Headaches: why they occur and what you can do to prevent them
Updated: Jan 12
Headaches are a symptom caused by a number of variables...
...Variables including what you're eating and drinking (or not), what types of stress you're enduring, how much sleep you've gotten and how good it was, and what your hormones are up to.
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:
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!
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.
Stress is a part of life. In some ways it makes us stronger, resilient, capable humans. But it doesn't need to be as intense as you may be used to. If stress is a daily, irritating occurrence for you, it might be causing your headaches. Make an effort to REDUCE stress frequency in your life as well as your responses to it, and you may just suffer fewer headaches! Here's a free resource from the FN Library to get started:
Stress: control it by practicing one value
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:
Vitamin C. Excellent sources are found in citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli, and berries.
Practice stress reduction techniques, such as reducing tasks on your to-do list and exercising.
Supplement with chasteberry.
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 (yes, we're getting bossy here, but only because we don't want you to be in pain!) 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
Contact us to devise and implement a healthy action plan!
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:
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. As an added measure of support, consider contacting Fabulous Nutrition. Our diet and lifestyle have such a dramatic impact on our thyroid; FN has the resources to guide you and your hormones back into balance.
Additional causes of headaches can include:
Poor quality, or little sleep
Allergies (food or non-food related)
Abrupt cessation of certain medications
Tooth or jaw pain; clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth
If you experience headaches or migraines often, the cause is entirely unique to you. And the most helpful way to begin finding the solution is to track your daily activities, food & beverage choices, and other discomforts. 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
Your menstrual cycles
Other physically bothersome issues experienced throughout the day such as aching muscles and joints, rapid heart rate, squinting from bright light, or clenching your jaw
With tracking your daily activities and diet, you could begin to find some clues within a week.
A quick note on OTC medicine
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 wise 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 your headaches and develop a plan to stop them, you can reduce their overall frequency, and thus, the use of OTC medicines.
The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting a doctor. Consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website.
Fabulous Nutrition would be happy to help you in your effort to reduce headaches. Contact us here!
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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
Gottfried, S. (2013). The Hormone Cure. New York, NY: Scribner.
Gröber, U., Schmidt, J., & Kisters, K. (2015). Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients, 7(9), 8199–8226. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7095388
Ha, H., & Gonzalez, A. (2019). Migraine Headache Prophylaxis. American family physician, 99(1), 17–24.
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
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
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/