“Kids, stop screaming because I’m going to have a headache” is a phrase you may have heard often at family gatherings. According to the Spanish Society of Neurology (SEN), 90% of the population will suffer from headaches at some point in their lives, and they account for one in four visits to neurological services. An estimated 1.5 million people in Spain suffer from them chronically, meaning they have headaches more than 15 days a month. But why do they suffer?
Headaches can be caused by many factors, including various medical conditions. Some of the most common causes are stress, muscle tension, dehydration, poor posture, lack of sleep, certain foods and environmental factors. They are called primary headaches because the headache is the main problem. In addition, there are diseases such as aneurysm, meningitis, sinus infections, tumors and head injuries that can also cause headaches, which in these cases are secondary.
The specific cause of a headache can vary depending on the person and the type of headache they experience. For example, migraines are often associated with physical changes in the brain and surrounding blood vessels that can trigger the release of certain chemicals and cause inflammation, ultimately leading to pain. They also have an important genetic component, so you are more likely to suffer from them if someone in the family suffers from them.
Tension headaches are the second most common type of headache after migraines. The pain is localized in the neck, temples and forehead, as if we are wearing a hat that is too small. Tension headaches usually respond well to physical therapy, relaxation therapy, and anti-inflammatory drugs or muscle relaxants.
Cluster headaches are rare but very painful. These severe headaches usually occur several times a day for several days or weeks and then disappear for varying periods of time, usually weeks to months. This is a relatively short-lived type of headache (compared to a migraine), usually lasting between 20 minutes and two hours. It is always unilateral and is accompanied by symptoms such as nasal congestion on one side, lacrimation, dilated pupils or drooping eyelids.
Tension headaches are the second most common type of headache after migraines. The pain is localized in the neck, temples and forehead, as if we are wearing a hat that is too small.
Hormones and headaches
Migraines are much more common in women than in men. It is estimated to affect 17% compared to 6% of men. Although the exact mechanisms are not yet known, it is known that estrogens, the female sex hormones, are largely to blame.
In women, the frequency of migraine attacks varies throughout the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, and also depends on the use of hormonal contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy during menopause. A decrease in estrogen levels during the luteal phase of menstruation (after ovulation) often triggers migraines in women who suffer from it.
The explanation is that the drop in estrogen levels that occurs during this phase of menstruation causes changes in prostaglandins, which constrict blood vessels, reduces levels of endorphins, an opioid produced by the brain, and increases prolactin, which may partly explain headaches and menstrual migraines. In contrast, high and sustained estrogen levels during pregnancy tend to relieve headaches.
Estrogen levels also decrease after menopause in women, and this is associated with the onset of migraines. Hormone replacement therapy with estrogen helps relieve symptoms. Combination birth control pills containing progesterone and estrogen also help with headaches for the same reason.
Exercise and headaches
Tension headaches are most often associated with physical activity, but exercise can also help relieve headaches. As with other headaches, the exact cause of tension headaches is not fully known, but it is thought to be overexcitation of the neurons that innervate the muscles of the head and neck. This also explains why these headaches are influenced by behavioral factors such as stress, poor posture and muscle tension.
There are also activities that can trigger exercise headaches, such as coughing or sneezing, sex, straining in the bathroom due to constipation, and aerobic exercise or strength training. While there are studies that show that exercise can relieve headaches in some cases, the results vary. One study found that just two minutes of strength training is enough to relieve tension headaches. The review of research also found that both aerobic and strength-training exercises can help with symptoms of tension headaches and migraines, but results vary from person to person, so it’s best to experiment with what works for us.
Food and headache
Can you name any food that gives you a headache? This is where the research is even more mixed, as factors such as possible allergies and intolerances to foods and their ability to cause inflammation are involved. It seems that it is the latter, the ability of food to cause inflammation, that is most associated with headaches in general.
However, it is known that foods that otherwise have anti-inflammatory properties can trigger migraines in people who already suffer from them. Here you can find, for example, certain aged cheeses and chocolate, but this largely depends on the sensitivity of each person. Thus, it is known that sausages, caffeine, citrus fruits, nuts, bananas, dairy products, legumes or red wine can trigger headaches in some people.
The ability of food to cause inflammation is most closely associated with headaches in general.
On the other hand, headaches can occur when we stop eating because they are associated with low blood glucose levels during fasting and are one of the most common side effects in people who do intermittent fasting. In other cases, headaches appear not when we take something, but when we stop taking it. A striking example is alcohol, when it is removed from the body and a hangover appears, accompanied by a headache. Another option is coffee, since caffeine withdrawal can cause headaches in some people.
Headaches remain a mysterious and capricious ailment with complex treatment. Unless there is a clear cause, we have to experiment with different situations, foods, or activities to find out what gives us headaches and what relieves them. And of course, always consult your medical professionals.
*Dario Pescador is editor and director of Quo magazine and author of the book. your best personality Author: Oberon.