We’ve all suffered from a headache at some point. From hormones to hangovers, there are countless culprits—but fewer cures. Prescription and over-the-counter meds can be helpful, yet there are natural ways to prevent them altogether. The key is learning to avoid certain lifestyle triggers.
How Common Are Headaches?
Whether you get a headache a few times a year or experience migraines weekly, they’re much more common than you’d expect. Research published in The American Journal of Medicine says that headaches are one of the top complaints heard by medical professionals. Additionally, the World Health Organization claims that headache disorders, which are characterized by recurrent headaches, are one of the most common disorders of the nervous system.
“Where primary headaches—headaches not caused by another medical condition—are concerned, the most common types include tension headaches and migraines,” says Vernon Williams, M.D., sports neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
Even though the exact causes of primary headaches (as well as migraine headaches, which are recurring, intense attacks that can last for hours or days) vary among patients and are not yet completely understood, genetics can play a role. According to the American Migraine Foundation, if one or both of your parents suffer(ed) from migraine attacks, your likelihood of experiencing migraines increases by between 50 and 75 percent.
Even if headaches run in the family, you’re not doomed to carrying acetaminophen everywhere you go. Here are some things you can do to lower your odds of getting them.
1. Start Writing
It may seem like a stretch, but if you get recurring headaches, journaling can help pinpoint the source of your discomfort, says Williams.
When the pain begins, Williams recommends creating a detailed log of the last 24 hours, including all foods and beverages consumed. Typical triggers include caffeine, caffeine withdrawal, alcohol, aged cheeses, nuts and seeds, artificial sweeteners, chocolate, cured or processed meats, and foods containing monosodium glutamate, according to the Cleveland Clinic. You should also log your sleep-wake schedule, physical activities, monthly hormonal cycle (for women), and any stressful events.
“After a few entries, you may begin to see a pattern emerge that will help you stop a headache in its tracks next time,” he says.
2. Eat And Drink Consistently
While consuming specific foods can bring on a headache, skipping meals can do the same. “Making sure to eat regularly means you won’t experience those big drops in blood sugar levels, which can bring on a headache and migraine,” Williams says. (Most experts suggest that eating every three hours or so supports blood sugar stability.)
And don’t forget to keep up with your water intake throughout the day, as well. “Drinking plenty of water can stave off dehydration, which is also a catalyst,” he says. Start with half your weight (in pounds) in ounces of water per day.
3. Move It
Regular aerobic workouts can reduce the severity, duration, and in some cases, the number of migraines people endure, Williams says. Case in point: One systematic review and meta-analysis of six studies published in The Journal of Headache and Pain discovered that 20-minute to 60-minute sessions of moderate aerobic exercise three to five times a week may reduce the length of migraines by 20 percent to 27 percent. They may also reduce the intensity by anywhere from 20 percent to 54 percent.
The key here is to keep your effort level moderate, since high-intensity exercise can actually trigger migraines, Williams notes.
4. Say “Namaste”
On top of your regular strength training and cardio routines, make sure to hit the yoga mat. When researchers from the American Academy of Neurology studied adults who regularly experienced headaches, they found that those who practiced yoga a few days a week for three months reported a 48 percent reduction in headache frequency and a 47 percent decrease in headache intensity (measured by the amount of pain meds taken each month).
5. Get Some Vitamin D
While this fat-soluble vitamin is mostly known for being a vital nutrient for bone growth and immune health, vitamin D may also be associated with headaches. According to findings published in the journal Nutrients, there is a link between low vitamin D levels and headaches, and an even stronger link to migraines.
For this reason, the researchers suggest that adults facing problematic headaches and migraines—especially those with a vitamin D deficiency—may want to consider getting outside often for some extra sunlight, which contains vitamin D.
6. Find Ways To Chill Out
While not entirely surprising, research released by the American Academy of Neurology claims the more stress someone experiences, the more likely they are to suffer from tension headaches or migraines.
To minimize stress, Williams recommends practicing meditation, listening to calm music, and trying alternative medicine therapies, such as massage or acupuncture. In fact, a study published in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews comprised of 22 trials found that acupuncture treatments reduced the frequency of headaches in adults with episodic migraines.
7. Catch Some Quality Zzz’s
Making sure you get solid shuteye could help you avoid a disabling morning headache.
“Lack of sleep and disordered sleep (as with obstructive sleep apnea) are common headache triggers,” explains Williams. In order to lessen headache occurrences, he suggests sticking to a regular sleep schedule and getting an adequate amount of slumber each night. (The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends seven or more hours.)
8. Do A Daily Digital Detox
Yes, the screen you’re reading this article on might just be contributing to your frequent headaches. The reason: The artificial blue light that emits from all types of electronic devices—phones, laptops, TVs, tablets—often leads to eye strain, which in turn can cause headaches or migraines.
A recent study from Syracuse University reported that approximately two-thirds of Americans deal with eye strain and that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this issue due to increased hours of screen time.
Do your eyes (and your head) a favor by taking screen breaks, as well as narrowing down the number of hours you spend scrolling through Instagram and watching Netflix each day. “The bottom line is that too much screen time, whether for work or entertainment, is bad for our health,” the researchers state.