We all get fleeting headaches from time to time. They come without warning, annoy us for a few minutes or hours and eventually fade away.
But when headaches occur frequently or cause intense pain, it can be disruptive to your everyday life and wellbeing.
There are a few types of headaches and the symptoms of each present differently. Migraines can be especially disabling and severe, and are often one-sided throbbing pains associated with nausea and sensitivity to light, sound and smell. Tension headaches are often a mild, dull-ache that is not one-sided and often lacks the typical sensitivities of a migraine.
As a headache specialist, my first recommendation for anyone experiencing frequent or severe headaches is to start keeping track with a headache calendar. This will help you log when your headaches are occurring so you can identify trends or patterns — and hopefully nail down a cause.
But don’t be surprised if you don’t find triggers, as headaches can be due to various causes. Here are five possible reasons behind your headaches.
Many of my patients find that certain foods can trigger their headaches. A common element in many trigger foods for headaches is monosodium glutamate, or MSG. MSG is a flavor enhancer that can be found in many canned vegetables and soups, processed meats, sauces and Chinese food.
Besides MSG, other foods commonly linked to headaches include some types of ﬁsh, cheeses, processed meats, fermented foods and alcoholic beverages. But this doesn’t mean you should immediately eliminate all of these foods from your diet. You might only be susceptible to a small number of dietary triggers, or possibly none at all.
Many people find that removing processed foods in favor of a healthy, fresh diet eliminates or reduces their headaches.
Related: Is the keto diet right for you?
However, every diet has risks and benefits, and what works for one patient may not work for another. Talk to a headache specialist about what dietary changes might be right for your health needs.
Your stress level
Stress of any kind — physical, emotional, financial, marital, etc. — can be a significant factor for headaches. If you are struggling to cope with stress, it can take a toll on your body and for some people, cause headaches. I often treat patients who have experienced a traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one or a divorce.
Too often, we ignore the connection between our mental and physical health, but it is important to care for both. It is important to identify the source of your stress and find ways to relax. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Your caffeine consumption
Although that morning cup of joe can give you a helpful boost, if you’re having several cups of coffee a day, that could be the cause of your headaches. In small amounts, some patients feel that caffeine helps with headaches and provides them alertness to continue with their day.
However, too much caffeine can put a person at risk of “caffeine withdrawal symptoms” and as a result, may trigger headaches. Daily and large amounts of caffeine intake can also lead to “rebound headaches.” Remember, it’s not just coffee — teas, decaffeinated beverages, energy drinks, sodas, over-the counter medications and weight loss pills may have larger amount of caffeine than you realize.
I recommend my patients consume no more than 200 mg of caffeine per day. In someone who has chronic migraines, avoiding caffeine completely may actually be helpful, but as always, work out a plan with a headache specialist.
Your menstrual cycle
For some women, headaches occur regularly along with their menstrual cycle. If you notice that your headache starts two days before and ends three days into your cycle, menstrual cycle may be a trigger for you.
Menstrual migraines can often be prolonged and severe, but are not difficult to treat. These migraines often occur due to fluctuations in your estrogen levels. If they are debilitating, using medications such as triptans or preventative drugs can help. Often, these patients may also have migraines on other days unrelated to their menstrual cycle.
Your sleep schedule (or lack thereof)
You might be aware that lack of sleep can cause headaches, but it’s also true that some people experience headaches from too much sleep. This is most commonly an issue for teenagers or college students who keep a very different sleep schedule during the week than on weekends.
If you’re using Saturday and Sunday mornings to make up for not getting enough sleep during the week, that could be causing your headaches. Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule to avoid the effects of both lack of sleep and oversleeping.
Headaches are not something you should just learn to live with. If you’re dealing with persistent or severe headaches, a headache specialist can help.
About the author
Grace Glausier is the manager of digital content strategy for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.