What causes headaches?

Despite years of research, the actual mechanism behind most headaches remains a mystery. Originally, they were thought to be caused by constriction of blood vessels or tightening of facial and scalp muscles. Modern studies suggest that headaches may be caused by a low level of a natural pain reliever 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 pain tends to subside.

There are several 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 medications 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 muscle tension in the face and scalp, leading to a tension headache. Insomnia and depression can also trigger headaches, lending some credence to the connection between serotonin levels and facial nerve irritation. Some researchers suggest that emotions themselves do not cause headaches, but they do leave a person more vulnerable to neurotransmitter/serotonin conflict. Suppressed emotions also tend to cause more pain than expressed anger or anxiety.

Other common triggers are food and chemical sensitivities. Some may be familiar with the concept of headache in a Chinese restaurant . The root cause of the headache experienced after consuming Chinese food is sensitivity to a flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate (MSG). In other foods, MSG may appear on the ingredient list as Hydrolyzed vegetable protein .

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

Some people believe that caffeine is both a trigger and a cure. On the plus side, many headache medications contain caffeine to speed the medication through the digestive system and into the bloodstream. Once the medication reaches the source of the pain, the caffeine stimulates the circulatory system for even faster results. Unfortunately, caffeine can also cause headaches in sensitive individuals, especially at higher dosage levels. The sudden crash after ingesting caffeine can also lead to a "caffeine headache," a form of withdrawal that only eases with time or more caffeine.

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

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

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