Periods can be — in a word — exhausting. While cramps, diarrhea, moodiness, and bloating are often the common culprits of discomfort during periods, headaches are a lesser talked about symptom of ~that time of the month~. If you notice you're prone to headaches, brain fog, or dizziness during your bleed, it's not just an unfortunate coincidence. OB/GYNS say your period can actually trigger headaches or migraines for a number of reasons.
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, both headaches and migraines are common health issues that affect millions of people in the U.S., and they can often be debilitating — especially during your period. Mary T. Jacobson, M.D., the chief medical director for Alpha Medical, tells Bustle that, "60% of women with migraines report menstruation as the trigger." Basically, hormones play a large role in why some people get frequent headaches or migraines during their period. In particular, estrogen — the sex hormone crucial to your menstrual cycle, bone health, cognitive functioning, and cholesterol — is often to blame.
"The most common reason for a headache, specifically a migraine headache, is the natural decline in estrogen levels that occurs as the menstrual period begins," Dr. Holly Miller, an OB/GYN at A Woman’s Place, and an ambassador for the We Hate Heavy Periods campaign, tells Bustle. "This is most noticeable for the two days prior to the start of the menstrual cycle, and the first three days of it."
Aside from your menstrual cycle's regular hormone fluctuations, your birth control could be contributing to your increase in headaches or migraines during your period. "Headaches can also be triggered by stopping a birth control pill. The three to seven days of 'placebo pills' that most oral contraceptive pills contain will trigger a headache," Miller says. However, Jacobson recommends taking a continuous form of contraceptive when you'd normally menstruate, as this can help you "avoid the estrogen drop."
Recently updated guidelines released by the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) confirmed there are no health risks associated with continuously taking the pill — which is great news for those who experience painful periods. It's important to note that the Office On Women's Health reported that, while some people find hormonal birth control can actually reduce migraine attacks, other types of contraceptives worsen symptoms in some people. But, of course, it all depends on if you are on the right birth control for you.
Additionally, there's a slight risk that common medications used to alleviate the pain and discomfort caused by period cramps could lead to a rebound headache — otherwise known as a medication overuse headache, according to the Mayo Clinic. Miller says try to keep your usage of over-the-counter pain relievers limited to nine days a month (or under) to ensure rebound headaches don't contribute to period discomfort.
If you find you're prone to headaches during your period, Jacobson suggests keeping a headache diary for three months that notes potential triggers and headache timing in relationship with your period. There are many period tracking apps you can use to do this, or you could just go old-school, and write down your symptoms in a journal. What's more, Miller simply says adopting lifestyle habits like practicing good sleep hygiene, exercising, and limiting your caffeine consumption can help reduce your chances of triggering a headache or migraine.
While headaches are definitely no fun, migraines can be accompanied by much more severe symptoms, such as pain, nausea, sensitivity to light, sound, and smells, intense throbbing or pounding, and dizziness. The American Migraine Foundation reports that the menstrual migraine is the "most challenging kind [of migraine] to treat, and frequently do not respond to the same medicines that work the rest of the month." So, if you find your menstrual migraines interfere with your daily activities, it may be a good idea to consult your OB/GYN, or primary care physician, about further treatment options.
Headaches are, well, a headache — no thanks to hormones. However, OB/GYNs agree you can reduce your chances of experiencing them during your period by talking with doc about birth control, practicing a few headache-reducing habits, and by tracking your triggers. You still may need to draw the shades sometimes, and take Tylenol when you feel a headache or migraine coming on, but understanding your menstrual cycle can help big time.