Causes of headaches?

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Headaches are still not fully understood, but modern studies suggest they can be triggered by low levels of serotonin. Emotional stress, food sensitivities, and alcohol consumption are common triggers, and caffeine can both trigger and cure headaches. It’s important to seek medical advice for proper diagnosis.

Despite years of research, the true mechanism behind most headaches is still a bit of a mystery. Originally, they were thought to be caused by narrowing of blood vessels or tightening of the facial muscles and scalp. Modern studies suggest that headaches can be triggered by a low level of the natural painkiller called serotonin. When serotonin levels drop, inflamed neurotransmitters in the face and scalp send pain messages that we perceive as headaches. After serotonin levels return to normal, most of the pain tends to subside.

There are a number of internal and external triggers for headaches, ranging from food sensitivities to clinical depression. What may work as a remedy for one trigger may do more harm than good for another. If the current serotonin/neurotransmitter theory is true, then many drugs used to relax muscles or open blood vessels may not be as effective as once believed.

One of the most common causes of headaches is emotional stress or depression. Feelings of anger or anxiety can cause muscles to tense in the face and scalp, leading to a full-blown tension headache. Insomnia and depression can also trigger headaches, which lends some credence to the connection between serotonin levels and facial nerve irritation. Some researchers suggest that emotions themselves don’t trigger headaches, but leave a person more vulnerable to neurotransmitter/serotonin conflict. Repressed emotions also tend to trigger more pain than expressed anger or anxiety.

Other common triggers are food and chemical sensitivities. Some may be familiar with the concept of Chinese restaurant headaches. The main cause of headaches experienced after consuming Chinese food is a sensitivity to a flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate (MSG). In other foods, however, MSG may appear in the ingredients list as hydrolyzed plant protein.

Other headaches can be triggered by foods containing tyramine, an amino acid known to affect serotonin levels in the body. Sufferers should avoid consuming high levels of chocolate, sour cream, yogurt, aged cheeses, and organ meats. Another chemical to avoid when battling headaches is a preservative called nitrite. Many canned or processed meats contain significant levels of nitrites, which help keep the meat fresher and provide a healthy pink color. The activation mechanism of nitrites may be the same as MSG, causing pain through an allergic reaction.

Some sufferers believe that caffeine is both a trigger and a cure. On the plus side, many headache medications contain caffeine to speed the medicine through the digestive system and into the bloodstream. Once the drug reaches the source of the pain, the caffeine stimulates the circulatory system for even faster results. Unfortunately, caffeine can also give sensitive people headaches, especially at higher dosage levels. The sudden crash after caffeine ingestion can also lead to a “caffeine headache,” a form of withdrawal relieved only by time or more caffeine.

A common trigger is alcohol consumption. Some red wines contain tyramine, which can trigger food sensitivity headaches. All forms of alcohol can cause dehydration, which is the main trigger behind the infamous hangover pain felt the morning after a bout of drinking. Some researchers also believe that alcohol causes blood vessels to expand, which can trigger headaches when they later try to contract.

Other triggers include glare, low light conditions, drug interactions, eyestrain, and physical exertion. Sinus disorders are not responsible for a significant number of headaches, even though the sinus cavities themselves are very close to the neurotransmitters that could be the culprits. It can be very difficult to self-diagnose headaches, so a trip to a doctor, allergist, or eye, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist may prove helpful.

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