It’s easy to blame headaches on the usual suspects: too much wine, stress or skipping your morning coffee.
But you may be surprised to learn that how you sit, sleep and even what kind of cheese you eat can bring on that throbbing noggin.
“Many women who come to my clinic are shocked at what’s actually causing their headaches,” says Frederick Freitag, DO, associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and former director of headache medicine at Baylor University Medical Center, in Dallas.
If you know what makes your head hurt, you can often prevent it from happening in the first place.
Headache Trigger #1: Heat If your head starts pounding during a sunny day in the bleachers, it may be due to the heat, not because your favorite team is losing.
One theory behind a headache brought on by heat is that the body’s attempt to cool itself by sending more blood to the skin deprives the brain of oxygen.
Technically, there’s no such diagnosis as “summer headache,” says Vincent T. Martin, MD, in the February 2012 issue of Head Wise, the publication of the National Headache Foundation (NHF). Dr. Martin is vice president of the NHF, president of the Ohio Headache Association and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, in Cincinnati.
Recent data suggest the summer months are the most common time for headaches, Dr. Martin says, but “there are lots of potential different reasons for that” and heat may not be the lone cause.
Like any other season, summer brings with it a unique set of triggers: sunlight, dehydration, increased physical activity, allergies and humidity, among others.
How to Head Off Trouble: You can’t change the weather, but you can take steps to keep cool.
Stay in an air-conditioned environment on hot days and keep well-hydrated when outdoors or exercising. These tips will help you drink more water.
Headache Trigger #2: Pain Pills
Strange as it may sound, overusing pain medication can actually cause headaches.
When taken too frequently, prescription narcotics or medicine that contain caffeine or an antihistamine can interfere with the brain’s pain-regulation system
Even over-the-counter pain relievers can cause rebound headaches. That lowers your pain threshold and makes your headache feel worse, says Brian Grosberg, MD, co-director of the headache center at the Montefiore Headache Center, in the Bronx, N.Y. How to Head Off Trouble: Limit pain medication to two days a week and never take more than the label allows. If you need painkillers more frequently, see your doctor to find out why. Headache Trigger #3: Hunger On super-busy days you may think your headache is the result of stress, but maybe you just forgot to eat. “Your brain runs on two things: glucose, which comes from the food you eat, and oxygen,” Dr. Freitag explains. “When it doesn’t get enough of either, the brain tells you its needs aren’t getting met by firing up pain-sensitive neurons.” –
How to Head Off Trouble: Make sure to eat at least every 4 to 6 hours. To keep blood sugar steady, avoid junky vending-machine fare. Instead, choose something with slow-burning protein and complex carbohydrates, Dr. Freitag suggests. It’s best to start your day off with a healthy breakfast. Headache Trigger #4: Some Fermented or Aged Foods Certain foods may bring on headaches. Fermented or aged products – including cider vinegar, soy sauce, sauerkraut and cheeses such as cheddar, blue and Swiss – contain tyramine, an amino acid that can trigger headaches by constricting and expanding blood vessels. Luncheon meats such as bologna and salami pack a double whammy since they often contain both tyramine and preservatives called nitrates, which can increase blood flow to the brain. –
“People who suffer from migraines are sensitive to blood flow changes,” says Alexander Mauskop, MD, director and founder of the New York Headache Center, in New York City. “It may be because their nervous systems are more excitable and changes may affect nerve endings in blood vessel walls.” How to Head Off Trouble: Keep track of what you eat and when your headaches strike. If you find that certain foods are triggers, try cutting them out for a while and see if it helps. If you’re craving a sandwich, choose fresh meats instead of the processed kind. Headache Trigger #5: Not Enough Magnesium If you’re not getting enough of this important element, you may have headaches. Dr. Mauskop’s research has found that up to 50% of people who suffer from acute migraine attacks have low levels of magnesium in their blood. –
If you don’t get enough magnesium in your diet, you may need to take a supplement of 200 to 600 mg per day, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Keep in mind that magnesium can interact with some medications, including heart medicines, diuretics (water pills), some antibiotics and muscle relaxers.
So be sure to talk to your doctor before taking magnesium to learn the best dose for you.
Headache Trigger #6: Waiting Until You’re on Vacation to Relax
It seems counterintuitive, but a restful break can send you into full-on headache mode. –
As the strain of everyday life dissolves, levels of the stress hormones cortisol and noradrenalin decrease, sending neurotransmitters into the brain; this can cause blood vessels to constrict and dilate. How to Head Off Trouble: Look for ways to decompress every day. That way, when you do relax on vacation, it won’t be such a shock to your body. One of the best ways is to practice stress-reduction techniques such as yoga or meditation. Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) significantly reduced headache frequency, according to a 2014 study conducted by several Australian universities. Headache Trigger #7: Dehydration It’s easy to forget to drink enough water during the day — and that makes headaches more likely, according to the National Institutes of Health. –
Dehydration causes blood to become thicker, resulting in a reduced flow of oxygen to the brain and an increase in the migraine-triggering brain chemical serotonin.
How to Head Off Trouble: Aim to drink at least 8 glasses of water per day. This is in addition to any other beverages.
If you feel a headache coming on, drink water or a sports drink and see if it helps.
But avoid drinks that contain aspartame; there’s some evidence linking the artificial sweetener to migraines.
Headache Trigger #8: Period Pain
In addition to moodiness and cramps, headaches are a common side effect during that time of the month.
As many as 60% of women prone to migraines suffer from headache pain either right before or during their periods, usually due to a drop in estrogen, according to the NHF. This hormonal trigger may explain why more women than men experience migraine headaches during their reproductive years, according to the UK charity The Migraine Trust. Menopause is often the most difficult time for women with migraine. How to Head Off Trouble: Magnesium supplements can be effective for menstrual headaches. So can taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen before the headache strikes. You can also ask your doctor about a continuous contraceptive pill that keeps estrogen levels steadier. Here are more doctor-recommended remedies for menstrual migraines. –
Headache Trigger #9: Your Computer
You’re hunched over in your chair, staring at the monitor for hours. No wonder your shoulders feel tight, your eyes are strained — and you have a whopping headache.
Headaches from what’s called Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) are common, according to the American Optometric Association. And despite the name, this condition causes problems for more than the eyes.
That’s because our eyes and brain react differently to characters on a computer screen than they do to printed characters, experts say.
While we have little problem focusing on printed material that has dense black characters with well-defined edges, the characters on a computer screen don’t have the same degree of contrast and definition. –
This makes our eyes strain to focus on the screen. This continuous flexing of the eyes’ focusing muscles creates the fatigue, eye strain and headaches that commonly occur during and after computer use. Besides headaches, tech gadgets can harm your health in other ways. How to Head Off Trouble:Practice good ergonomics to prevent computer eyestrain and the headaches that come with it. Set your monitor so the top of the screen is slightly below eye level. Also, sit up straight and make sure your chair supports your neck and back, Dr. Freitag says. And practice the “20-20-20 Rule”: Every 20 minutes look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This helps relieve the eye strain that can lead to headaches. –
Headache Trigger #10: Smells
If your head hurts at work, it could be that it’s not the long hours that are causing your headaches but the strong scent wafting from the next cubicle.
Nerve pathways in the nose lead directly to the center of the brain and strong scents can set off a cascade of chemicals that bring on a headache.
How to Head Off Trouble:If you’re friendly with your cube-mate, tell her that although her perfume (or his cologne) is lovely, you’re very sensitive to smells.
If that’s not possible, try to ensure your office or area is well-ventilated with an open window or fan that blows the scent away from you.
Also try to avoid strong smells outside the office, such as gasoline and chemicals in cleaning products.
Headache Trigger #11: Grinding Your Teeth If you often have a headache when you wake up, your doctor should check you for serious issues such as sleep apnea, in which you occasionally stop breathing in your sleep. But a lesser-known reason is clenching or grinding your teeth at night. Known as bruxism, this problem can be exacerbated by stress, medication or poor tooth alignment, but there isn’t always an obvious reason. Most people grind their teeth in their sleep at some time in their lives, but many of us don’t know it because, of course, we’re not awake when we do it. How to Head Off Trouble: Ask your dentist to check for signs of tooth-grinding, including cracked or worn-down teeth. –
Some people find that relaxing before bed with a warm bath, meditation or deep-breathing exercises also helps ease the clenching or grinding they tend to do while asleep.
Could your headache be caused by a serious health problem? Ask your doctor these questions.