The usual culprits for headaches tend to be too much alcohol and not enough sleep, but Siohban O'Connor, deputy editor of Prevention magazine, describes some of the more bizarre reasons for why you may be hurting.
By Danielle Braff, Prevention
You've all been there: You're trying to enjoy some of life's more pleasant moments—you know, like happy hour, a lazy Saturday morning, some time alone with your lover—and bam! Your head starts pounding. If you’re one of the 22 million women who suffer from headaches and migraines, you know the usual culprits: too much alcohol, skimping on sleep—that kind of thing. But there are some new surprising reasons you may be hurting, and we have some super-simple solutions that squash your pain before it starts. (If you’re already saddled with a bad one, fret not: We've also come up with 8 natural ways to beat pain, too.)
Headache trigger: Hors d'oeuvres
Why it’s hurting your head: Bad news for happy-hour heads: Foods that are smoked, pickled, dried or aged—think: all the good stuff, such as aged cheeses, salami, and smoked salmon—tend to contain sulfites, which may dilate your blood vessels and cause a headache, says Alexander Mauskop, MD, director of the New York Headache Center. Wine, too, is a surprisingly common allergy, especially among women.
How to zap it: Using the note-taking function on your phone (or an actual on-paper diary), log what you’ve eaten whenever you get a headache. Once you’ve narrowed it down, try eliminating foods until you’re headache-free. It's a little bit of work for a big payoff.
Headache trigger: The weekend
Why it’s hurting your head: You work your butt off all week so that come Saturday, you can sleep in, kick back, and…nurse yourself through a mini-migraine? This common phenomenon is likely caffeine withdrawal. If you wake up later on weekends, that means your cup of joe is getting into your system later, too. That alone is enough to trigger withdrawal symptoms—and a beast of a headache. (To learn what time of day you should nix your caffeine intake, and other tips for a better slumber, check out How To Get Your Best Night’s Sleep—Ever.)
How to zap it: For a number of reasons, it’s best to get up at the same time every day—even on the weekends, says Seymour Diamond, MD, executive chairman of the National Headache Foundation. That’s the best way to keep your circadian rhythms consistent. If you want a little more shut-eye, sleep in by no more than an hour.
Headache trigger: Your closest relationships
Why it’s hurting your head: Whether you’re ducking your cranky boss or bickering with your beloved, relationship stress can be a big source of head pain. Why? When you’re anxious, you tend to take shorter breaths, says Nicole Glassman, owner of Mindful Health, a holistic health center in New York. The less oxygen you’re taking in, the more your blood vessels constrict, which can cause head pain. Plus, stress can make you clench your teeth, which, unsurprisingly, can cause tension headaches.
How to zap it: Easier said than done, but as soon as you feel overwhelmed, make an effort to breathe in to a count of four, hold your breath for 5-7 seconds, and then exhale completely. Repeat this several times.
Headache trigger: Your computer screen
Why it’s hurting your head: If you’re staring at a screen all day, you’re putting an enormous amount of strain on your eyes, says Dr. Diamond. Plus, the variation in light and the brightness of your screen activates your retina and the nerves behind your eye, which can cause head pain. Another culprit: Your posture. Check out our primer on How to Prevent Back Pain At Work to get yourself a little more ergonomically aligned.
How to zap it: Take a break from staring at the screen for 10 minutes per hour. Take a walk, chat with a colleague, or read something the old-fashioned way—on paper. If your head is still pounding, get an anti-glare shield for your computer screen. And sit up straight! Your head (and your back, and your abs) will thank you.
Headache trigger: The gas station
Why it’s hurting your head: Many people who suffer from headaches have a sensitivity to a specific smell. The symptom of those allergies? Often enough, it's killer headaches. The most common smells that trigger reactions are gasoline, tobacco, and perfume, says Alexander Mauskop, MD, director of the New York Headache Center and author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Migraines. Don’t think you’re allergic to fragrance? More than 2 million Americans are—and most don’t know it.
How to zap it: You can’t usually control the smells occurring around you, which is why Dr. Mauskop suggests carrying a small vial of pure organic lavender or peppermint essential oils. Neither has been linked with headaches, and peppermint has been found to help reduce throbbing pain. Lavender, meanwhile, chills you out—making it great for preventing stress and tension headaches. Take a whiff whenever you need to disguise offending smells.
Headache trigger: Your hairstyle
Why it’s hurting your head: That chignon sure is cute—until you’re forced to dismantle the whole thing due to blinding head pain. More than half of all women experience a tension headache from a too-tight hairstyle, according to a study by researchers at The City of London Migraine Clinic. That’s because ponytails (and other up-dos) pull on your scalp, causing tension.
How to zap it: According to the study, simply loosening the ’do relieved the pain immediately for some women. The pain went away within 30 minutes for about half the women. Loose side-braid, anyone?
Headache trigger: A beautiful day
Why it’s hurting your head: The bright glare from sunshine on a sunny summer day—or even the sun’s reflection on the snow—can trigger a migraine, says Kenneth Peters, medical director of the Northern California Headache Clinic in Mountain View. (To find out if you get migraines—or simply headaches—read our Migraine FAQ.) The glare interferes with your brain’s thalamus, the area of your brain that sends pain signals to your body, and causes an instant ache.
How to zap it: Your sunglasses should contain polarized lenses, and should have 100% UVA and UVB protection. Put them on before you step outside.
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