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How Your Body Causes Headaches

November 12, 2021

When you have a headache, you just want it to go away. But in the case of chronic headaches or migraines, it may be worth trying to figure out what’s causing them. Identifying the physical and environmental factors that trigger your headaches may help you treat them, or even prevent them from happening in the first place.

Common Migraine Triggers

For people who experience migraines, any change in routine can be a trigger, including:

Altering sleep schedule or mealtimes. Things like waking up earlier than usual or skipping lunch can lead to a migraine as the body tries to adjust to a new biological rhythm.

Hormone fluctuations. This is why so many women get migraines (sometimes called menstrual migraines) around the time of their periods. It’s also why migraine-prone women experience fewer episodes during pregnancy, when hormone levels are relatively stable.

Sudden sensory changes. Environmental factors like movement, light and sound also can spark a migraine. It could be something as simple as venturing outside into bright sunlight without sunglasses or walking into a boisterous party.

Diet also can come into play, with common dietary migraine triggers including:

  • Caffeine
  • Aged cheese
  • Deli meats
  • Alcohol
  • Food additives like MSG
  • Artificial sweeteners

Stress Is Behind Many Headaches

No matter what type of headache you get, you may want to look at your stress level. This can be the culprit behind both migraines and tension headaches, the most common of these ailments.

During stressful times, your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline as part of its “fight or flight” response to perceived danger. These can cause physiological changes like increased blood glucose concentrations and higher blood pressure, effectively changing your body chemistry, and potentially triggering a headache.

Tracking Your Triggers

With so many physical and environmental factors to blame, how do you know what’s causing your headache? One of the most effective ways to identify your personal triggers is to keep a log or journal.

While you can certainly do things the old-fashioned way and put pen to paper, there are smartphone apps and internet downloads available to help you keep track of your headaches, along with what may have caused them.

Some questions you might ask yourself to identify potential triggers:

  • What did you eat that day?
  • Is your period due soon?
  • Are you under a lot of stress?

Keeping a log can help you spot triggers you may not have noticed otherwise, especially as patterns emerge over time.

Treating Your Headaches

Once you’ve identified possible causes, you and your doctor can work together on a solution. This could mean modifying your diet, making sure you have sunglasses on before you step outside on a sunny day, or taking up a stress-reducing practice like yoga or mindfulness meditation.

Many people who keep a log to identify triggers may find that lifestyle changes alone may reduce the frequency of their headaches. For those that don’t, medications are an option you can discuss with your doctor.

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