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Why Women Have More Headaches Than Men

The Connection Between Headaches and Hormones

Headaches can be caused by many factors, and women experience headaches (especially migraines) as much as three times more than men. Learn the most common causes of headaches and how to alleviate your pain.

What About Hormones?

Women, you can blame hormones — namely, estrogen — for your headache woes. Fluctuating estrogen levels can contribute to the development of chronic headaches or migraines.

Estrogen regulates the female reproductive system, and it also happens to control chemicals in the brain that impact the sensation of pain. A drop in estrogen levels can cause a headache, typically in the form of a migraine, lasting anywhere from four to 72 hours. Determining the type of headache and finding your triggers plays an important role in your treatment and pain relief.

Hormone levels fluctuate for a number of reasons. However, the most dramatic hormone fluctuations occur:

  • Before menstruation. To prepare your uterus for pregnancy, estrogen levels drop shortly before you get your period.
  • During pregnancy. Estrogen levels rise quickly, particularly in the first trimester, to help the uterus and placenta to better transfer nutrients and support the development of the baby.
  • After giving birth. After delivering your baby, estrogen levels drop because it is no longer needed to support a pregnancy.
  • During perimenopause and menopause. As your body prepares to shut down the ovaries, it undergoes fluctuations in hormone levels.
  • If you are taking oral contraceptives. Certain medications can alter your hormone levels.

Other Headache Triggers

Hormones play a significant role in headaches, but they are not the only cause. Migraines, cluster headaches and tension headaches can occur from heightened stress or emotional distress. Other causes include:

  • Anxiety. When you’re anxious as a result of stress, you are more likely to eat unhealthy foods, have a disrupted sleep schedule and engage in other behaviors that can perpetuate headaches.
  • Glare. The brightness from your computer screen, sunlight or overhead lights can make your head hurt.
  • Noise. Sound — whether loud and repetitive or continuous, low-level noise — can cause headache pain.
  • Eating and sleeping patterns. Being hungry can cause headaches, as can lack of sleep.
  • Medication. Certain prescriptions can trigger headaches.
  • Concussion. Headache is a common symptom of a concussion.
  • Physical activity. Overexertion can cause swelling of blood vessels in your head, neck and scalp, giving you a headache.
  • Lack of physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle can cause headaches.
  • Posture. Sitting up straight keeps blood flowing and can help you avoid headaches.
  • Food sensitivities. Certain types of foods and drinks release neurotransmitters that can lead to headaches. Common triggers include aspartame, caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and cheese.
  • Dehydration. A lack of fluids can cause several types of headaches, so it’s important to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water.

Home Remedies for Headaches

Lifestyle changes may help prevent headaches. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes nutritious foods, exercise and proper sleep. Ask your physician about daily vitamins or supplements, such as vitamin B or magnesium.

If you find yourself experiencing a headache, seek a quiet, dark place to rest. Use a damp cloth on your forehead to provide additional relief. Gently rub the area with your forefingers. If headaches persist, keep a journal to better identify triggers to discuss with your physician.

Other Treatment Options

If you suffer from headaches, treatment options will depend on the severity as well as your overall health. Some headaches, such as those resulting from a concussion may require specialized care during your recovery. Your specialist, much like the ones at Northwestern Medicine neurosciences program, will help you determine what is right for you.

Learn more about the location of headaches and what they mean here.

What Does Your Headache Mean

- Bassel Kazkaz, MD, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, Clinical Neurophysiology

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