot – For a long time I felt the Netti was reducing the intensity of my headaches (not the frequency), but recently I’ve been less of a believer.
  9. Daily Stress Levels – For 30 Days I tracked my stress level. I found no correlation to headaches.
  10. More water – Did nothing as well.
  11. Coffee Detox – This summer I dropped my coffee levels very low and then took 2 weeks off. It didn’t help, but I probably constructed this detox improperly. More on that later.
  12. Humidity – When I left Ohio, I thought I was onto something regarding the room humidity level. It turned out to be a false lead. I think a humidifier may reduce intensity on extremely dry nights, but it isn’t a cause of the headaches.
  13. Acupuncture – I did a few sessions of acupuncture, which did nothing to help.

Here is a list of supplements that I have tried that did nothing for my headaches.Note that there are infinite possibilities to test when you consider dosage, length of test, timing and quality of the supplement. I did my best when testing these. None showed even the slightest benefit. Had one did something, I would have tested it further with different doses or timing.

  1. Bromelain
  2. Quercetin
  3. NAC
  4. Ginger
  5. Feverfew
  6. Apple Cider Vinegar
  7. Niacinamide
  8. L-Glutamine

Headache Suspects in Early 2012

  1. Neck Stiffness – For years I’ve had intermittent stiff neck issues. After reading the book 3 Minutes to a Pain Free Life, I became more aware of just how correlated they are with my headaches. On mornings when I had a headache, my neck was more stiff. Did the neck pain cause the headache or did my headache cause my neck to clench? Dr. Murray Grossan wrote: “Real sinus pain is actually rare, even when the patient is blowing yellow mucous out the nose. In many cases the “sinus headache” is really “referred” pain from the neck. Feel the back of your neck. Does the pain travel to the front of your forehead? This is because of the hookup of the nerves; painful stimuli radiates to the front area above the eyes.” Even if my neck issues are unrelated to my headaches, I am working on getting them resolved. So far the exercises in the 3 Minutes book have been ineffective for my neck.
  2. Histamine – A few months ago I went to a cider tasting. After only a few ounces, my face turned red and I had splitting headache for a day. At first I assumed the cider had gluten in it or that it was the alcohol itself. There was no gluten in it. The book Healing Your Sinuses mentioned a histamine link to sinus pain. So I tested drinking vodka and gin, like the book suggested, and I had no problems. Recently I began making water kefir and I noticed I was getting the same flush sinus headache. Even though the alcohol level was extremely low, the histamines were present. So what other foods contain high levels of histamine? Sadly, I learned fermented veggies have high levels. That might explain why it feels like I had more headaches in 2011 than 2010. But, histamine has a very short half life. So I don’t know if that could be the cause of something that wakes me up 5 hours into my sleep. Also, I haven’t noticed a response when eating kimchi or sauerkraut during the day. Liquid histamine sources clearly affect me, whereas solids I am uncertain. Maybe quantity and length of ferment also play a role? More testing is needed.
  3. Tannins – This is something I am just beginning to look into. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information on this topic. Some people are headache sensitive when they consume foods or drinks with tannins. What do I consume that has tannins? Tea, coffee and fermented foods. Yikes! One site mentions that the food addition carob bean gum is very high in tannins. I’ve never looked for it before, but apparently it is common.
  4. Mycotoxins – Frequent commenter GWhitney turned me on to a health podcast called Upgraded Self Radio. One of the topics that is frequently mentioned is the presence of mycotoxins in certain foods and our environment. Mycotoxins are molds that are present in many foods. Since I am mostly Paleo, I don’t get the ones from grains. However, I still consume hard cheese and cured meat. Mycotoxins are also present in coffees that are Dry processed, decaf coffees and robusta. This is a red flag for me. Over a year ago, I sourced a premium robusta bean for my espresso blends. My headaches did increase afterwards. But I don’t have great data going back that far. Also, I consumed decaf espresso during my detox. And the neighborhood coffee shop that I frequent the most switched to an espresso blend this summer that is all Dry processed. For 2012, I will avoid robusta, decaf and minimize my exposure to Dry Processed coffees. On the podcast, Dave advises ordering an Americano when the espresso is Dry Processed, as the steam used can kill the mycotoxins. Since I home roast coffee, I recently ordered nothing but wet processed coffee, with a heavy bias towards Single Origin Central American coffee, which tends to be the cleanest coffee one can consume.
  5. Caffeine – The coffee detox I did in 2011 was likely flawed. It probably wasn’t long enough and it didn’t address the caffeine I consumed in tea. My 2012 detox will be 100% caffeine free. No coffee, no decaf, no tea and no chocolate. It will be longer than 2 weeks. It will be miserable, but I need to know who I am in the complete absence of caffeine or caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
  6. Nightshades – Another class of foods that may cause headaches are nightshades. I consume very little white potatoes, eggplants or tomatoes. However, I do get my fair share of peppers in my kimchi. At some point in 2012, I will do a 30 Day Elimination test for nightshades.

Going Forward

I’m going to continue working on my neck stiffness. I’m also going to cut way back on the fermented veggies. I’ve already started reducing my coffee and tea intake. When I do drink tea, I will favor green and lightly oxidized oolong, as they have less tannins that the darker teas. I stopped making water kefir and I’m going to be on the lookout for any food items containing carob bean gum. And sadly, I have stopped fermenting veggies for the time being.

MacGyver Humidifier

During my trip to Ohio, I noticed an interesting pattern regarding my nighttime headaches. When I stayed with my mom, with the exception of the gluten poisoning night, I didn’t get headaches. When I stayed with my sister, I got headaches. My mom runs a humidifier in the house, whereas my sister doesn’t. Sounds like I just discovered my next test.

Before running out to buy a humidifier, I checked online to see if anyone had built their own. In the description of this video, there is a link to a homemade humidifier from 1918.

1918 Homemade Humidifier

1918 Homemade Humidifier

The premise is you hang a towel down into water. The water will wick up the towel. Air will pass through the towel and humidify the air. At least that is how I understand the theory. My room is very dry right right now. On Tuesday I had a brutal headache, so I decided to try my hand at this project.

MacGyver Humidifier

MacGyver Humidifier

I was skeptical it would work, but after about an hour I could feel the water making its way several inches up the towel. Pretty cool. I really hesitate to get excited, but I had amazing night of sleep last night. Testing will continue.

Healing Your Sinuses

I wrote this post in August, but for some unknown reason, I didn’t hit the Publish button then.

I started tackling my sinus headache problem back in March. My early strategies were based off article I read on various websites. Nothing too scientific. Well, I figured it was time to do something I should have done a lot earlier and that was read a book my a medical profession with expertise in the field.

Harvard Medical School Guide to Healing Your Sinuses (Harvard Medical School Guides)
Harvard Medical School Guide to Healing Your Sinuses (Harvard Medical School Guides) by Dr. Ralph Metson

I learned a few things from Healing Your Sinuses. The most important thing being that my self experimentation is actually a good thing. The author recommends a step-wise approach starting with the simplest treatments first and then progressing to the most advanced. Two initial steps that do not require medical assistance are:

  1. Diet and Lifestyle
  2. Irrigation

Diet and lifestyle is the approach I am testing right now. Common irritants to the sinuses include smoking, alcohol, wheat and milk. So this book validates my most recent 30 day test, which involves going dairy free. This makes sense since I already know alcohol and wheat cause me to have sinus headaches.

For irrigation, I have been using the Netti Pot and experimenting with a sinus spray. The book states that irrigation is a highly effective strategy and I learned I could double the amount I’m currently using.

The rest of the book covers over the counter medication, antibiotics, steroids and surgery.

Slicing the Coffee Data

Ever since I started collecting data to track my headaches, I have not seen a connection between coffee intake and headaches. Seven months of data and no relationship. Until now. I think I see a pattern and it isn’t what I expected.

CoffeeFrequencyAverage Headache Intensity (0-5)

The table above shows that low coffee intake actually results in a slightly higher headache intensity. Note that these headaches are in the middle of the night. They feel nothing like caffeine withdrawal headaches, yet caffeine intake makes them go away quicker.

Now for the pattern I spotted. Over the past 7 months, I collected data for 102 days where I track the time I drank my last coffee for the day.

  • 81 days my last coffee was after Noon with a Headache Intensity of 1.1.
  • 21 days my last coffee was before Noon with a Headache Intensity of 2.2.

Based off this sample, I can expect to reduce my headache intensity by 50% if I have an espresso after Noon. Of the 5 killer headaches I had during this period (5/5), only one of those dates did I have an afternoon espresso.

Since I also believe that high caffeine levels result in reduced sleep quality and may be contributing at least partially to the core headache problems, I think the best strategy for me is to reduce my morning coffee intake and delay my last espresso into mid-afternoon.

Of course I could be wrong on all this. Additional testing should answer this question.

Hunting Headaches – Trying Acupuncture

A week ago someone that I really respect convinced me to try acupuncture as a strategy to address my headaches. Until that conversation, I didn’t have a high opinion of acupuncture. Back in my Florida days, I had an acupuncture student work on me to address back pain. It provided zero relief.

If I was wrong about diet and fitness, then maybe I was wrong about acupuncture. I have been running endless tests and analysis since mid March with no success. I needed a break, so I decided to give acupuncture a fair test. This past week I did my first two visits. I also decided that I would not play Internet researcher trying to learn everything about this form of treatment. Instead, I’m going to accept my ignorance on the topic, trust my caregiver and be a good patient.


Photo by Gwendel Uguen

The acupuncture takes place in a very quiet room with four large Lazy Boy recliners. Each chair is covered with a thin comfortable blanket. There is some very mellow almost hypnotic music playing quietly. The room is warmed with space heaters that throw off a calming white noise. The lighting in the room is low and mostly comes from a window.

After discussing my health with the acupuncturist, I had small needles placed in my face, head, feet, hands and forearm. From there I was instructed to relax. The needle pricks were not painful at all. I closed my eyes and time just past. On both visits, I am certain that I fell into a light sleep for about an hour.

Did the acupuncture help my sinus headaches? Not yet. Although I had a great night sleep with no headache after the first session, my headaches come in a wave pattern and statistically I was almost certain to have a great night’s sleep with or without treatment. I had 2 more headaches in between visits. And after my second visit, I had a headache.

If I don’t see a decrease in headache frequency or intensity by the end of the third week, I will quit going. I will say that I am enjoying the sessions, but mostly because I miss having a large reclining chair where I can lay back and close my eyes.

living room on Holly Oak Lane

My living room in San Diego with the big ole’ Lazy Boy recliner.

UPDATE: Acupuncture failed to help my headaches. My acupuncturist encouraged me to seek other health options.

Why I Distrust Doctors

In the post Hunting Headaches Take 3, I wrote this:

I know we live in a fear mongering climate, but I do not consider my headaches to be an emergency situation. Ive had them for many years and all other aspects of my health are stellar. So, I’m not surrendering to medical professionals. At the point where I’ve exhausted all avenues, I will. I’m not there yet.

I have 3 motivations for figuring out and solving my headaches.

  1. Self empowerment. I have figured out and solved many health riddles in the past 3 years. I’m a decent researcher and I have a fair amount of confidence that I’ll figure this one out as well. It is more challenging, but every month that goes by I collect more data and learn more about myself. There is no failure, only feedback.
  2. Financial. Because I am in stellar health, it made more financial sense to choose the health insurance plan that provided 100% coverage above $10,000 and basically nothing under that threshold. My prior insurance had less coverage above $10,000, but had some coverage underneath. I took the bet that whatever sends me to the hospital will be damn serious and damn expensive. You won’t see me in the Urgent Care cause I have a runny nose.
  3. Low Faith in Doctors. My track record with doctors hasn’t been good. For the most part, they don’t impress me. I’ve never sat across from a physician that appeared to be in better health than me. They push too many pills, surgeries and physical therapy. Anything to trigger another billable action.

Lego Doctor

Photo by larique

Things I Have Visited The Doctor For Since Adulthood

Rosacea – Both in Florida and here in Seattle, I saw dermatologists to address my rosacea. Both prescribed a massive battery of pills and creams. They were able to manage the problem, but it was expensive and it never addressed the root cause. They attacked the symptoms.

In the post Be Your Own Dermatologist, I describe how I cured my rosacea by eliminating wheat from my diet. Never once did either dermatologist mention the possibility that I might have a food intolerance. I know now that inflamed skin can be a sign of internal problems. Today if I ever get a blemish, I can reflect upon what in my diet changed that week and perform an elimination test to isolate the cause. No doctor needed.

Back Pain – When it comes to back pain, doctors are clueless. I got X-Rayed and scripts for painkillers. Even discussions of surgery, despite the fact I was clearly healthy. The chiropractor was even worse. I spent a year getting my back popped and neck snapped. My health insurance paid for most of it. As soon as the health insurance ran out, my chiropractor deemed me healed. It feels good to get an adjustment, but the benefits are short term and did nothing to address the root causes of my back pain. Only when I took control personally was I able to figure out the cause of my back pain. No surgery, pills or therapy required.

Ring Finger Injury – Back when I had a home gym, I thought it would be cool to do rope pull-ups. It was fine for awhile. Then I tore something in my left ring finger. I wasted months getting X-Rays, pills, PT sessions and on my very last visit they took out a needle and gave me a cortisol shot. The shot did it. My the next morning I was 100% healed. I was angry that they didn’t even suggest this before.

Wrist Surgery – I strained something in my right wrist and didn’t want to heal. After a convincing presentation, I was talked into a wrist surgery to repair the tendon. I was told I’d be 100% healed in 2-3 months. I was told the anesthesia would be most likely be local. The anesthesia ended up being general and it would 6 months before I could do a single open hand girls push-up. It would be a year before I was 100% better.

And here is the kicker, once they got the wrist open, they discovered there was no tendon damage, but found some benign cyst and removed it. They mentioned that the cyst would not have warranted a surgery, but since they were in there they removed it. I will never know what was really wrong with my wrist and if the surgery helped it or delayed my recovery from something that would have healed on its own.

Intestinal Problems – In 2009, I went two weeks with intestinal issues, so I saw a doctor. I ended up paying $600 in tests that were not covered by insurance. Later I learned one of the tests required me to fast to get an accurate reading, but that was never communicated by the doctor. They were too busy ringing the register.

They found nothing wrong with me, but gave me an expensive prescription to deal with the pain should it surface again. Thankfully an ethical pharmacist was on staff when I went to fill my script. He showed me an over-the-counter version of the same medicine that was 90% cheaper. Despite all the time and money I spent chasing down my gut issues, I still do not know what happened to me. Maybe I healed my gut with fermented food?

You Are Your Own Best Doctor

The weekly podcast Latest In Paleo has a saying that I love. It is that human beings are not broken by default. Amen! Daytime TV and medical drama shows like House promote fear of things we can’t see and that are out of our control. But we can take some control in our health outcomes. I have and I will continue to. If I need emergency treatment or I can’t figure something out, I will absolutely seek medical attention. But for the most part, I distrust doctors (dentists too). Now you know why.

Hunting Headaches Take 3

This has been a rough summer for me. Things haven’t turned out like I expected. In addition to personal and financial setbacks, I still have not solved the riddle of my headaches. When I began actively researching a solution to my headaches back in March, I had high confidence that I’d figure it out. After all, I cured my rosacea, gotten leaner and solved my back pain. All I needed was more data.

Well, not only have I not solved my headache problem, it has gotten worse. And although the advice I have been getting is well intentioned, most ignores the conditions I’ve described or strategies I’ve tested already. Also, my goal is not to cure the pain once it surfaces, but to prevent it from occurring. Removing the headache is simple. I just lift my head into an upright position and be patient. But, that sucks when it is 3 AM and you really want to sleep.


Hunting Headaches – Background describing headaches and my initial efforts.

Hunting Headaches Take 2 – Four new strategies.

30 Days Without Cheese – Eliminating tyramine as a cause.

My Headache Journal – Data going back to March 24, 2011.

It’s Not a Tumor

A few have suggested that I immediately seek out medical care, because it may be a tumor or something equally dangerous. I looked into this and I have none of the symptoms that are common in those with brain tumors or that have neurological damage. Having me throw away $10,000 to eliminate a slim possibility is not going to happen. Also, it doesn’t explain why my sister gets the same headaches, unless we both have the same exact rare condition. Ridiculously slim odds.

I know we live in a fear mongering climate, but I do not consider my headaches to be an emergency situation. I’ve had them for many years and all other aspects of my health are stellar. So, I’m not surrendering to medical professionals. At the point where I’ve exhausted all avenues, I will. I’m not there yet.

Dietary or Environmental?

I’ve been criticized for approaching this problem almost solely from a dietary perspective. There are a few reasons for that. One, diet is very critical to our health outcomes. Two, I already know at least two dietary factors play a role in my headaches: gluten and alcohol (both have long been eliminated from my diet). Three, my environment has not only changed throughout my adult life (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, San Diego, Seattle), it is something I have less control over. In the end, I expect the cause of the headaches to be multi-factor. If I can eliminate or isolate all the dietary causes first, then I can pursue the environmental side with cleaner data.

The Glass Half Full

Although I haven’t solved my headaches, I have eliminated many potential causes as prime suspects. I’m also eliminating many supplements as potential solutions. This is a good thing. For example, I no longer need to fear chocolate as a potential cause of my headaches. I have enough data show it is not a problem. There is also no correlation with local pollen counts. So every failed test is not a failure. That is beauty of self experimentation. You learn what makes your body tick.

The Next 30 Day Test

It is time to bring out the big guns. I’ve tried many supplements and none have demonstrated that they can reduce the intensity or frequency of my headaches. Combine this with the fact that I already eat super clean and I’m coming to the conclusion that it is not a nutrient deficiency. If there is a dietary component, then it is likely something I’m consuming regularly that my body sees as problematic.

There are two potential causes that come to mind: dairy and caffeine. They are also consumed by my sister as well. My plan all along was to get off the caffeine this summer, but it has proven way too difficult for a number of reasons. And please don’t comment that my sinus headaches are really caffeine withdrawal. They aren’t in the same region of the head and they feel completely different. Caffeine headaches are trivial compared to what I’m going through. Also, I recently did a test where I consumed low doses of caffeine during the night. It made no difference.

That leaves dairy. Dairy is mentioned as a common sinus allergen in the book Healing Your Sinuses. So is wheat and since I’ve already determined that wheat makes my sinus problems worse, logically it makes sense to test dairy next. I can’t recall a single day in my life that I didn’t have some dairy.

I am going to eliminate all dairy for 30 Days and then monitor my outcomes.

I’ll also keep striving to reduce caffeine and practice stress reduction, especially on days where I wake up without a headache. The hunt continues!

Is Liver High in Tyramine?

As I embark on my latest strategy to eliminate my headaches, the one thing I see repeated over and over is that liver is to be avoided, because it contains high levels of tyramine. Tyramine is a known trigger for migraines. After searching for several hours on this one point, I believe the recommendation to avoid all liver is based off a bad assumption.

I don’t have access to the full study, but I did find this statement in an abstract for Dietary tyramine and other pressor amines in MAOI regimens: a review. J Am Diet Assoc. 1986 Aug;86(8):1059-64.

Any food rich in aromatic amino acids can become high in tyramine if aging, contamination, prolonged storage, or spoilage occurs.

Stephen R. Saklad wrote up some summary points from that study in the article Foods to Avoid with MAOIs.

  • no detectable levels identified in fresh chicken livers
  • high tyramine content found in spoiled or unfresh livers (McCabe, 1986).

The abstract for study Tyramine content of previously restricted foods in monoamine oxidase inhibitor diets. Walker SE. 1996 Oct;16(5):383-8. states:

Foods that were found to have dangerously high concentrations of tyramine (> or = 6 mg/serving) included chicken liver aged 9 days (63.84 mg/30 g), air-dried sausage (7.56 g/30 g), soy sauce (0.941 mg/ml), and sauerkraut (7.75 mg/250 g).

Should this be a realistic concern? From the 2007 study Effects of a Tyramine-Enriched Meal on Blood Pressure Response in Healthy Male Volunteers Treated with Selegiline Transdermal System 6 mg/24 Hour:

Spoiled or improperly stored meats may contain higher amounts of tyramine (eg, unrefrigerated chicken liver); however, it is unlikely that numerous servings of spoiled meat will be consumed.(40) Realistically, ingestion of any of these foodstuffs in such large quantities is highly improbable.

What is the difference in tyramine content between fresh and “aged” liver? Here is another clue. From Monoamine Oxidase: Basic and Clinical Perspectives by D.P. Holschneider, M.D. and J.C. Shih, Ph.D.:

It is estimated that the tyramine content of beef liver may vary as much as 50-fold, depending on the method and period of storage…

A 50-fold difference! It appears from my amateur sleuthing that liver has gotten a bad name, because a worst case scenario number has been used as a baseline for recommendations. I get my beef liver frozen from the farmers market. I set it down in the refrigerator to thaw and then cook the next day. I’m thinking I should be fine.

I’ll be keeping track of my tyramine intake in my headache journal. If tyramine is indeed the guility party, which may or may not be true, then I’ll be able to measure outcomes with and without fresh liver.

Please add to the comments if I got something wrong in this post. I’m just interested in the truth. I’d hate to discard the most healthy food on the planet, because we are using a spoiled meat metric.

Hunting Headaches Take 2

In the post Hunting Headaches, I shared my headache journal and my inability so far to solve my headache problem or even isolate what type of headaches I’m getting. In the comments, I got a lot of good ideas for things to try next. I created a brand new tab on my headache journal spreadsheet.

4 Things To Track

The new tab does not track weather, pollen, chocolate, Netti pot use, supplements or the time of the day when I drank my last coffee. None of those variables seemed to matter. From the comments on the last post, I pulled 4 ideas of things to try and track. Now with diet, I normally try and test one variable at a time. That is because the ideas I’m trying have usually been tried successfully by many other people and I’m already at an ideal weight.

With headaches, I’m clearly not in an ideal state. There is something wrong, so trying 4 independent strategies at the same time might help me solve my headache problem. If this works, I can then remove each of the methods until headaches are retriggered to find the guilty party or parties. And if Headache Hunting Take 2 doesn’t work, then I can more quickly eliminate 4 more ideas from the guilty suspect list.

1- Reduce Caffeine

My plan all along was to cut back my coffee intake in the summer. Then Seattle got the Northwest Coffee Festival, which was 10 days of excessive coffee consumption. Last year I did a new style of caffeine detox that worked extremely well. It was a slower detox than the ones you see online, but it was painless and the results were longer lasting. My hope is that reducing my caffeine intake by 50% will result in a measurable decline in headache frequency and intensity.

2- Eliminate Aged Cheese

Giving up dairy completely is not an option for me. I believe I’d lose muscle without dairy. A man can only eat so much beef and bacon. And I rather be in pain than be a Stick Boy. The good news is I may not need to give up dairy. After Marian’s comment, I went back and took a deeper look at dairy. It seems aged cheese has something called tyramine, which is a trigger for migraines. Now, I am still not certain that my headaches are migraine in nature, but I’m willing to give this a try.


Cheese 101 by Steel Wool

In addition to aged cheese, I found out it also appears in some other foods that I eat. Tyramine is found in sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and Marmite. Oh no! After some deep Googling I discovered that fermented veggies do not have near the levels of tyramine that aged cheeses do.

The ebook Meal Ideas and Menus: Avoiding High-tyramine Foods Made Easy (PDF) by Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD actually has real numbers on tyramine levels. Here are some.

Attention: The internal data of table “13” is corrupted!

Who eats just an ounce of cheese? Also, look at the Sauerkraut numbers. Kind of wide range and it is measuring 4 oz. Kimchi is “believed to be high”, but the fermentation for kimchi (using nappa cabbage) is much shorter, so it is most certainly lower. Miso soup is also “believed to be high”. I was consuming Miso daily in small doses after the Japan accident, but have since cut back to twice a week. I’m also a fan of Marmite, but could easily take a break from that. Another data point I see quoted is that “aged” chicken livers are very high in tyramine. Who ages chicken livers?

UPDATE: I did some digging into the “avoid liver” recommendation in the post Is Liver High in Tyramine?

By eliminating aged cheese and Marmite, I should be cutting out over 90% of the tyramine in my diet. If that doesn’t result in a reduction of headaches, then I can conclude tyramine is not a cause. I’m not cutting out sauerkraut or kimchi. I’ve seen too many positive health benefits from those foods, plus I had these style headaches long before I discovered fermentation.

3-Mobility: Neck, Shoulders, More

I liked Justin’s comment about addressing postural issues with the neck. Because I push pixels, I am at risk for having more neck tension issues. Currently, I do neck and shoulder mobility work every 5th day. I’m going to increase this and add in a few minutes of deep breathing exercises.

4- Aromatherapy

I’ve never thought about aromatherapy for a second. I always assumed it was something sold to old ladies, but then I followed up on GWhitney’s comment about lavender. There are several studies that show improved sleep and health benefits associated with lavender. Since I also love the smell of lavender, I’ll be trying this as well. I’m just glad it is lavender and not orange peels. I’d rather have a headache every night than smell orange peels. :)


Hunting Headaches

In the past three years, I’ve solved a lot of health riddles. I’ve gotten leaner, cured my rosacea, discovered the root causes of my back pain and I almost never get colds anymore. However, one huge mystery remains and it has me stumped. For over 15 years, I will often wake up around 3 AM with a sinus headache. Not everyday, but in patterns.

Because the patterns seemed to be erratic, it has been impossible for me to tell if a change that I initiate helps, doesn’t help or partially helps. About 100 days ago, I started a headache journal. I was hoping that this exercise would shine a light on the guilty party to my headaches, but it has left me more confused.

I do not see a correlation between weather, pressure, pollen, coffee intake, chocolate, Netti pot use or even the use of a few supplements. Note that this is not a Seattle thing. I had these headaches when I loved in San Diego, Northern Virginia and Tampa Bay. My sister has them in Columbus. I’ve tried different pillows and different beds. I’ve eliminated wheat, alcohol and most sugar. The headaches persist.


Photo by URBAN ARTefakte

Headache Characteristics

My headaches wake me up at night. I have pressure around my eyes and nose. Whenever I lift my head off the pillow, the pressure decreases and my headache intensity declines. Caffeine helps. As a result, there have been many mornings in the past decade where I am sitting up drinking coffee or tea at 4 AM. It kills the headache, but then I’m unable to return to sleep.

Coffee and tea work, so does patience and just having my head upright. Over the counter medication is pretty much worthless. I’ve had minor success with Mucinex-D, but then only for a limited amount of time and I can’t say for certain if it was the reason or something else.

Note that these feel nothing like the pain I feel when I cut way back on caffeine. These are completely different. A headache from caffeine withdrawal feels the same whether I am lying down or standing up. The headaches I am trying to prevent are far more intense when lying down.

Sinus Headache?

I was positive my headache was sinus in nature until last week. Then I read about study that said most people that believe they have sinus headaches don’t. From “Sinus Headache” May Be Migraine:

A startling 97% of the participants, self-described sinus headache sufferers, actually had symptoms consistent with Migraine attacks as defined by the criteria of the International Headache Society.

My sinus headaches never lead to any mucus drainage or sickness. This may mean that I’m not suffering from sinus headaches. They may be migraines.


I’ve always discounted the idea that I suffer from migraines. Going through the Bellaire Neurology site, I made a list of the common elements for migraine headaches. They include:

  1. Lasting 4-72 hours.
  2. Throbbing pain often one-sided.
  3. Made worse by physical activity.
  4. Nausea or vomiting or photophobia (light sensitive) or phonophobia (sound sensitive).
  5. Speech difficulty.
  6. Runny nose or sinus stuffiness.

The only symptom that I have in that list is sinus stuffiness. None of the other apply. Not even close. This makes me think it may not be a migraine.

Cluster Headaches?

Cluster headaches are supposedly the most painful headaches and can even drive people to suicide. I do not believe I have cluster headaches, but I’m putting it on the list because I do have two of the symptoms.

  1. Often occur at night and wake the sufferer.
  2. The headache is short in duration.

However, other symptoms do not match at all. It is said the pain feels like an ice-pick pounding into your eye. Since I can’t measure the pain I’m feeling with someone else, I don’t know how severe my headaches are. They do vary in intensity and the majority are not the most severe. So I don’t think this is it, but it does share some of the similarities.

Hypnic Headaches

Then I read about hypnic headaches. From Hypnic Headaches – The Basics:

Hypnic headache (HH) is a rare primary headache disorder (primary headache disorders are those that cannot be attributed to another condition.) It’s most identifying feature is that it only develops during sleep and wakes the sufferer.

It goes on to say that the pain lasts from 15 to 180 minutes and that caffeine helps. This type of headache, unlike migraines, has no nausea, photophobia or phonophobia symptoms. So far it sounds like I found the answer. Then I got to this part of the diagnosis chart:

At least two of the following characteristics:

  1. occurs 15 or more times per month
  2. lasts 15 or more minutes after waking
  3. first occurs after age of 50 years

From my headache journal, you can see that these waking headaches occurred 40 times in 100 days. That is less than the threshold defined above. Also, if you just count those headaches where I define the intensity as a 3 or greater (out of 5), that number falls to just 21 times. Symptom #2 is mostly accurate, although I’ve had less severe headaches that went away minutes after sitting up. Symptom #3 is false, as these headaches started in my 20s.

Now What?

I have no clue what type of headache I have. For all I know, there may be another type of headache that fits my condition. My current health insurance only protects me for catastrophic events, so seeking specialists is not an option. My headaches aren’t any worse today that they were 5 years ago. I am motivated by my success in solving other health riddles that maybe I can figure out the root cause and solution for these headaches.

I am hoping to discover a non-pharmaceutical solution. I prefer to work from the premise that I am not broken, but may need to tweak something in my diet or environment. I’m going to cut my caffeine intake by 50% for a month to see if it has any effect. If you have an insight or ideas, please leave them in the comments. Thanks.

Follow-up: Hunting Headaches Take 2