Understanding Tension Headaches

Understanding Tension Headaches: Causes, Supplements, and More

What Is a Tension Headache?

What Is a Tension Headache?

Tension headaches, or tension-type headaches (TTH), are the most prevalent primary headache condition. Though not life-threatening, TTH can significantly hinder one's work performance and overall well-being. In addition to the complexity, distinguishing between TTH and migraines can be challenging and may even occur concurrently.

Although research on nutritional supplements for TTH is limited, this article delves into tension headaches, exploring current research on natural methods to manage them.

Are Tension Headaches and Migraines Similar? 

Are Tension Headaches and Migraines Similar

Migraines and tension-type headaches are widespread primary headache conditions, sharing characteristics that complicate their precise diagnosis.

Moreover, individuals may unfortunately experience both migraines and tension headaches. Given the absence of imaging techniques or blood biomarkers to distinguish between them, careful consideration of individuals' symptoms becomes crucial.

Tension Headaches

Tension Headaches

Tension-type headaches (TTH) stand as the most prevalent form of headache disorder, affecting 30% to 70% of individuals at some stage. TTH exhibits a relatively equal distribution between men and women.

Patients often describe the sensation of a tension headache as a mild-to-moderate "band around the head," characterized by a dull ache, pressure, or squeezing felt bilaterally on both sides of the head. Typically, TTH lasts between 30 minutes to 24 hours, but in some cases, it may persist for up to seven days.

Unlike migraines, TTH is not aggravated by routine activities and typically lacks sensitivity to light and sound. Nausea, if present, tends to be mild, particularly in chronic TTH sufferers.

Migraine Headaches

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches represent another prevalent primary headache disorder, affecting approximately 15% of adults in the United States. Unlike tension-type headaches (TTH), migraines exhibit a higher prevalence among women, being two to three times more common compared to men.

In contrast to TTH, migraines are characterized by more intense symptoms, lasting from 4 to 72 hours, featuring moderate-to-severe pulsating pain typically felt on one side of the head (unilateral) in about 60% of cases. Migraine sufferers often experience accompanying symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and heightened sensitivity to light and sound. Routine physical activities can exacerbate these symptoms.

Common Causes of Tension Headaches

Common Causes of Tension Headaches

A significant portion of metabolic research on headaches concentrates on exploring nutritional triggers and interventions for migraines. In contrast, tension headaches receive comparatively less attention in this regard. However, several common triggers are shared between both types of headaches:

  1. Caffeine, particularly at doses exceeding approximately 200 milligrams daily.
  2. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), although data on its impact is varied.
  3. Mental or emotional stress.
  4. Sleep disturbances.

For individuals experiencing chronic headaches of either type, it is generally advisable to manage or investigate the body's response to caffeine, MSG, stress, and sleep disturbances. Maintaining a "headache diary" can immensely benefit the individual and their healthcare provider in identifying triggers and patterns.

Supplements for Tension Headache Prevention and Treatment

Supplements for Tension Headache Prevention and Treatment

Peppermint Oil

When mixed with a carrier oil and applied across the forehead and temples, Peppermint essential oil may alleviate tension headaches as effectively as Tylenol. While not traditionally considered a "nutritional supplement," this straightforward alternative medication could offer acute relief during a tension headache.


Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2, gives your urine a bright yellow color after taking a multivitamin. Despite being excreted in urine, riboflavin remains beneficial, similar to many pharmaceutical medications. Studies investigating riboflavin's impact on headaches have shown that doses ranging from 25 to 400 milligrams per day may decrease migraine frequency and alleviate tension headaches. Riboflavin is commonly found in products or recommended by doctors alongside nutrients like CoQ10 or magnesium.


Magnesium plays a crucial role in over 300 enzymes in the human body, akin to Vitamin D, and significantly contributes to cardiovascular and neurological function. Research indicates that low magnesium intake correlates with migraines, and increasing intake through diet or supplementation can reduce both the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Magnesium L-threonate is the most effective supplemental form for enhancing brain magnesium levels.


CoQ10, or Coenzyme Q10, is an antioxidant that aids energy production. A daily dose of approximately 300 milligrams for at least three months may decrease migraine frequency and associated nausea in migraine sufferers.


Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, which accounts for a significant portion of brain fat, play a vital structural role in the central nervous system. Studies on fish oil for migraines and headaches have shown reductions in inflammatory markers. Diets lacking in omega-3s are associated with more frequent morning headaches.

Feverfew and Butterbur

Feverfew and butterbur are botanicals commonly used for headache and migraine relief. While feverfew has more robust evidence supporting its efficacy than butterbur, they are often combined with other nutrients discussed above. Feverfew is particularly effective as a preventive supplement for individuals experiencing frequent headaches.

Supplements for Tension Headache Prevention

Supplements for Tension Headache Prevention

Although not explicitly studied for or widely recognized to alleviate headache conditions, the following supplements may aid in managing stress, a common trigger and aggravator of headaches.


L-theanine, a non-protein amino acid, promotes feelings of calmness and pleasantness, along with measurable increases in alpha waves. While not a sedative, L-theanine may assist individuals dealing with stress and sleep disturbances.


Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid abundantly present in the brain. Supplementing with phosphatidylserine may subtly influence stress levels and mental resilience.


Although melatonin doesn't directly alleviate headache symptoms, consuming doses ranging from 1 to 3 milligrams may improve sleep quality and decrease sleep disruptions, recognized triggers for headaches.

Tips for Managing Tension Headaches

Here are some additional recommendations for effectively managing tension headaches:

  1. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods in your diet.
  2. Maintain a routine of regular exercise and ensure you get an adequate amount of sleep.
  3. Incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine, such as practicing yoga or meditation.
  4. Implement stress management strategies to minimize tension and anxiety.
  5. If you experience frequent or severe headaches, it's essential to consult with your doctor for proper evaluation and treatment.


Tension-type headaches (TTH) are a prevalent form of primary headache disorder. Generally milder than migraines, TTH typically lacks associated symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound.

Research exploring the efficacy of nutritional supplements for TTH is limited. Nonetheless, some studies suggest that riboflavin, magnesium, CoQ10, omega-3 fatty acids, feverfew, and butterbur may help alleviate the frequency and intensity of headaches.

It's essential to consult your doctor before incorporating new supplements, as they may interact with existing medications. Keeping a headache diary to monitor symptoms and triggers can assist you in collaborating with your doctor to devise a tailored treatment strategy.

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