If your head has been aching way more than normal lately and you don't know why, don't freak out just yet. Though chronic headaches and migraines are sometimes caused by serious medical conditions, more often than not, our headaches are brought on by lifestyle choices that aren't terribly difficult to remedy. Everything from your eating habits, to how much time you're spending at work, to how little you're sleeping could be part of the reason why your head is always aching.
Unfortunately, chronic headaches are actually super common. In fact, according to WebMD, over 45 million Americans deal with chronic, recurring headaches. Of those Americans, more than 29 million suffer from migraines. (And women are actually three times more likely to be affected by migraines than men.) So while I'm not suggesting you shouldn't see a doctor about your frequent headaches, it might relieve you to know that chronic headaches affect a lot of otherwise healthy people who are just engaging in a few headache-inducing habits.
Obviously, this piece is no replacement for advice from a medical professional who has actually examined you. But if you're trying to figure out why your head won't stop aching, you can start off by ruling out any of the five ways we give ourselves headaches listed below.
1. You’ve Been Eating A Lot Of Smoked & Processed Meats
If your diet typically contains a lot of smoked and/or processed meats, you might want to consider cutting back a bit. Not only can consuming processed meats increase your risk of developing cancer, mess with your mood, and harden your arteries, it could also be what's causing your head to hurt so often. As Everyday Health reports: "Cured, smoked, pickled or canned foods such as pastrami, deli meats, and beef jerky contain synthetic food preservatives called nitrates and nitrites. The additives may dilate blood vessels, triggering headaches."
So while I'm definitely not saying you need to go 100 percent vegetarian (unless that's something you just want to try, of course), consider cutting down on the processed stuff.
2. You're Not Getting Enough Sleep
Back in 2010, pain researchers at Missouri State University discovered that depriving rats of REM sleep caused them to show significant changes in the expression of proteins which are largely responsible for both suppressing and triggering chronic pain.
During the study, researchers deprived one group of rats of their REM sleep for three days in a row, while allowing a separate group of rats to sleep normally. The rats who were sleep deprived showed an increased expression of the proteins p38 and PKA, which, as WebMD explains, help regulate "sensory response in facial nerves thought to play a key role in migraines, known as the trigeminal nerves." Additionally, the study showed that lack of REM sleep triggered a considerable increase of the P2X3 protein, which is connected to the initiation of chronic pain.
So even though successfully adulting can make getting enough sleep seem nearly impossible, it's really important that you aim for at least seven hours of sleep every night. Your aching head (and your whole body for that matter) will thank you.
3. You’re Super Stressed Out
Although we have yet to discover exactly what causes tension headaches, we do know that lack of rest, poor posture, anxiety, depression, hunger, low iron levels, and just emotional distress in general can all contribute to their development. Furthermore, we know that they are super common, and they're twice as likely to affect women. About 30 to 80 percent of American adults suffer from tension headaches on a regular basis, and of that percentage, approximately three percent of people suffer from them daily.
So if you've noticed that your head starts aching after a poor night's sleep, or when you're totally worked up about work or your relationships, then it's possible that your headaches are the result of stress. If you feel like this might be the case for you, make sure you're getting enough rest, nourishment, and down time.
But if that still doesn't do the trick, you might want to consider deploying some stress management techniques, using a new organizational system at work, or even just taking a mental health day. If stress in your life feels chronic, you may also want to consider therapy with a mental health professional; if you can't budget for that right now, you may want to look into affordable alternatives to therapy, like mental health apps and online support forums.
4. You’ve Been Overdoing It With Pain Relievers
Ironically, if you've been taking fast-acting pain relievers to manage your constant headaches, they could actually be the culprit behind your head pain. This is called a "rebound headache."
As Huffington Post reported back in 2012, habitual use of fast-acting pain meds can actually cause changes to the signal receptors in your nervous system. Essentially, these changes mean that the more fast-acting pain relievers you take, the higher dosage you're going to need for them to continue working. Unfortunately, taking a break from pain relieving medication is really the only thing you can do to help with this. Fortunately, there are several foods you can try for natural pain relief while you're taking a break from taking pain relievers.
5. You’re Dehydrated
You probably already know that dehydration can cause headaches, but I'm going to cover it anyway. As Everyday Health explains, "Dehydration headaches occur when you lose a substantial part of the water and electrolytes that your body needs to perform normal functions." But you don't have to be out jogging on a hot summer day in order to become dehydrated — living at high altitudes, getting your period, or not consuming enough fruits and vegetables can also make us dehydrated, even if we drink a small amount of water each day.
To avoid dehydration headaches, you should obviously be drinking more water throughout the day, but especially before, during, and after your workouts. The Mayo Clinic website suggests that men aim for 13 cups of water a day, while women only need to drink nine cups daily.
Will all of these tips end your headaches forever? Not necessarily. And if headaches are a chronic problem for you, you should consult with your doctor. But odds are, you're not entirely helpless when it comes to your aching cranium; you might just be a few bottles of water away from feeling good again.
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