32 Everyday Habits That Will Reduce Your Risk of Headaches
Headaches can really throw a wrench in the best-laid plans, but these expert-approved tips can help drastically reduce your risk of experiencing one … ever.
It’s summer, so of course you’re staying on top of your fluids (or, if you’re not, you should be). And remember: Dehydration is a universal headache trigger, says Noah Rosen, MD, director of Northwell Health’s Headache Center in Great Neck, NY. Unfortunately, by the time you realize you are thirsty, it’s too late.”A good rule in hand is to drink half your body weight in ounces of fluid daily; for example, a 120-pound person should drink 60 ounces of water,” he says. Here are some more sneaky reasons you might have a headache.
Don’t skip meals
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Eat regularly scheduled meals. “Skipping a meal is probably worse than most food triggers when it comes to headache causes,” Dr. Rosen says. It’s easy to forget to eat when you are on the run, but staying one step ahead of headaches involves some planning. Make sure to have snacks or meal replacement bars on hand for those crazy, hectic days.
Pace yourself at happy hour
Hangover headaches can be brutal, says Brian M. Grosberg, MD, director of the Hartford Healthcare Headache Center in Hartford, CT. “If teetotalling is not an option, here’s how to prevent headaches while still enjoying a drink or two: Space out your adult beverages and/or eat high-fat foods so that the absorption of alcohol is delayed and the effects of the hangover are blunted.” Never drink on an empty stomach either, as that is a recipe for disaster, he warns.
Premedicate before you hit the gym
If exercise is a headache trigger for you, taking an over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug may before you hit the gym may help you derive the many benefits of regular exercise minus the risk of headache, Dr. Grosberg says. Always talk to your doctor before adding or changing your current medication routine. Also consider doing these stretches that work as well as headache medication.
Be proactive when traveling
The hassle of travel—not to mention any jet lag—can certainly trigger headaches, Dr. Grosberg says. “If you know that you tend to arrive at your destination with a headache, take steps to reduce this risk.” Some triggers are controllable, he says. “If skipping meals, losing sleep, or not drinking enough fluids are headache triggers for you, make extra sure you avoid them when traveling, as this will reduce your overall headache trigger burden,” Dr. Grosberg says. In other words, control what you can. “You can’t control altitude, barometric pressure, or flight delays, but you can pack meals or snacks and make sure you drink enough water.”
Practice headache-safe sex
Some people do experience headaches before or with orgasm, Dr. Grosberg says. These headaches are typically considered overexertion headaches and may also occur with heavy-duty exercise. “Certain positions may increase this risk and should be avoided,” he says. These are often highly individualized, but paying attention to patterns may help identify safer positions. “Slowing the pace of sexual intercourse can also reduce your risk of a sex-related headache.”
Choose odor-free cleaning agents
Strong fumes can cause headaches for many. The list of potential offenders is a lengthy one—oven fumes, insect sprays, cleaning products, and paint, to name just a few. Choose odorless, fragrance-free, and “green” products when you can to lower risk of a headache when you are doing household chores. “Even natural fragrances can precipitate a headache,” says Chloe Jo Davis, a New York City eco-living expert and the founder of the GirlieGirlArmy. “Choosing and using fragrance-free products will make a big difference in your headaches if you are sensitive to fumes.”
Being a couch potato sets you up for headaches, according to a study out of Sweden. When researchers looked at 43,770 people with recurrent headaches and migraines, they found that physical inactivity was the strongest lifestyle factor associated with headaches. “Everyone can do something physical every day,” Dr. Grosberg says. “Start slowly and find an exercise that works for you to improve your overall health and reduce headache risk.” Need to know how to treat a migraine? Try one of these 10 remedies.
Talk to your gynecologist
For many women, headache and menses go hand in hand. If you know that your headaches correlate with your menstrual period, discuss options for how to prevent headaches with your gynecologist or doctor, as certain birth control pills which lessen the drop in the hormone estrogen associated with the menstrual cycle can curtail headaches. But just know that birth control is not a panacea. Some people do experience worsening of headaches when they begin taking hormonal contraception, Dr. Grosberg says.
Stress makes pretty much everything worse. This includes tension headaches and other types, says Brooke Pellegrino, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at the Hartford HealthCare Headache Center. “Some form of relaxation should be practiced pretty much every day,” she says. “Think of it like a preventive medication.” The benefits of progressive muscle relaxation—which involves tightening and relaxing various muscle groups—have been well-documented for headache prevention. Other stress-reduction techniques, including deep breathing, yoga, or just taking a walk, are also important ways to get rid of headaches (or prevent them in the first place).
Switch things up
“For some people, high-intensity cardio exercise may cause a headache, but weight training might be OK,” says Dr. Pellegrino. “Be creative and try out different things. If upper body exercises cause headaches, stick to lower body work and ride a stationary bike.” There’s something for everyone. Watch out for the signs your headache pain could actually be something way worse.
Cool it on the caffeine
Caffeine withdrawal can trigger a headache, Dr. Pellegrino says. (Many rescue headache medications actually contain caffeine, which speaks to its ability to put the brakes on head pain.) Caffeine can also contribute to dehydration, which can up risk for headaches. “We recommend no more than one eight-ounce cup of caffeine a day, as there is no potential for withdrawal with such a small amount,” she says. If you don’t drink caffeine products, there is no reason to start.
Try before you buy
“A person may say, ‘Beer has been triggering my headaches, but I like beer,’” Dr. Pellgrino says. “We say, ‘Maybe just have one or maybe try other types of beers to see if some are less likely to cause a headache.” The same can be said about wine or other triggers. If it is easy to avoid, she says, avoid it—but take time to look for a work-around.
Catch regular zzz’s
Poor sleep is a major cause of a headache, including blinding migraine headaches, Dr. Pellegrino says. It can be difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. Improving sleep hygiene by going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time even on weekends and not spending extra time in bed can help,” she says. Keeping the bedroom cool and dark also foster good sleep. Here are some other reasons you might be waking up with a headache.
Invest in a blue light filter
We are all addicted to our smartphones, tablets, and devices, and the blue light emitted from the screens may cause headaches for some of us, Dr. Pellegrino says. “If you regularly watch TV on a smaller device, it is usually much closer to your face and eyes than a large screen TV or movie screen, so there is even more exposure to blue light,” she says. “Consider buying a blue light filter to reduce exposure if you are sensitive to it.”
Limit screen time
Most people think this is about limiting kids’ screen time, but it applies to adults too, Dr. Pellegrino says. Our computers and other devices are a major eye-strain culprit—and constantly staring at them has serious consequences you may not realize. For Dr. Pellegrino’s advice on how to prevent headaches, she says, “Set screen time limits for yourself too.”
Keep a log
“Keeping a faithful headache log, along with potential triggers (such as foods eaten, alcohol consumed, amount of sleep, et cetera), for each headache can be helpful,” says Kevin Weber, MD, a neurologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Neurological Institute in Columbus. The good news is that there is a free app (actually many free apps) for this such as iHeadache.
Go easy on pain meds
Make sure not to overuse pain medications such as triptans, combination analgesics, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc., because they can increase the risk of rebound headaches, Dr. Weber says. Talk to your doctor about the medications you are taking—and how often you are taking them—to make sure you are on the most appropriate therapy for your headaches.
Common triggers are stress, dehydration, hunger, lack of sleep, and certain foods (MSG, processed meats/nitrites, alcohol, tyramine, aged cheese). “I have seen patients have drastic reductions in their headache frequency and severity from simply avoiding known environmental and food triggers,” Dr. Weber says. Some other common foods may also trigger headaches.
Quit smoking, or better yet, don’t start
Add headache to the list of health conditions caused or worsened by smoking. There are many ways that smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes affects headache risk. For some, it can be the fumes, and for others, it could be that the nicotine in cigarettes (which causes blood vessels in the brain to narrow and can lead to a migraine). Talk to your doctor about the best way for you to kick the habit for good. Plus, be aware of the signs a migraine is coming, and how to stop them.
There’s no shortage of good reasons to shed pounds, but here’s one more: If you are obese, you are more likely to experience episodic migraines (ones that occur 14 days or fewer per month), according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Other types of headache may also be linked to obesity including idiopathic intracranial hypertension headaches, says Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, the director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, DC. “Headache is core symptom, and weight loss generally improved it by decreasing the intracranial pressure.” Find a weight loss program that works for you, and you will see benefits in all aspects of your health—including headache patterns, he says. Learn how to identify which type of migraine you have.
Beat the heat
Be sure to stay well-hydrated—it does wonders for your body, including keeping you cool. And, of course, it’s on every expert’s list for how to prevent headaches. That’s because, during summer, every ten-degree jump in temperature increases the risk of developing a severe headache by 7.5 percent, according to a study out of Harvard University. Stay indoors when the thermometer starts to redline, and chill out under the air-conditioning.
Bright sunlight can also trigger headaches for some people, but wearing sunglasses can help as can seeking shade—or air conditioning—when you feel yourself getting overheated, Dr. Grosberg says. This is just another reason that you should avoid direct exposure to sunlight.
Snap out of that gum-chewing habit
Researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel found that chewing gum may cause close to 90 percent of chronic headaches and migraines in teenagers, but 63 percent of teens with headaches had no more symptoms after kicking the gum habit. The findings appear in the journal Pediatric Neurology. Excessive gum-chewing places stress on the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) that connects the jawbone to the skull. TMJ disorders frequently cause headache, the researchers explain.
If you are prone to motion sickness, you know nausea often travels with a headache. Sit in the front seat and keep your eyes on the road. Looking at a phone, map, or reading can make matters worse. If you’re still feeling queasy, check out these natural motion sickness remedies. “A lot of headache prevention comes down to knowing your triggers and avoiding them where possible,” Dr. Grosberg says.
Get your D
The sunshine vitamin (your body needs UV exposure to make it) is crucial for good health, so make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D. Men who have low levels of vitamin D may be at increased risk for frequent headaches, new research shows. We can also get vitamin D from food (liver, dairy, certain dish, eggs) and supplements. Talk to your doctor about whether you need supplements to get your D levels up to speed. A simple blood test can tell you where you stand.
Turn the volume down
Mom was right: Screaming and loud music can give you (and her) a headache. Slightly more than 51 percent of people who report frequent headaches actually can’t attend concerts with loud music, a National Headache Foundation (NHF) poll shows. Sound familiar? If so, avoid loud concert music or wear earplugs, NHF states. Learn the different types of headaches and the best way to get rid of them.
Sit up straight
Poor posture and tension in the neck and jaw muscles can contribute to headaches, Dr. Pellegrino says. Here’s how to prevent headaches caused by poor posture: Take more frequent breaks throughout the day and try to rest in a neutral position that supports the head and neck. An occupation therapist or ergonomics expert can help you make the needed adjustments at home or in the office.
Check your meds
Some medications including those for asthma and high blood pressure can cause headache. “Discuss your current medications with your doctor or pharmacist to see if any of them may be playing a role in your headache,” Dr. Grosberg says. Never stop taking medication without first consulting with your physician, but the conversation is worth it: Non-headache-inducing alternatives may be available. Check out these natural remedies for headaches you probably have right in your kitchen.
Magnify your magnesium
Low magnesium levels may cause headaches and migraine, according to the American Headache Society. “Because of the excellent safety profile of magnesium, any patient who has frequent migraines and is considering a preventive strategy to reduce the frequency or severity of their headaches may want to consider this option and discuss it with their physician,” the group states. Discuss magnesium supplementation with your doctor before you start taking supplements. Plus, learn some other reasons you might be getting bad migraines.
See an allergist
Allergies and headaches travel together, and with pollen counts at an all-time high, seasonal allergies may be causing yours, the NHF suggests. Taking allergy medication daily and minimizing exposure to seasonal allergens may help reduce headache and other allergic symptoms.
Slash salt intake
Cutting down on sodium could curb headaches by a third, according to a study in BMJ Open. Researchers speculate that easing salt intake could reduce headaches by lowering blood pressure. In the study, participants who cut back from nine grams of sodium a day to three grams reduced headaches by 31 percent. Next, for more on how to prevent headaches, check out the best ways to stop a headache before it starts.