There’s been a lot of talk about holiday headaches this season. And while there’s no concrete evidence that they really do happen more around this time of year, it’s not really that surprising, is it? After all, along with the joy and festive cheer, the holidays are a time of increased stress, as this American Psychological Association survey found. And as we know, stress can increase the occurrences of headaches, holidays, or otherwise.
You’ve probably been through it all over the past few weeks: queues for days at the supermarket, your favorite foods marked up or out of stock, family arguments, and general crazy holiday shenanigans!
If you didn’t get at least one headache over the past few months, that’s great! But since it’s been at the forefront of our minds this season, we’re going to tell you a bit about what headaches are and how you can prevent them as you make your way into a new, healthier year.
What Are Headaches?
Headaches, simply put, are a type of pain that nearly 75 percent of adults worldwide will experience at least once a year, some more often than others. Most headaches originate in the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles covering your head or neck. These muscles or blood vessels swell, tighten and go through other changes that stimulate the surrounding nerves or pressure them. The nerves then send a rush of pain messages to the brain, which brings on a headache.
Types of Headaches
Headaches are the most common nervous system disorders, and there are more than 150 classified types. They’re usually categorized into two main categories: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are unrelated to a medical condition, while secondary headaches are associated with another medical condition.
The four main primary headaches
- Cluster Headaches
- Tension Headaches
- New daily persistent headaches (NDPH)
Some Causes of Secondary Headaches
- High blood pressure
- Medication Overuse
- Sinus Congestion
Now that we know the different types of headaches, let’s look at a few that you’re likely to have encountered throughout the year and perhaps even more during the holidays:
Tension headaches are the most common kind of headache. Although the name may make you believe they’re caused by external tension, that’s not exactly what the word means here. The tension in the title refers to tension in the muscles surrounding your head and neck.
The pain you feel with a tension headache is usually a consistent pain on both sides of your head, without any throbbing. These headaches typically respond well to over-the-counter medication, which can sometimes be aggravated by exercise.
Migraines are the second most common kind of headache and usually result in moderate to severe pain. This is due to the pain and other symptoms surrounding it, including sensitivity to light, noise, or odors.
They can cause other health issues like nausea and vomiting. While they can occur as one-off instances, they are usually chronic or lifelong conditions. There’s usually a trigger for migraines, which can differ from person-to-person and vary from hormone changes during menstruation to certain foods, drinks, stress, and exercise.
These are the most severe type of primary headaches. As their name suggests, they come in a ‘cluster.’ They can occur as many as one to eight times per day and may last from two weeks to three months. This pain is usually an intense throbbing or constant pain with a burning or stabbing sensation located behind one of your eyes or in the eye region.
A sinus infection is an infection that causes congestion and inflammation in the sinuses, which can then lead to a headache. This headache can be mistaken for a migraine; however, it has some classic symptoms that set it apart from a migraine, including:
- A bad taste in your mouth.
- Constant pain in your cheekbones and forehead
- Facial swelling
- A feeling of fullness in your ears
- Pain that gets worse with sudden head movement
- A runny nose
Medication Overuse Headaches (MOH)
These headaches actually result from frequently taking pain medications for headaches! Long-term use of drugs for migraines, for example, can cause more headaches, putting you in something of a Catch-22 situation. They’re sometimes called rebound headaches and usually subside when you stop taking too much of the medication that is triggering them.
Some Common Causes of Headaches and How to Address Them
There are so many different things that can cause a headache, including but not limited to all that holiday stress. Whether you experience headaches around stressful times of the year like the holidays, throughout the year, or only occasionally, it’s good to know what may be causing them and how to address them. Here’s what you should know
What’s causing your headaches?
Apart from the stress, overuse of medication, and over exercise, here are a few other things that may contribute to your headaches:
Your Food Choices
Various foods can cause headaches. One of the most common ones that trigger headaches are those that contain tyramine. Tyramine is a common compound found in plants and animals and is the byproduct of an amino acid called tyrosine.
Your body relies on an enzyme called monoamine oxidase to break tyramine down. Some people don’t have enough of this enzyme to break down tyramine, and the build-up can lead to a headache.
Certain foods are higher in tyramine, like aged cheeses, cured or processed meats, pickled or fermented vegetables, citrus, tropical fruit, and certain alcoholic beverages. Other foods known to cause headaches in some people include caffeine, chocolate, yeast, and cultured dairy products.
Your Sugar Levels
Your sugar levels need to be in the optimum range for your body to stay as healthy as possible. If your levels are too high or too low, it can result in various symptoms and health issues, including headaches.
If you’re diabetic, track your sugar levels and aim for them to be within a normal range of 70- 140mg/dL. If you’re struggling to manage your sugar levels, consider using a CGM to help monitor and track your glucose data.
Dehydration is an important and perhaps one of the most common triggers for a headache. When you’re dehydrated, there’s an imbalance of fluid and electrolytes in your system. Your brain may shrink temporarily from the fluid loss, making it ‘pull away’ from your skull, leading to a headache.
What Can You Do to Prevent a Headache?
You may be reading this thinking, these sound pretty awful, but what can I do to prevent them? While it’s not always possible to avoid a headache, there are things you can do to minimize the occurrence. Here’s how:
Anticipate the Stress
This may be easier said than done but try to anticipate any stress. For example, some people feel a stress hangover after all the excitement of the holidays has passed. You can try to prevent this by planning some time to de-stress immediately after. Use the first few weeks of the new year to relax, maybe book a holiday or visit a spa for some me-time.
If your headaches pop up when you have a lot to do, one way to avoid them is to make a to-do list of everything you need to get done and plan as much as possible. For example, do you need to get back into the swing of things at work after a long break? Make a list and go through it slowly the night before, so you feel less overwhelmed and more prepared!
Don’t Skip Exercise
Yes, over exercising can sometimes trigger a headache. But avoiding exercise altogether can lead to other health issues. Try to plan a little physical activity to keep yourself in shape without stressing whether you’re doing too little or too much of it. Exercise does not always mean running or going to the gym. It can also mean doing some yoga and exercising your mental state by practicing breathwork or meditation.
Focus on Nutrition
Pick foods lower in tyramine. Some options include pasteurized cheeses, fresh vegetables, and whole foods rich in protein. If there is a food that you find aggravates your headaches, try to avoid it. You can always plan food alternatives for yourself that won’t trigger headaches. An excellent way to determine what foods work best for you is to work with a registered dietitian.
Try to Cut Back on Alcohol
If you drink alcohol, you’ve probably had more than a couple of drinks over the holidays. And that’s totally okay! But a little detox in the new year can help keep headaches at bay if alcohol is a trigger for you. You can also try eating a snack before and during a drink to lower the risk of your sugar levels dipping.
If you’re on medication, check with your doctor about the interaction between it and alcohol. If you enjoy the occasional drink, consider switching to light alcohol or choose alcohols lower in tyramine, like gin, rum, or vodka.
Try a Natural Remedy
Supplements cannot necessarily cure headaches, but some can potentially help reduce the severity and pain involved. Some studies show links between supplements like vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), magnesium, vitamin D, and Coenzyme Q10 and a reduced frequency, duration, and severity of headaches. Speak with your doctor before you choose to take any supplements.
Keep Yourself Hydrated
Try to drink enough water throughout the day. If you struggle to do this, make it a little more interesting! Add some mint, lemon, or cucumber slices to it for a more refreshing drink. You can also try drinking green or herbal tea instead of a caffeinated beverage.
Although different people respond differently to caffeine, drinking it in moderate amounts is a good idea. Caffeine can trigger headaches in some people, so monitor how your body responds to see if it has this effect on you.
When to See a Healthcare Professional
Not all headaches go away with proper nutrition, rest, and medication. You may sometimes need to see a healthcare professional to address the issue. If nothing eases your headache and you start experiencing the following symptoms, see your doctor to rule out other underlying causes.
- Sudden loss in balance
- Numbness or tingling
- Speech difficulties
- Mental confusion
- Changes in vision
- Personality changes
- Severe nausea
- Stiff neck
- Shortness of breath
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Cheri is a registered dietitian with a Master's degree from the University of Utah in Integrative Physiology and Nutrition. She has a strong interest in functional and integrative nutrition and emphasizes the importance of exploration and using your own body (symptoms, energy, mood, labs, CGM data) to find what your personal optimal is.