How your 'killer headache' can tell you something about your body

Women have headaches more frequently than men, often when life changes shift the balance.

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By Keri Glassman, R.D.

Headaches can seem like common nuisances that come during times of stress or feeling a little under the weather. However, they can also be symptom of other changes, especially for women.

Hormone shifts, at many different stages of life, can cause headaches. And there’s a strong chance most women will experience hormone-related migraines.

Boys and girls experience nearly the same number of migraines before age 9. But beyond that, the percentage of girls with migraines is higher. These headaches likely affect 25% to 35% of women, according to a recent study, but only about 8% of men.

If it seems like a lot of moms have headaches, it may not be the kids; it’s probably the age range. Women are most likely to experience headaches between 35 to 45 years old, according to another study.

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The symptoms of migraine can include a long lasting headache between four and 72 hours long; seeing spots or lines; pain on one side of the head; sensitivity to light, sound or smell, nausea and pain that increases with physical activity, according to Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

What do hormones have to do with all this? Science says that estrogen, testosterone and cortisol, among other hormones, can play a substantial role in the onset of headaches and migraines. Sometimes, they are triggered by other activity in the body: the hormone most associated with stress, cortisol, can be fall too low during times of strain or when going too long between meals, which causes a drop in blood sugar.

Estrogen is the hormone most linked to headaches, which is why it’s common to hear a friend say she has a “killer headache” right before that time of the month. The likelihood of headaches increases during the time when estrogen levels fluctuate the most. A drop can contribute to headaches, which is why menstrual migraines are most common in women before their periods, when estrogen levels are low or fluctuating, and why pregnant women often feel a reprieve from headaches as their estrogen levels rise. On the flip side, migraine with aura is usually related to high estrogen levels.

Perimenopause and menopause can also change estrogen levels — including when hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives are involved. That’s why women in these stages are more likely to complain of increased headaches.

Hormones aren’t the only factors that affect headaches, of course. Other contributors can include general stress levels and anxiety, fatigue, genetics, diet and even the weather. Anyone who’s been down with a migraine has probably experienced these triggers.

Some of the most beloved foods can also send people under the covers, including chocolate, caffeine, peanut butter, red wine and alcohol, cheese, MSG, artificial sweeteners and processed meats.

So what can be done to combat these literal pains in the heads? These are some ways to help:

  • Avoid alcohol
  • Stay hydrated
  • Get adequate rest
  • Relax by doing things such as meditation
  • Get consistent sleep
  • Avoid foods that are known personal triggers

Some supplements may help with preventing future migraines, too, like magnesium and black cohosh.

If lifestyle changes don’t mitigate symptoms enough, a doctor can prescribe medication or other options such as Botox, which is being used for migraine prevention.

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