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  • Writer's pictureKimberly King, MS, CNS-c

Headache Sufferers-You are not alone

woman holding head

Types of Headaches

Headaches are common and typically come out of nowhere to stop us in our tracks. The inconvenience and discomfort of a headache are enough to reach for whatever is closest in the medicine cabinet to relieve the symptoms so we can go about our day as soon as possible. This is known as a primary headache. These typically are benign and resolve quickly. Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are typically triggered by a medical condition. Sinus, dehydration, tension, hormonal, hypertension, and cluster headaches are a few examples of common secondary headaches.

For over 30 million people in the United States alone, their headaches can be extremely debilitating, much more than just a short-term or minor to moderate inconvenience. These are known as migraines (1). A migraine headache is considered vascular in nature and comes on abruptly, typically with a throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. Migraines are often associated with at least one or more additional symptoms such as sensitivity to light, sound, nausea, and vomiting. Up to 20% of people experience an aura around their vision during the onset of a migraine episode (2). As mentioned, migraines are debilitating in nature and can last several hours or even days. A migraine headache causes constriction of blood flow in the brain. A protein known as calcitonin, a gene-related peptide (CGRP), is released, creating inflammation (3). In addition, edema of blood vessels together creates sensitivity to movement and pain (4). Therefore, the root cause of a migraine is very personalized to each individual based on their environment, genetics, hormones, and nutrition. Migraine headaches tend to be cyclical in nature, meaning that they can occur in isolated episodes based over a period of time, or be chronic where, for example, they are brought on seasonally (5).

There are Four Main Phases of migraine headaches that may or may not be experienced by all sufferers (1).

  1. Prodromal: This may be hours/days prior to a headache. Includes: mood swings, trouble focusing, beck pain, exhaustion yawning, and even increased thirst.

  2. Aura: Warning Phase. Those who experience auras may begin to experience disorientation, dizziness, and sensory disruptions such as spots, flashes, and patterns in vision. Vertigo and trouble with language can also occur in this phase.

  3. Headache: Attack Phase. It may last for hours and be challenging to carry out daily activities. It is common for pain to radiate from the temporal region on the side of the head and spread to near the eyebrows. It often feels like pulsating or throbbing pain, which is made worse with light, sound, stress, and even odors. Constipation is common during this phase.

  4. Postdrome Phase: After the headache itself has passed, a feeling of being exhausted, drained, and generally uncomfortable may occur. Symptoms from the prodromal phase may reoccur, including mood swings, feeling dehydrated, neck pain, trouble focusing, and even a mild headache.

Common headache triggers

Common Headache Triggers

Common triggers for migraines can include certain foods and/or food sensitivities, stressful periods in life, lack of sleep, changes in weather, and the onset of a menstrual cycle in women (2-3).  Here are a few of the most prevalent headache triggers and how to keep them at bay.

Alcohol:  As many as 60% of people identify alcohol as a trigger (6). Alcohol, especially red wine and beer, in addition to being toxic, is a fermented diuretic. It increases histamine while potentially causing dehydration. The best way to avoid headaches from alcohol is to abstain completely or consume in moderation. CDC guidelines are 1 beverage for women and 2 beverages per day for men and be sure to drink a glass of water alongside (7).

Food and Food Additives Aged cheeses can aggravate those prone to headaches because of an increase in a natural compound called tyramine. Dried fruits, prepackaged meats containing nitrites, as well as additives such as MSG and aspartame may increase headaches in many. Choose these options in moderation or opt for natural salts like Original Himalayan Crystal Salt or natural sweeteners such as pure maple syrup or honey (3).

Food Intolerances or Allergies: Most commonly, dairy, corn, wheat, and sugar. As an increase in inflammation builds, headaches can be one of many symptoms we may not initially realize are coming from our food choices (3). Paying attention to when your headache occurs and if it is frequently following certain foods and removing the culprit for a short time determines if there are any improvements. Always speak with your doctor and/or your nutritionist before any large dietary changes.  

Low Blood Glucose: This is medically known as hypoglycemia. It is a condition when blood sugar/glucose your body typically uses for energy becomes too low. Headaches are a common symptom (8). Choose to eat every 3-4 hours and pair a protein source with fruits and vegetables. Choose a snack like apples + nut butter, or a meal consisting of grilled chicken fajitas with tricolored peppers. This helps to slow the process of digestion and helps to maintain steady blood glucose levels for longer.

Poor Hydration: Since our bodies are made up of mostly water, when levels become too low, it has to work harder to keep us going. In addition to potentially feeling irritable and tired, headaches may occur. To avoid this, aim to slowly increase your daily water intake to 64 oz. per day to keep your body happy, hydrated, and healthy (7).

Stress:  Any form of stress on our body can cause unpleasant responses. Tension headaches are common when lack of sleep and psychological and emotional stressors build. Take time to have a plan in place and bring awareness to when your life stressor cup begins to overflow. Rest, meditation, and being with friends or family can be a great way to balance out daily life stressors and decrease the likelihood of developing a stress headache (9). See our Lifestyle blog about headache prevention for even more info!


Overall, when it comes to headaches and migraines, prevention is the best medicine. Maintaining a healthy environment by reducing stress, opting for balanced whole foods and optimal hydration in collaboration with your doctor may be the best way to overcome the debilitating effects of migraines.

Check out the blogs Top 10 Supplements for Headache Support and Lifestyle Solutions to Ease Headaches for more information on this topic.


Written by Kimberly King, MS

Last reviewed and Updated June 4, 2024

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the guidance of your healthcare provider(s).


1. Gupta J, Gaurkar SS. Migraine: An Underestimated Neurological Condition Affecting Billions. Cureus. 2022;14(8):e28347. Published 2022 Aug 24. doi:10.7759/cureus.28347 

2. Bonakdar, R. Chapter 13: Headache. In: Rakel, D. Integrative Medicine. 5th ed. Elseiver;2023.107-117.

3. Andreou AP, Edvinsson L. Mechanisms of migraine as a chronic evolutive condition. J Headache Pain. 2019;20(1):117. Published 2019 Dec 23. doi:10.1186/s10194-019-1066-0

4. Ross, K. M5_Headaches and Migraines. Recorded lecture. SCNMInstructure. Accessed 2022.

5. Gazerani P. Migraine and Diet. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1658. Published 2020 Jun 3. doi:10.3390/nu12061658

6. Błaszczyk B, Straburzyński M, Więckiewicz M, et al. Relationship between alcohol and primary headaches: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Headache Pain. 2023;24(1):116. Published 2023 Aug 23. doi:10.1186/s10194-023-01653-7  

7. Arca KN, Halker Singh RB. Dehydration and Headache. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2021;25(8):56. Published 2021 Jul 15. doi:10.1007/s11916-021-00966-z

8. Islam MR, Nyholt DR. Glucose-Related Traits and Risk of Migraine-A Potential Mechanism and Treatment Consideration. Genes (Basel). 2022;13(5):730. Published 2022 Apr 22. doi:10.3390/genes13050730\

9. APA. Stress in America 2022: Concerned for the Future. Published October 2022. Accessed May 2024.


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