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Preventing Headaches

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Updated July 22, 2009

One of the most effective treatments for preventing headaches is to stop them before they start. Headaches can be triggered by a number of things, so understanding how to interrupt the cycle can be a huge benefit, and a wonderful way to improve your quality of life.

Reduce Stress

Stressful living is a common trigger for most types of headaches. Stress releases hormones into the bloodstream that can affect the way we experience pain. Muscle tension, teeth grinding, and stiff shoulders are other responses to stress that can increase the likelihood that you will have a headache.

There are a number of things you can do to reduce stress in your life. Learning to simplify your live by cutting out things that can wait, and learning to manage your time wisely are two big helps. Keep an updated to-do list to help you work on one thing at a time. This will also help you organize your day.

Another big help is learning to "let go." Recognize the things that are beyond your control and stop worrying about them. This can be part of an overall attitude adjustment, where you learn to reframe your negative thoughts as positive ones.

Learn to relax. Find time to practice your deep breathing and block out the work, if only for a few minutes each day. Also take a break. Sometimes you have to walk away from stressful situations to regain focus and perspective, and getting away also disperses stress.

Practice “healthy living.” Try to eat right and exercise. There are some forms of extreme exercise that can cause headaches in some cases, so be cautious when appropriate. Laugh lots. This brief endorphin release can go a long way toward making you feel better.

Adjust Your Diet

There are a lot of dietary triggers for headaches, especially foods high in the amino acid tyramine. Here is a list of common dietary triggers:
  • Caffeine (reduce your intake slowly to avoid rebound headaches)
  • Aged, smoked, or pickled meats (like salami or pepperoni)
  • Aged cheeses (blue, brie, Swiss, etc.)
  • Snow peas
  • Fava beans
  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickles
  • Olives
  • Fermented soy products (miso, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce)
  • Nuts or nut products
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • MSG
  • Nitrates and nitrates (found mostly in processed meats)
  • Yeast
Eliminate foods from your diet one at a time to determine if there is a dietary trigger for your headaches.

Reduce Your Estrogen Exposure

Estrogen is the main female hormone and a potent trigger for migraines. If you are on an estrogen supplement or estrogen-containing medication (like oral contraceptive pills), discuss reducing the dosage or replacing the medication with your physician.

Quit Smoking

Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarette smoke can trigger and aggravate headache symptoms. If you are a smoker, explore options for quitting. Not only will this reduce the likelihood of developing headaches, it will also improve other areas of your health.

Take Prophylactic Medications

In some cases, daily medication is necessary to prevent the development of headaches. Beta-blockers, antidepressants, ergots, calcium channel blockers, and anticonvulsants are all medications sometimes used in preventing headaches. Discuss options together with your physician to determine the best course of action.

Sources:

Lewis, Donald W., M.D. “Headaches in Children and Adolescents.” American Family Physician, Vol. 65/No. 4 (February 15, 2002).

Low-Tyramine Headache Diet. National Headache Foundation. Retrieved: August 22, 2008. http://www.headaches.org/pdf/Diet.pdf

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