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Headaches: why they occur and what you can do to prevent them

It starts in as that dull ache in your brain. At first, you try to combat it with an extra cup of coffee. Maybe a glass of water and a snack will help. But it's useless. Eventually the pain grows and grows until it's pounding on every surface of your head. It hurts to walk...to be under any lighting...around any sound. You need a cushioned surface in a blacked out room to lay your head now.


A headache is a symptom that can be caused by a number of variables, completely unique to you and your lifestyle. In addition to the pain of a headache interfering with your daily activities, use of over the counter (OTC) medicines may also pose a risk to your health. It's crucial to exercise caution with the use of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol), or NSAIDS such as ibuprofen (i.e. Advil, Motrin), and Aspirin as these medicines can risk a majority of internal complications from ulcerations of the GI tract, to high blood pressure, and acute liver failure (1, 5). Keep in mind, this applies primarily to high or frequent doses.


If you're in the middle of a debilitating headache or migraine and you want relief immediately, know that it's okay to take an OTC medicine. But as you explore what may be causing them for you and develop a plan to stop them, you can reduce the overall frequency of headaches, as well as your use of OTC medicines. Here's how you can set that wonderful outcome in motion:

Track EVERYTHING (4)! Yes, tracking is a tedious and annoying task, but it will give you tremendous clues. Because headaches are a symptom of a number of variables and are completely unique to you and your lifestyle, you won't know what needs changing until you find the cause behind them. Therefore, begin by tracking EVERYTHING, such as: 

  • What you eat and drink

  • Your sleep habits

  • Your work habits

  • For the ladies: your menstrual cycles

  • Your mood

  • Other physically bothersome issues experienced throughout the day, such as aching muscles and joints, or rapid heart rate

With tracking your daily activities and diet, you could begin to find some clues within a week.


Here are several causes of headaches (including migraines) and what you can do to get them under control:


Nutrient deficiencies:


Do you skip meals, feel like you're not eating enough, or do have an insatiable sweet tooth? If you can identify with even one of these questions, it's likely you have a nutrient deficiency. A common nutrient deficiency linked with headaches and migraines is magnesium (3). A 2015 randomized control trial showed that magnesium sulfate was more effective at relieving symptoms of migraine compared to medications dexamethasone and metoclopramide (6). Magnesium is found in:

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Leafy greens

  • Legumes

  • Minimally processed grains such as oats and brown rice


If you aren't eating these foods often each day, magnesium supplementation may be highly beneficial for you. Not only will it help with reducing the occurrence of headaches and migraines, it can support greater quality sleep, decreased muscle soreness, and improved blood pressure! Visit this link to learn about Fabulous Nutrition's highly effective Magnesium supplement.


Stress


Stress initiates rapid breathing, a rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, increased blood flow, and it can even irritate your gut (7)! The wild thing about stress is that it has a direct, negative relationship with magnesium. This means that stress increases demand for magnesium. And if the magnesium isn't there to meet those increased demands, then your body will endure greater stress!


More than 325 enzymes require magnesium. Many of which are involved with normal heart rate, blood pressure, nerve function, and muscular function. Without magnesium present to counterbalance a rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, or irritated gut, we run the risk of fatigue, chronic high blood pressure, hormonal imbalance, persistent stress, and yes: headaches and migraines.


While supplementing your diet with magnesium can be helpful if you identify with frequent stress, it's also highly recommended that you prioritize reducing stress and practicing constructive stress coping methods.


Unfortunately, stress will NEVER go away, and that's a fact we need to accept. But it doesn't need to be as intense as you may be used to. Make an effort to REDUCE stress frequency in your life as well as your responses to it. Visit this link to grab your ticket to LESS stress!


Hormonal changes or imbalances (2)


Low Progesterone. Aging, stress, little or no ovulation, and low thyroid are a few variables that cause a decrease in your progesterone levels. In addition to headaches, do you also experience painful or swollen breasts, irregular menstrual cycles, poor sleep, bloating, or restless legs at night? If you're answering yes to at least three of these, it's possible you have low progesterone.


Here are a few ways to support normal progesterone levels:

Excess Estrogen. Aging and stress seem to be the cause of damn near everything! Hence they, too, can cause excess estrogen. If you have been diagnosed with fibroids or endometriosis, you have painful periods, or you experience mood swings, PMS, depression, irritability, anxiety, insomnia or brain fog - oh yes, and headaches! - let this be another firm reminder to prioritize reducing stress and developing constructive coping methods for yourself!


There are many other factors that can cause estrogen levels to rise above normal. Here are a few:

  • Xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are chemicals that can mimic estrogen and are present in plastics and other artificial chemicals that we are exposed to in our daily life.

  • Obesity and weight gain.

  • What we eat and drink: refined grain-foods, mercury-containing foods such as large fish (i.e. tuna, swordfish), conventionally raised (non-organic) red meats and dairy, and alcohol.

  • Nutritional deficiencies such as magnesium, vitamin B12 and folate.

Here are a few ways to support normal estrogen levels:

  • Reduce alcohol and caffeine

  • Reduce your exposure to plastics and highly-processed foods

  • Eat less conventionally-raised red meat and dairy

  • Increase fiber intake from vegetables, fruits, and minimally processed whole grains

  • Devise a plan to lose weight, and put that plan into action. If you need support with getting started, schedule a free Wellness Consult!

  • Exercise regularly

  • Practice good sleep habits.

Low Thyroid. Hashimoto's thyroiditis, goiters, stress, the environment, genetics, goitrogens, cancer treatment, and vitamin D deficiency are risk factors for low thyroid. Along with recurrent headaches, if you are losing hair - including your eyebrows and eyelashes - struggling to lose weight, have high cholesterol, are often cold - especially in your hands and feet - have difficulty concentrating, or have a family history of thyroid problems, it's possible your thyroid levels are not where they should be. Your first step could be contacting your trusted healthcare practitioner to schedule some blood work. Be sure to request not just a TSH test, but also Free T3, Free T4, a lipids panel and vitamin D. Note that some lab results use differing ranges of what is considered normal.


Fabulous Nutrition recommends the following reference ranges:

  • TSH: 0.3-2.5

  • Free T3: 2.5-6.5

  • Free T4: 1.45-2.5

  • Vitamin D, 25-OH D3 or Total: 75-90

Balancing thyroid can be much more complicated than balancing other hormones. If you do discover that your thyroid levels are low, begin a course correction with your trusted healthcare provider and, as an added measure of support, please schedule a Wellness Consult with Alyssa! Our diet and lifestyle can have a dramatic impact on our thyroid, and she is one of the best resources to support you with achieving thyroid balance.

Additional causes of headaches can include:

  1. Dehydration

  2. Poor quality, or little sleep

  3. Alcohol use

  4. Allergies (food or non-food related)

  5. Abrupt cessation of certain medications

  6. Head injury

  7. Tooth or jaw pain; clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth


Remember, if you experience headaches or migraines often, the cause is entirely unique to you. The most helpful way to begin finding the solution is to track your daily activities, food and beverage choices, and other discomforts. 

Enlisting the support of a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist who can quickly spot the probable causes of your headaches or migraines, and lead you in the direction of relief is one of your most valuable options. It's been mentioned often in this article because of how life-changing it can be. Since you get one life to live, why suffer more than you deserve? Book your free consult with Alyssa Cometto, MS, RDN, CDN who specializes in these matters. She has experience working with women and men who suffer with chronic headaches and migraines and has helped to significantly alleviate their symptoms.


May you have fabulous wellness today and always!


References

  1. Brune, K., Renner, B., & Tiegs, G. (2015). Acetaminophen/paracetamol: A history of errors, failures and false decisions. European journal of pain (London, England), 19(7), 953–965. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejp.621

  2. Gottfried, S. (2013). The Hormone Cure. New York, NY: Scribner.

  3. Gröber, U., Schmidt, J., & Kisters, K. (2015). Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients, 7(9), 8199–8226. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7095388

  4. Ha, H., & Gonzalez, A. (2019). Migraine Headache Prophylaxis. American family physician, 99(1), 17–24.

  5. McCrae, J. C., Morrison, E. E., MacIntyre, I. M., Dear, J. W., & Webb, D. J. (2018). Long-term adverse effects of paracetamol - a review. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 84(10), 2218–2230. https://doi.org/10.1111/bcp.13656

  6. Shahrami, A., Assarzadegan, F., Hatamabadi, H. R., Asgarzadeh, M., Sarehbandi, B., & Asgarzadeh, S. (2015). Comparison of therapeutic effects of magnesium sulfate vs. dexamethasone/metoclopramide on alleviating acute migraine headache. The Journal of emergency medicine, 48(1), 69–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jemermed.2014.06.055

  7. Vink, R., Nechifor, M. (2011). Magnesium in the Central Nervous System [Internet]. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/

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