Family Health Guide

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Headaches: Causes

Tension: These headaches are usually brought on by stress, anxiety, fatigue or anger. They may also be related to tense neck, back and shoulder muscles, which constrict and expand blood vessels in the head, causing an ache. Sufferers tend to have too little of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin and too much dopamine, which is associated with irritability. These brain chemical imbalances are also associated with depression, which explains why the condition is related to chronic tension headaches.

Migraine: These headaches are often linked to hormonal changes—especially dropping levels of estrogen. That may sensitize an area in your brain stem that appears to be responsible for migraines. Brain chemicals also play a role. When a migraine is triggered, inflammatory substances and the feel-good brain chemical serotonin are in the blood along with inflammatory mediators which cause inflammation and swelling of the vessels which stretch sensitive nerves, says Dr. Diamond. Common triggers include stress, certain foods, changes in weather and excessive hunger.

Menstrual migraine: Changing hormone levels are to blame. Most sufferers are sensitive to a drop in estrogen levels, which occurs just before your period starts.

Pregnancy migraine: Fluctuating levels of estrogen in the first trimester are usually the culprit. Hormones levels tend to stabilize—and migraines often disappear—after about 10 weeks, says Dr. Diamond.

Allergy: Seasonal allergens like pollen and mold are to blame. Allergies to foods are usually not a factor.

Caffeine withdrawal: The sudden change in caffeine intake causes blood vessels in your head to dilate and become inflamed, says Dr. Diamond.