The Headache Series - Part Three: 5 Lifestyle Habits For Preventing Headaches
I have suffered from headaches for the greater part of my life. The pain and debilitating effects of headaches have often interrupted my life experiences, especially in the areas of relationships, work, and study. I have finally reached a point where I have learned enough to practice the following habits of self awareness in order to minimize the impact of headaches on my life. Having gotten to a place where my headaches are under control I am able to fully enjoy the moments of my life, such as this vacation photo I snapped of my daughter running towards the Gulf of Mexico, unhindered by the restraint of my previously uncontrolled headache burden. I would like to share these habits with you in the hopes that, if you suffer from headaches, maybe what I have learned along the way will help you as well.
As with my other articles about headaches, please be aware of the following disclaimer: If you have headaches - this article is not meant to be diagnostic or a cure. I highly encourage you to see your doctor for professional guidance and treatment.
Effects of Stress
1. Take Regular Stress Inventories
Managing your stress is going to be a key factor in preventing headaches. A quick poll of reputable medical sources including The Mayo Clinic, Web MD, & Women's health.gov, all cite stress as a primary source of several types of headaches. From personal experience I also attest to this truth.
I think sometimes we get so used to the stress in our lives that we become overly accepting of it's role and the effect it has on us. Please take a moment to view the video I have included here for an excellent description of the physical effect of stress on your body.
You have to assess your own situation to decide what the most problematic areas may be and what you are going to do about them. If it's a relationship issue, a job situation, or a financial crisis that is causing you the most stress, you may need seek professional help to evaluate how it's affecting you and what options you have (which may include changing your own attitude about it!). I'm not going to go into the complexity of the depths of these types of issues here, but it is important to recognize the impact, good or bad, they may be having on you in the form of your stress level.
To help you determine if stress is a factor which may be contributing to your headaches, I've included an assessment tool below:
Yoga for Beginners
2. Don't Underestimate the Healing Power of Exercise
It seems like there are two types of people when it comes to exercise. Those who love it and those who hate it. I fall into the category of the latter. Therefore I have been forced to just get over the hate part and do it anyway. I have learned a couple of things along the way that do make it easier:
- Buying new cute workout clothes provides enough incentive to get you started.
- The more you do it the less you'll hate it.
- If you get to a point where you are actually losing weight, you will want to exercise more.
- Even if you don't lose weight, you feel better about partaking in a routine that is good for you anyway - especially if it is keeping those pesky headaches at bay!
For me the exercise is a stress relieving outlet. Losing weight does not have to be the goal. When you stay focused on your purpose of getting exercise in order to release built up tension and hopefully reduce your headaches the entire regimen becomes much less daunting and more to actually look forward to.
The 'effects of stress' video above also suggests mindful based practices, such as yoga, for it's stress relieving benefits. I have included here a link for the yoga video I use personally in my home. I suggest this to you with the highest level of recommendation. Regardless of your fitness level, this is the perfect beginners Yoga option. Instructor Tamal Dodge speaks through the very basic fundamental principles of yoga and the benefits your body is experiencing in real time as you follow his instructions. He encourages you to stay in your comfort zone and take breaks as needed. This video is so easy that our 4 year old follows along with me. The stress reduction and relaxation benefits it provides are incredibly soothing for any time of day. If you try this video I would love for you to come back and tell me what you think of it!
3. Evaluate Your Nutrition Habits
The most objective way to see how you are fueling your body is to keep a written record of your intake. Even if you do it for a week you may be surprised at the results. As you assess your nutrition intake ask yourself the following questions:
- How often does your meal consist of processed foods? Processed foods typically contain preservatives that have been repeatedly linked to trigger headaches such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and nitrates. Nitrates have dilatory effects on the vessels in the cranium which can cause a headache. The correlation between MSG and headaches has been noted frequently throughout various studies on headaches, but has not been reproduced in a scientific approach. Therefore the exact nature of the relationship remains unknown. See the table below for a list of foods known to act as triggers for migraine and other types of headaches.
- What is the fat content of the food you are eating? A study from the University of California noted that when dietary fat intake was limited to a maximum of 20 grams per day, participants experienced a significant decrease in headache frequency, intensity, and duration (Millichap, 2010).
- How much dietary fiber are you consuming? In general you should be consuming at least 25-30 grams of dietary fiber daily. Among it's many benefits, dietary fiber contributes to blood sugar stability preventing peaks and crashes which can contribute to headaches.
- Do you skip meals? Mutiple sources on headache prevention cite skipping meals as a cause of headaches due to the consequential side effects of having low blood sugar. Dr. Millichap of Northwestern University Medical Center in Illinois describes that "Altered levels of serotonin and norepinephrine and dilation of blood vessels around the brain and scalp are the probable mechanisms of hunger-triggered headaches" (2010).
- What is your caffeine intake? Caffeine cause the blood vessels in your head to constrict (get smaller). Interruption of caffeine intake results in dilation of the blood vessels thereby increasing the blood flow to the head which can cause a headache. If you consume caffeine, it is best to do so in regular amounts without drastic increases or interruptions in order to avoid a headache. (Please be advised I am not advocating for caffeine use)
- How much water are you drinking? Water intake can be different for everyone depending on individual health and activity, but in general the Institute of Medicine does in fact make recommendations that equal an average of approximately 8 to 10 12 oz. glasses per day. Dehydration is cited by multiple sources as a common cause of headaches.
Food Which Commonly Cause Headaches
Pickled or fermented foods
Hot dogs, some deli meats
Sodium Nitrate, Tyramine
4. Practice Proper Physical Ergonomics
Physical ergonomics is basically the study of how the human body interacts physically with the environment around it. Often, and for our purpose here, it is considered in the context of the work environment. Improper practice of physical ergonomics in the workplace can result in physical discomfort and muscle strain. Shoulder tension, neck tension, and eye strain specifically are correlated to headaches caused by poor posture, unnatural angles, inappropriate visual distances, and many other factors as shown below.
For more information and resources about ergonomics, please visit their website:
5. Schedule Your Annual Preventive Health Visits
Although there are several factors which may contribute to your headaches that you do have some control over, there are many additional potential causes that you might not. Some of these underlying issues may come in the form of genetic predisposition or undetected health problem. If you are not scheduling regular annual preventive health visits and have frequent headaches, you might be missing one of the following contributors that can be screened very easily by your healthcare provider:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heart beats
- Hormone imbalance
- Blood sugar abnormalities
- Visual changes (outdated eyewear rx?)
If you have not seen your healthcare provider in a year or longer, I do recommend you schedule yourself for a health screening visit. Headache treatment could be as simple as some basic lifestyle modifications or therapies as recommendation by your doctor.
Appel, Lawrence, et. al. (February 11, 2004). Dietary Reference Intakes: Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate [Abstract]. Institute of Medicine. Retrieved from http://iom.nationalacademies.org/Reports/2004/Dietary-Reference-Intakes-Water-Potassium-Sodium-Chloride-and-Sulfate.aspx.
Lawson, Michelle. (August 16, 2013). Nutrition and Headaches. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/324767-nutrition-and-headaches/.
Millichap, J Gordon, MD, FRCP. (2010). The Role of Diet in Migraine Headaches. Nutrition Digest, Volume 37 No. 3. Retrieved from http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/role-diet-migraine-headaches.