Top 10 Headache Triggers

Top 10 headache triggers

If you’ve noticed that your headache always happens after you’ve eaten certain foods or if you’re tired, you may be right to think they are linked. Some people find these ‘triggers’ set off a new headache or make an existing headache worse.1 While everyone will have different triggers for their headache, we’ll take a look at the top 10. Once you know what your triggers are and how to avoid them, you should have fewer headaches.

Keep an eye on the weather

The weather is actually the most common trigger for headache sufferers.2 However, not every type of weather causes problems. It’s mainly when the weather gets hotter, the humidity rises and storms start to rumble.3 That’s because pressure changes in the atmosphere can alter chemical production in the brain, triggering a headache.4

While there’s not much you can do to change the weather, you can plan for the likelihood of an attack, and make sure you have a pain reliever on hand for when the pain strikes.

Handling stress

Around two-thirds of people with a headache blame stress for their attacks.2 What might be a surprise is that sometimes you get an attack once the stressful period is over.2, 3 That’s because the hormones that are racing around your body to help you handle stress suddenly drop when you relax, which triggers the brain to narrow and then widen blood vessels, leading to your headache.3

To try to prevent this from happening, find ways to keep your stress under control. Spare some time in your busy week to try relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises or yoga.5

Be alert to hormones

If you’re a woman it won’t be news to you that hormones are the next big headache trigger, in particular, those hormones that are around during menstruation.2 You might find that your headaches are more frequent and severe in the days around your menstrual period.6 This may be because one of the main female hormones, estrogen, drops around the time of your menstruation, triggering a headache.6

You won’t be able to change your normal menstrual cycle without first speaking to your doctor, but if your headaches are severe, this may be worthwhile as they can prescribe medication that can help.

Watch what you eat…

What you eat can play a huge role in your overall health and wellbeing – and can also be important when it comes to setting off a headache. Common foods that seem to be triggers include cheese (especially mature cheese), chocolate, citrus fruits, cured meats, nuts, onions, salty foods and the additive monosodium glutamate.1,3 Even ice cream can cause headaches in some people, but fortunately they only last a couple of minutes.3

If you can, try and cut out or cut down the food that is causing you the problem and this should reduce or eliminate the number of headaches you have.

…and drink

How much you drink and what you drink is also important. If you don’t drink enough water you can become dehydrated, and this can trigger a headache. Drinking too much of certain liquids, such as caffeinated drinks or alcohol, can trigger headaches.1 Make sure you limit the amount of alcohol or caffeine you drink, and drink plenty of water every day.1

Do you eat regularly?

Skipping meals is another trigger.1 That’s because it can lead to low blood sugar, which can cause a headache.1 Don’t think that eating lots of sugar can help to avoid a headache, as this just causes a fast rise in blood sugar levels and then a quick crash, which also causes a headache.1 Instead, have regular healthy meals, which will help you to avoid triggers.1

Time for bed

A lack of sleep can also be a headache trigger,1 so try to follow a good sleep regime: go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including on weekends.1

Exercise in moderation

Exercise is great for your overall health, but too much can be a bad thing when it comes to headaches.1 When we exercise, there’s increased blood circulation in the head and neck, making the blood vessels swell and triggering a headache.7 Try and exercise in moderation – around three to five times a week – it may even help stress-induced headaches.1

Sit up straight

Slouching or bending over a lot can increase the tension in your upper back, and neck and is a leading cause of tension headaches.3 Try to avoid being in the same position for long periods and practice sitting up straight and supporting your back.3 

Don’t let it grind you down

Some people find grinding their teeth at night can cause a dull headache.3 Fortunately, your dentist can give you a mouth-guard that can stop you grinding your teeth at night, so you should have fewer headaches.3               

Keep a diary

If you’re not sure what your triggers are, try keeping a diary that documents what the weather was like, what you had to eat or drink or if you did any exercise when you developed a headache. Keep this diary for several headaches to see if you can identify a pattern. Once you know what your headache triggers are, you can start to avoid these and get back on track to living your life headache-free.

  • Date/day of week
  • What did you eat and drink?
  • What was the weather like?
  • What time did you go to sleep? How many hours did you sleep?
  • Did you do anything unusual today?
  • What type and how much exercise did you do?
  • What time did the headache start?
  • What medicine did you take and when?


  1. American Headache Society. Trigger avoidance information. Available at: Accessed July 2010.
  2. Wöber C, et al. Trigger factors of migraine and tension-type headache: experience and knowledge of the patients. J Headache Pain. 2006;7:188-195.
  3. UK NHS Choices. 10 surprising headache triggers. Available at: Accessed July 2010.
  4. Gomersall JD, Stuart A. Variations in migraine attacks with changes in weather conditions. Int J Biometeorology. 1973,17.
  5. Lifting The Burden: the Global Campaign to Reduce the Burden of Headache Worldwide. Information for people affected by tension-type headache. Available at:
  6. Lifting The Burden: the Global Campaign to Reduce the Burden of Headache Worldwide. Information on female hormones for women with headache. Available at:
  7. WebMD: Exercise and headache. Available at: Accessed July 2010.