Breathe Away Your Headaches

Lack of oxygen can cause headachesLack of oxygen, caused by poor breathing or breath obstruction, is one of the hidden, yet most direct, causes of headaches. That’s why relief from head pain may be only a few breaths away.

Oxygen is the most vital element you need to live. Without air, we die fairly quickly. Indeed, life begins with a breath and a cry and ends with a final exhalation. Yet, while the atmosphere offers us an ample oxygen supply, we neglect to put it to best use. We rarely fill our lungs. We take quick short breaths and compromise our health.

The Chinese have a proverb, which, loosely translated, says: When you’re born, you intuitively inhale deeply from your stomach; at middle age, you breathe from the middle of your chest; as you approach the end of life, your breath is restricted to your throat.

In other words, the less full and more superficial our breathing, the closer to death we seem to be. We should breathe from our stomachs, expanding and contracting the abdomen, which facilitates a full and complete breathing cycle. It draws fresh air to the bottom of the lungs and expels stale air from the same depths.

Oxygen Deprivation Causes Headaches

Although you may not pay attention to your breathing, it can make you ill or boost your body’s power to heal. Think about the last time you felt stressed out. If your breathing shortened and grew belabored, it may have given you a pounding headache.

When you are stressed, focus on your breathing, taking in relaxed, deep breaths. Instantly, you become more tranquil, your breathing cycle steadied. Breathing deeply in this manner can actually stave off a headache.

Without enough oxygen in the lungs, the organs cannot function properly. As a result, toxins accumulate in the bloodstream and vascular headaches ensue. This happens because low oxygen levels initiate the widening of blood vessels and bring on migraines. To prevent this, supply more oxygen to the brain by breathing deeply and exercising.

Yawn Signs

Yawning is a sign you’re oxygen-deprived. When you’re tired, under stress and sitting for too long, shallow breathing limits your oxygen supply. Consequently, a yawn brings in a deep breath of air in an instant. Yawning may also be a sign that an oxygen-deprivation headache is imminent.

People who frequently snore when they sleep, sleep facedown or sleep in poorly ventilated areas are susceptible to getting cluster headaches that result from restricted levels of oxygen. In these cases, oxygen from a tank of pure oxygen may cut short the beginning of a cluster headache. Research shows that breathing in pure oxygen may cut the incidence of cluster headaches by up to 80 percent.1

Oxygen therapy is a century-old mainstay in headache treatment in the West. There are two main types of oxygen therapy: oxidation and oxygenation. Both of these treatments have been proven effective in treating conditions such as circulatory problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies and headaches.2

The shortcoming of these methods is that they treat headache symptoms after they have occurred, rather than preventing them from arising in the first place. But you should always remember: Trying to relieve pain after a headache starts is not as beneficial as preventing these headaches from ever occurring.

Fill Your Lungs

Oxygen-deprivation headaches are the result of improper breathing. Breathing properly is the prevention method that takes you closer to a cure.

Andrew Weil, M.D., offers good tips for breathing. Along with his writings on the subject, I recommend those of John Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., and Herbert Benson, M.D., both of whom have performed admirable research on mind/body medicine.

The program I favor is rooted in promoting a sufficient intake of oxygen. This requires only that you focus on proper breathing and employ deep-breathing techniques to deal with stress. When you breathe properly, you boost the oxygen in your lungs, increase respiratory function and return your blood oxygen to a proper level. These efforts lower your risk of head pain.

Simple Breathing Exercises

Proper breathing necessitates filling the lungs to capacity. Deep-breathing practices have been taught by Eastern healers for a very long time and are well represented in the practice of both yoga and qigong practices.

To reap the full benefits of proper breathing:

  • Keep your work, social and sleep areas well ventilated.
  • Sleep on a pillow that is not too fluffy, and don’t let it cover your nose when you sleep.
  • Sleep on your back or side.
  • Use sinus strips to prevent obstructed breathing while sleeping.
  • Make it a habit to take about a dozen slow, deep breaths each hour, or as often as possible.
  • Eat a mucus-free diet (avoid dairy and processed foods) which reduces phlegm.

Here’s a simple abdominal breathing method I use often. It is but one example of how expanding the stomach while breathing can facilitate this process for you.

• Lie on your back, with bent knees and feet flat on the floor about 9 inches from your buttocks.
• Keep your lower back on the floor and inhale fully.
• Expand your abdomen as you inhale to fill your lungs all the way.
• Allow your abdomen to sink as you exhale to fully expel all the air from your lungs.
• Repeat at least a dozen times.

Breathing Changes

Deep breathing is truly relaxing. Its benefits help prevent vascular headaches, and they help you feel good about your health. So relax, breathe deeply and enjoy your expanded health horizons.


1 Stagliano. The D.O. (1991, July), p. 86.
2 Milne, R., More, B. et al. (1997). Definitive Guide to Headaches. Tiburon, CA: Future Medicine Publishing, p. 492


Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.