Top 10 Headache Triggers

headache triggers

Top 10 Headache Triggers


Some people find that being tired or eating certain foods can set off headaches or make an existing headache worse.1 Knowing what these triggers are allows you to plan ahead and decrease the likelihood of future headaches.


Here are 10 of the most common headache triggers.

1. The weather

The weather is actually the most common trigger for headache sufferers.2 However, not every type of weather causes problems. When the weather gets hotter, changes in humidity and pressure can alter chemical production in the brain, triggering a headache.4

While it’s impossible to change the weather, it’s perfectly possible to plan ahead for an attack, and have a pain reliever to hand.

2. Stress

Around two-thirds of people with a headache blame stress for their attacks.2 However, headaches often occur after the stressful period.2, 3 That’s because the hormones that are racing around the body to help it handle stress suddenly drop, which triggers blood vessels to expand and contract, leading to a headache.3

Stress can also cause muscle tension in the neck or shoulders, or in the muscles of the scalp.8 This in turn can affect your posture9 and increases in severity if you sit for long periods in front of a computer, or undertake fine work with the hands10. If you squint to read, this may also tense your scalp muscles. Any of these can trigger a stress-related tension headache8.

To try to prevent this from happening, discover new ways to keep stress under control – like relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises or yoga.5

3. 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.

4. Your diet

Diet can play a huge role in 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

Try and cut out or cut down the food that is causing the problem and this should reduce or eliminate the number of headaches.

5. Drinking

Drinking too much of certain liquids, such as tea, coffee or alcohol, can trigger headaches.1 Try and limit the amount of alcohol or caffeine consumed during the day, and drink plenty of water. Dehydration is another key factor in many headaches.


6. Skipping mealtimes

Skipping meals is another trigger.1 That’s because it can lead to low blood sugar, which can cause a headache.1 Eating lots of sugar can also trigger an attack, as this causes a fast rise in blood sugar levels and then a quick crash.1 Instead, have regular healthy meals, which will help you avoid triggers.1

7. A lack of sleep

A lack of sleep can also be a headache trigger1 .Try to follow a good sleep regime: go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including on weekends.1

8. Overdoing it at the gym

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

9. Slouching

Slouching or bending over a lot can increase the tension in the 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 the back.3


10. Grinding teeth

Some people find grinding their teeth at night can cause a dull headache.3 Fortunately, dentists can create a mouth-guard that prevents teeth grinding together at night.3         

Keep a diary

If you’re not sure what triggers a headache, 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.