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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Taming Triggers


September 02, 2011

Headache
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Taming Triggers
Taming Triggers
htmTamingTriggers
Learn what things can provoke your headaches and how to prevent your headaches.
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InteliHealth
2011-09-02
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InteliHealth/Harvard Medical Content
2014-09-02

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Taming Triggers

 

Many people can identify clear triggers for their headaches. Eliminating or working around these triggers can reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches.

Caffeine. Caffeine has a "Jekyll and Hyde" relationship with headaches. On one hand, caffeine can help to relieve some headaches and is a common ingredient in both over-the-counter and prescription headache drugs. On the other hand, people who overindulge in caffeine appear more prone to developing headaches. There is even a characteristic type of headache that occurs when a regular caffeine user cuts back or misses his or her regular cup of coffee. If you have frequent headaches and drink more than one or two caffeinated beverages per day, consider eliminating caffeine from your diet. Remember that caffeine is found in coffee, tea, chocolate and many carbonated beverages.

Alcohol. Alcohol does not have the same clear relationship with headaches that caffeine does. However, those who overuse alcohol certainly can develop "hangover" headaches. Many forms of alcohol — such as red wine — also contain byproducts such as sulfites that may trigger migraines.

Certain foods. Certain foods may trigger headaches as well. Aged or fermented cheeses and meats may contain tyramine, a natural substance that triggers migraine. Sulfites, a common preservative found in many foods, has a similar effect. The same is true for monosodium glutamate (MSG), a commonly used flavor enhancer.

Stress. Stress, in any number of different forms, appears to trigger many headaches. Some people also develop migraines when stress is relieved, for example, the day after a big exam or the first day of vacation. Although you may not be able to eliminate all sources of stress, it may be useful to identify those stresses that are most likely to trigger your headaches. Stress reduction techniques such as meditation or biofeedback may be useful treatments for people with frequent stress-related headaches.

Hormone levels. Hormone levels affect headaches in many women, who may be more prone to headaches just before or during the menstrual cycle. Headaches also may become more frequent or severe with the use of certain hormone drugs, such as birth control pills or estrogen. Postmenopausal women who don't take estrogen may actually find that their headaches improve.

Other triggers. Lack of sleep or disrupted sleep patterns can trigger headaches. So can travel, a change in altitude, or a change in weather.

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