A headache may seem to come out of nowhere, but most people have triggers.
"I recommend my patients keep a headache diary," says neurologist Bushra Malik, MD of Main Line Health King of Prussia. Dr. Malik specializes in migraines, intense headaches that often come with nausea and sensitivity to lights and sounds. "Every time you get a headache, think back. Ask yourself: What did I eat? Did I drink enough water? How did I sleep last night?"
From this, you may spot a pattern. For example, you might get a headache every time you eat a high-carb lunch. Some people get hormone headaches and even the weather can be a headache trigger for some.
Consider the following lifestyle factors that are among the worst migraine triggers:
- Food and drink. Both eating and not eating can bring on a headache, depending on the person. "Most migraine patients get headaches when they miss meals," Dr. Malik says. Some of the worst migraine triggers are foods like sugar, aged cheese, MSG and red wine. Dehydration can also be a factor.
- Sleep. Lack of sleep or even getting too much sleep can cause a headache. "It's important to keep a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends," says Dr. Malik, who recommends aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
- Scents. People with migraines often have a heightened sense of smell, which can contribute to headaches. Smoke, gasoline, vanilla candles and perfumes are some of the problematic scents.
- Stress. The number one cause of headaches is stress. You might not be able to eliminate stress from your life, but you can minimize its impact by getting adequate sleep, eating healthfully and exercising regularly.
If you suffer from chronic headaches—more than 15 a month for at least three months—Dr. Malik recommends visiting a headache specialist. For people who aren't able to control their headaches through lifestyle changes, there are new medications made specifically for migraines that can decrease their frequency and intensity or stop one once it has started.