Incremental Life Improvement: Headaches

Life could be better. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make progress on the big problems I have. Unfortunately, those are hard to make progress on and often have long feedback loops. All of these problems would be easier if I were overall healthier, smarter, more functional, and more energetic.

My current project is to find things that make my life 1-5% better. One reason is that these are cumulative and will make solving the rest easier. Another is the theory of low-hanging fruit. I haven’t taken this particular approach to improving my life recently.

First, I started by listing domains that had potential for those 1-5% improvements.

  • Annoyance from construction next door
  • Difficulty sleeping: House is hot, high resting heart rate
  • Climbing: Need shoes that fit better, lessons, a cheaper way to get there
  • Guitar: Mediocre quality, less fun to play
  • Skin quality: Figure out way to reduce hyperpigmentation, anti-wrinkles?
  • Headaches: How to be systematic about them?
  • Eyes: Might help with headaches as well. Maybe need better sunglasses?
  • Nutrition and supplementation: Am I deficient in anything?
  • Better backpack: Bulky, few and inaccessible pockets. Poor flow.
  • Things I do every day: brush teeth, drink water, facial care, hygiene, food preparation and leaning, anti-fragile night routine

Right away, I could see that some were easily fixable. In five minutes, I went to the Wirecutter to see which water bottle they recommended and bought the best one.

Next, I chose one that seemed like it would have the best time / reward.


What’s the problem?

I get headaches for several hours perhaps on 10-20% of days. Headaches make me stupid, unmotivated, and in mild pain. There are two problems: Figuring out what causes headaches such that I can prevent them, and figuring out what makes them better such that I can alleviate them.

There are a lot of possible things that cause headaches. I started by listing a bunch of possible contributors.

  • Smoke: I’ve been trying a variety of incense types to see which ones I’m allergic to, and it turns out that I’m mildly uncomfortable with all of them (some more than others). Burning sage or fire in my fireplace does a similar thing. Which sucks! I like burning things.
  • Eye strain: I watched a movie with my blurry vision from 20 feet away, and it was fine during it, but afterwards I had a strong headache for hours. This was helpful, since then I had a clear cause / effect.
    • This might be fixed soon with Lasik.
  • Caffeine
  • Lack of caffeine
  • Deyhdration
  • Having my hair up
  • Chocolate
  • Looking at my phone in the car

These are too many things to practically track and do data analysis on. Instead, I will have to do research and make models on which of these are most likely, and then isolate those variables and see if it has an effect.

Also, I wrote down any other clues that seemed relevant:

I suspect there are multiple causes that are contributing to my headaches. They all feel like tension headaches, located in my temples and behind my eyes. I never have a headache in the morning. Instead, it feels like the headache builds throughout the day.

Next, I started trying to find out why these various things might cause headaches, and started trying to make a model. The important thing isn’t to have a perfect understanding of what’s going on, but to get an idea for what the different factors are and what things I can try.

Tension Headaches

My symptoms fit the most common type of headaches, tension headaches.


Well, my blood pressure is pretty low, and a study I found suggests that hypertension and headaches aren’t as connected as common knowledge suggests.

Possible intervention: Clonidine


I don’t fully understand the mechanism of either vasoconstriction or vasodilation, but vaguely, vasoconstriction manifests as headaches sometimes. This is when blood vessels become narrower throughout the body. Causes of that include caffeine, sodium, other stimulants, antihistimines.

I take antihistimines. That plus caffeine could contribute to that.

The opposite of vasoconstriction is vasodilation. One mechanism that vasodilators work includes increasing the production of nitric oxide. Alpha blockers like clonidine are primarily for hypertension, but might work for vasoconstriction too [TODO: figure this out]

Supposedly, dark chocolate helps with the production of nitric oxide. However, it also has caffeine and other stimulants in it, which could cause vasoconstriction. This makes it a confusing variable to have around, and reducing intake might help clarify what’s going on.

Possible intervention: Decaf coffee

Possible intervention: Tapering antihistimines (potentially costly experiment)


There’s another type of headache caused by dehydration. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it seems like it’s partly from the brain contracting within the skull and also loss of blood volume. The symptoms don’t match mine exactly, but I’m not sure. Drinking more water is cheap and beneficial anyway.

One strategy could be to avoid things that cause dehydration, like diuretics and things that suppress anti-diuretics in the body. Alcohol, tea, and caffeine are in this category.

Possible intervention: Avoiding or reducing diuretics.

Possible intervention: Carrying a water bottle around. Good thing I just ordered one!

Next steps: Figuring out how to incorporate drinking more water into my life.

Eye Strain

Things that might cause it include squinting or trying to look at things far away without my contacts.

Possible intervention: Carrying around sunglasses. Finding sunglasses I like. Owning several pairs of sunglasses.

Possible intervention: Lasik (planned). We will see what happens.


There’s a type of headache I used to get when I played a lot of Nintendo Switch. I had magical thinking about it, and kept hoping I wouldn’t get another massive neck tweak from playing so much. But it’s real and very uncomfortable. It seems like certain types of screen activities semi-reliably cause it.

I have had little success in fixing this type of headache when it happens, and I’m not sure how I would get better at it. Chiropractor training? Posture classes? Regular self-massage?

Other causes seem to be having a heavy purse that rests on one shoulder and having my hair up for extended periods of time or in the car (because of the headrest).

Possible intervention: Topical magnesium lotion. This has led to imbalance of muscle tension in the past, though.

Possible intervention: Physical therapist or something similar to retrain muscles.

Possible intervention: Limit screen time to five hours in a day. Watch fewer shows, or watch them from a screen further away with proper vision.


I’m also going to try having ibuprofen on hand and taking it more often. It doesn’t help solve the root cause, but does add a few hours of functionality to my life.

Try Things

The next step is to try some of these interventions and pay close attention to how I’m feeling. The better attention I can pay to myself via introspection, the better the feedback loop. At some point, if I’m not getting anywhere, I might do more research to understand the biological mechanisms in more detail.

The Trees

I wasn’t lonely around the trees. I found two basking in some sunlight. Dead trees. No branches. Still stolid and present. They were my friends for a minute. I stood between them and imagined being a tree. It would be nice, I think.

There were windy ghosts creaking in the tops of the eucalyptus. I was scared. The ghosts didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. What if a tree fell on me? Would I scream? Would I die instantly? If I screamed, would that attract predators or friends?

I didn’t bring my backpack with water, since I thought I’d be going on a short walk. But I couldn’t help but consider what would happen if I just kept walking. Walking past the sunset. Staying on the trail but with no sense of direction. I would become dehydrated first. Hunger would register second. My lips would crack and my gums would dry. I could keep walking, still. My limbs would grow tired, and I would eventually collapse in the dirt. But that wasn’t important—the important thing was that I could keep walking.

These thoughts make me feel isolated. I came back from that walk feeling much better about life. Perhaps part of me thought it wasn’t safe to have thoughts like that around other people. But we all do, sometimes, and that is okay.

Fun with Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasma Gondii is a single-celled parasite that can only sexually reproduce in cat feces, infectious up to 12 months after expulsion.

T. Gondii life cycle

In a warm-blooded host like us, T. gondii will start out by entering all sorts of cell types and asexually reproducing in vacoules, virus-style. This will continue until the cell bursts, spreading toxoplasma all over the body and destroying cells in a domino of break in and explode out.

This stage ends when the host’s immune system kicks in. Then, toxoplasma will slowly replicate from within a cyst. These cysts can persist for a long time, eventually bursting and forming new cysts.

Humans end up contracting it a couple of ways: exposed to cat feces directly, dealing with it indirectly in dirt outside, or eating raw meat (especially free range and pig / boar) with cysts that contain the parasite. There are more people infected in France just because they eat more raw and undercooked meat.

If the host is not immunocompromised, there will usually be no symptoms. But some of the fun effects include increased mood disorders, Alzheimer’s, traffic accidents, and a 2.7x higher risk of schizophrenia.

I think a lot about how I can provide value to the places I’m going, and in a few months I’m going to a party in the woods. It would be beyond valuable to have a volunteer station that can provide tests for toxoplasmosis while there. It fits with the theme.

The CDC website describes a few screening methods:

  1. Screening blood for the genetic tissue of Toxoplasma gondii using PCR.
  2. Isolating and spotting the parasite directly via a tissue biopsy, blood, or other bodily fluids. Bronchoalveolar lavage is one invasive diagnostic technique for this.
  3. Testing relative levels of IgG and IgM to detect antibodies, present in blood, saliva, spinal fluid, and semen. This is the normal screening method.

Unfortunately, all of these require blood or similar. Fortunately, anyone can buy an IgG kit for $299.20 + shipping. The site doesn’t require any credentials. That’s under $4 per test. Downsides are needing a freezer and incubator, as well as needing 2 hours of waiting with steps to be done at very specific time intervals.

The test requires 100µl of serum. Serum is the liquid portion of blood, and to get it, we need a blood draw of 2-3ml, which we then allow to clot for 30 minutes. The clot is removed using a refrigerated centrifuge for 10 minutes. A good finger prick draw is right on the border of getting enough blood. I don’t know if it is possible to make serum from finger prick blood, because “milking” the finger causes blood cells to explode.

I reckon that it would be a bad idea to do a blood draw in my tent, primarily because I am an untrained phlebotomist. Setting up a sterile blood draw station in a van is relatively easy [citation needed], and following the directions to bind antigens seems simple enough. I also haven’t looked into what the law has to say about non-diagnostic blood draws and testing for fun.

Freezer, incubator, blood draws, centrifuges, and antigens, oh my. But perhaps this all might not be necessary. The older you are, the more certain it is that you have toxoplasmosis. Especially if you garden, have a cat, or eat raw meat.

Seroprevalence of Toxoplasma gondii, by age and sex, Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994. □, men; ▪, women. Done in USA with around 17,000 samples. [Source]

So instead of a blood draw, maybe this is what must be done: “Doctors” helpfully offer free toxoplasma screening, doing saliva swabs of innocent party goers. The doctors then rip off their doctor outfit, revealing a cat costume underneath. Instead of being tested, surprise! they’ve been given toxoplasmosis by Big Feline. After all, if the infection rate is 100%, who needs screening?