Headaches are not normal. They are a common symptom in pregnancy, but this does not mean they are normal or should be expected. A diet emphasizing nutrients to support the brain, liver, pancreas, gallbladder and gut are necessary in pregnancy anyway, but even more so when it comes to preventing and relieving headaches. My hope for this article is that rather than simply shutting up your body with Tylenol, you are able to see your body’s symptoms as cries for help and know how to respond accordingly. Symptoms, whether headaches or burning with urination, or heartburn, or anxiety, give us a glimpse into our bodies’ needs – if we know how to interpret them, we will thrive rather than simply striving to live symptom-free.
There are several factors that I prefer not to discuss but as common sense and real health seem to be dwindling in society, I will mention them briefly now – more information about each of these is readily available either online or in resources from your prenatal care provider. The following factors can cause headaches – not only because of the substance itself, but because of the nutritional deficiencies that the substance causes in the body. Tobacco, alcohol, drugs (including prescription and illicit as well as legal drugs such as marijuana), and caffeine all cause nutritional deficiencies and/or damage to the gut lining which is directly related to brain health. It is important to discuss any substances you are used to using with your prenatal care provider, including prescription medications. Just because a doctor told you at some point to take a medication does not mean that it is safe for you or your unborn child. Another factor to discuss with your provider is what to look for in the case of preeclampsia – when to notify him or her of a headache or other symptoms. Note that a headache can indicate preeclampsia when it is accompanied by other symptoms and positive lab values. However, preeclampsia can often be managed by nutrition, so if this is your diagnosis, do not fear. This is your body calling out urgently to alert you that you need to make some quick changes. Listen and take heed, and seek specialized help. It is possible to heal!
Now let us talk about nutrients for headaches. Headaches can be caused by many factors. Certainly in pregnancy fluctuating hormones cause numerous undesirable symptoms. So can nutritional deficiencies. What causes us to be deficient in nutrients when we were totally fine pre-pregnancy? It is safe to say that during pregnancy women need increased sources of real nutrition. Pregnancy requires more water. Pregnancy is a eustressor – a stress that is good, but stressful nonetheless. Stress, whether good or bad, causes heightened function of certain body systems and decreased activity of others. It also causes the body to use up certain nutrients to be able to stabilize during a stressful situation. Hormonal changes place an added workload on the liver, which is instrumental in maintaining stable hormone levels. These hormonal changes (specifically with progesterone) can cause slowing of bile secretion which can cause gallstones and other gallbladder issues commonly associated with pregnancy. Every one of these situations can be supported by nutrition. Each of these issues can contribute to headaches, so by supporting the body through nutrition, we can prevent or reduce headaches.
The main nutritional deficiencies I commonly see with pregnant women (and I saw in myself during my first pregnancy) are:
Every pregnant woman knows they are supposed to get more water. BUT – did your provider ever talk about the quality of the water and the trace minerals that you need to go with it? If you are drinking city water, it must be filtered. In most places tap water contains chlorine and fluoride which are extremely damaging to several body systems, primarily your gut and your thyroid. These are instrumental for neurologic function and hormone regulation. Various studies have also shown tap water to contain remnants of numerous medications including antipsychotics and antibiotics – definitely not substances that you want to be ingesting on a regular basis for you or your unborn child. So: filter, filter, filter. That said, now you need to make sure your water has the trace minerals in it that are necessary for your body to use the water effectively. Without trace minerals, your body can get severely dehydrated (even if you’re drinking several liters per day), which is a sure-fire cause of a headache. Check your filter – if it is a reverse osmosis filter or Berkey (or similar), you’ll need to replace the minerals. This can easily be done with trace mineral drops or even a pinch of sea salt in each glass (during pregnancy I usually need to switch to the drops to feel my best but I usually use the sea salt when not pregnant). Additionally, you can add a squeeze of lemon, a small bit of apple cider vinegar, and/or cell salts to help the water you drink work the best it can for you.
B vitamins are depleted when our bodies are under stress – they are so important for neurologic connections and to help the body regulate and recover during stress, so the body uses them quickly. It is therefore necessary to replenish them regularly. This can be done through liver supplements, B complex supplements, egg yolks (the runnier the better), meat and dairy (especially cultured dairy). Remember that when we heal through food, it is not like taking a medication that is a specific formulated dose that you only take at specific times to avoid overdose. You will not overdose on food. Whole foods contain the cofactors needed to process each nutrient. Also, the body uses the nutrients in foods as quickly as it needs them. Some days you might need 2 egg yolks. Some days you may need 12. That is the beauty of listening to your body rather than following a specific plan. For fatigue, headaches, brain fog, and trouble sleeping, increasing foods with B vitamins are a must. As long as they are good quality and prepared in your home, have as much as you want.
Did you know that your hormones are made up of fats? Also, without adequate fats we get blood sugar spikes and drops that lead to headaches. The best fats for our bodies to use are from good quality animal sources. Butter, bacon grease, cream, tallow, lard, egg yolks – if they are from good sources, these are critical for neurologic connection, hormone stability and connection, and blood sugar regulation. Quality non-animal sources of fat include coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil, but I would stay away from any other plant-based oils especially during pregnancy, as the stability and quality are often questionable, and some oils such as canola and grapeseed oil can be downright toxic.
I recommend always having a Russian Custard on hand during pregnancy. If you do not have a good source of eggs, at least have a butter or ghee and honey mixture if you can tolerate these ingredients. Otherwise, coconut oil and honey can provide quick relief for headaches. I have one of these types of “custard” in a small mason jar in my purse throughout the day to help with symptoms of headache, fatigue or brain fog. They are stable to have at room temperature for about 12 hours.
The gallbladder can often use some extra support during pregnancy, so adding in some beet kvass every day (even 1-2 tbsp in the morning) can make a world of a difference in preventing gallbladder issues that are becoming increasingly common with pregnancy.
Have you heard that vitamin D is actually a hormone? Vitamin D helps counteract a plethora of ailments. It is needed for mental health, anti-inflammation, blood-sugar regulation, cardiovascular health, muscle connection, bone health, blood pressure regulation, autoimmune regulation, parathyroid health and healing of cancer (to name a few uses). It is a cofactor for many other nutrients, meaning it is needed to make them work effectively. Vitamin D should be obtained from the sun directly on our skin (without the barrier of clothing or sunscreen) – this is when it is most efficiently absorbed and utilized by our bodies. However, for most of the world, sunlight is not available directly enough throughout the entire year, and it is necessary to supplement. The best ways to obtain vitamin D through diet are through fatty fish or fermented cod liver oil. Remember: since vitamin D is fat soluble, it always must be taken with a fat.
Helpful tip: to obtain vitamin D through the sun, your shadow should be shorter than your body. This means that the sun is at a good angle to provide adequate vitamin D. After being in the sun, wait at least 30 minutes to give the sun enough time to absorb into your skin before showering or wiping off sweat.
Frequently headaches are described as “tension.” Especially for this type, it is important to take magnesium. There are some oral supplements that can be helpful, but magnesium is more readily absorbed topically, so I always recommend either an epsom salt bath (which is magnesium sulfate) or magnesium spray. Remember that magnesium spray can start feeling itchy after about 15-20 minutes. If this happens to you, you can wash it off with a wet cloth or in the shower. The magnesium should have been absorbed by this point. If you do not feel relief with spray, try an epsom salt bath instead. I recommend taking magnesium regularly, instead of symptomatically – meaning, do not only take it when you have a headache – take some every day and increase the amount you are taking if you develop a headache.
Iodine is a trace mineral necessary for several body systems, but especially necessary for thyroid function, which is directly related to certain types of headaches. For people who live landlocked (as I do, in Colorado), supplementing iodine is necessary. Iodized salt is not a good source of iodine and the “salt” portion can be very imbalancing for other minerals and dangerous for blood vessels. I do not recommend iodized salt to anyone. My favorite way to replenish iodine safely is through topical application. When you put iodine on your skin, your body will absorb it at whatever rate it needs – if you are very deficient, your body will absorb quickly. If you have an adequate supply, your body will absorb only as it is needed. This is an excellent way to gauge your iodine status, as well as have a consistent source available to your body. For more information on topical iodine application, see our blog post: https://www.bewellclinic.net/blog-posts/how-to-apply-iodine-to-your-skin
As a quick recap: some rhythms to implement to get all of the above nutrition into your body:
In the mornings, make yourself a nice large glass or thermos of filtered water, add your minerals, a squeeze of lemon, and cell salts (bioplasma is my favorite) to absorb. Drink this throughout the day.
Make yourself a Russian Custard (or similar) to take throughout your day with you, whether you are at home or working outside the house. (Remember to pack a spoon!) This will supply both B vitamins and necessary fats! If you can get about 6 egg yolks per day that’s a great place to start, increasing as you need.
Take your fermented cod liver oil supplement along with whatever prenatal vitamins you are taking.
If you can, take a walk outside during lunch time when the sun is overhead. The more skin you can expose to the sun the better!
Before bed, give yourself a 20 minute soak in an epsom salt bath, or if you don’t have time do a quick magnesium spray on your legs while starting your bedtime routine. Wash it off after 15 minutes if it becomes itchy.
As you get into bed, apply your topical iodine (or check from the night before to see if you need more). Let it dry before putting on a shirt or getting into bed – unless you want yellow linens!
Hopefully these 6 nutrients will help with your headaches and transform your pregnancy. I remember well the headaches I had during pregnancy and postpartum with my first child, and implementing more of these nutrients with my subsequent pregnancies (and generally throughout my non-pregnant life) has just about eradicated headaches from my life. If you have questions or for more individualized help please contact one of our clinics. We would love to work with you to support your body, ease your pregnancy and give you peace of mind as you enter motherhood.