Avoiding your headache triggers – including stress, dehydration, and too little sleep – can help you stay pain-free. You’ll soon find that preventing a headache is a lot easier then treating one.
By Diana Rodreguez
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
When a headache strikes, especially a migraine headache, you might be out of commission for several hours or even days. While there are many effective headache treatments, headache prevention is the place to begin.
Headache Prevention: What You Can Control
There are headache triggers you can control, and those you can’t. Some triggers in the latter category are the weather and, if you’re female, the hormonal fluctuations that occur with menstruation, ovulation, and menopause.
“You’re not going to be able to prevent all headaches,” says Mark Green, MD, director of the Headache Center at New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center. “But you can minimize them with headache trigger management.”
Headache Prevention: Common Triggers
The following are common triggers for headaches and migraines, and many are within your control:
- Drinking alcohol
- Sensory overload – exposure to lights that are too bright, sounds that are too loud, or smells that are overpowering
- Dehydration – not drinking enough water
- Too much sleep or not enough sleep
- Exercising too rigorously
- Hormonal changes
- Not eating frequently enough
- Straining your eyes reading or sitting at a computer
- A difference in your caffeine intake – just skipping your morning cup for one day can cause a caffeine-withdrawal headache
- Food additives or naturally-occurring substances, including nitrates in processed meats, MSG in fast food and Chinese food, tyramine found in certain aged cheeses and soy-based foods, and artificial sweetener aspartame
Headache Prevention: Keeping a Diary
Knowing your headache triggers enables you to start your own headache prevention program. Keeping a diary will help you figure out which of the many possible headache triggers affects you personally. In your headache diary, you should record each day:
- All foods you eat
- All beverages you drink
- Medicines you take
- What time you wake up and go to bed
- All exercise and any other physical activities you undertake
Log each headache that you get, what time of day if occurred, and what you did to resolve it. It’s also a good idea to track what the weather is like and any hormonal changes, such as when you ovulated and began your period.
After a while, you should begin to see patterns. For instance, do you notice headaches more on weekends when you sleep in? What happens on Mondays, when you have to get to work early? What happens Friday nights when you drink wine?
This information will help doctors diagnose what’s causing your headaches, and what you can do to prevent them. “Every day of the week gives us hints,” says Dr. Green.
Headache Prevention: Easy Techniques
Practicing these easy steps will help you avoid many common triggers:
Maintain good posture, and move around during the day. Make sure you neck isn’t remaining stiff and that you’re moving it around if you’re doing desk work, says Green. Also, take your eyes away from the computer every so often to avoid eyestrain.
Get the right pillows. “People should be careful to evaluate their pillows. A lot of people should travel with their (home) pillow because we don’t often like changes in pillows,” says Green.
Stay consistent. Keep a regular schedule, and don’t greatly vary your diet or your waking, sleeping, and exercise routines.
Get an appropriate amount of sleep. Either too much or too little shuteye can leave your head pounding, so make sure you get a steady eight hours each night.
Stick to a healthy diet and exercise regime. Healthy foods and regular exercise help ward off headaches. Never skip meals, and have a small, healthy snack between meals so that you don’t get too hungry.
Drink water. Dehydration can lead to headache, so drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Manage stress. Stress can build up and cause your head to pound, so find ways to deal with it. Take up a hobby, exercise, try yoga, and do some deep breathing when you feel stress creeping in.
Even if you can’t stop every headache from happening, a few simple changes can help you avoid at least a few. Headache prevention is less painful than dealing with a headache, so make changes today to prevent a headache tomorrow.