Whether you suffer from migraines or you get the occasional splitting headache, you know just how excruciating a pounding head can be. And for some, there’s a specific time of the month when you can expect this issue.
As if cramps, food cravings and an all-out crappy mood weren’t enough, for women who suffer from migraines, there’s a 71% risk of getting an attack within two days of your period, according to one study. Ouch.
And migraine sufferers aren’t the only ones who struggle with headaches around their menstrual cycle. “Women can suffer from hormonal headaches that are not migraine-related before their period too,” said Jolene Brighten, a hormone expert and author of Beyond the Pill.
Unfortunately, these time-of-the-month headaches are a fact of life for some people who get periods. But do we have to accept them? Not necessarily.
Understanding why something is happening is often the first step to fixing it. Ellen Vora, a psychiatrist and women’s health expert, told HuffPost that there isn’t necessarily a simple explanation when your head hurts around the time of your period, but a major culprit is hormones.
“A few of the major factors are that hormonal shifts impact everything, including the tendency for blood vessels to constrict or dilate, which can impact headaches,” she said.
Brighten added that estrogen in particular plays a huge role in period headaches. “Headaches can be triggered by excess estrogen during the luteal phase ― the weeks leading up to your period ― or from the drop in estrogen, which triggers your period,” she said.
How To Prevent Or Treat Period Headaches
While there’s no guarantee you can stop those pesky headaches around your period before they pop up, there are preventive measures you can take throughout the month that may help.
Brighten’s suggestion? Make a few simple diet and supplement tweaks. Magnesium-rich foods ― think leafy greens, nuts and avocados ― may ”help reduce the frequency or severity of headaches,” she said.
Vora agreed with the magnesium tip, noting that when women have a magnesium deficiency, the symptoms around their period are a lot worse. “The body has an increased need for magnesium related to the contraction of the uterus during menstruation,” she said. “This ends up pulling magnesium away from the rest of the body, which can create muscle tension. Tension in the muscles of the neck and the small muscles around the forehead, temples and scalp is a common contributor to headaches.”
Vora also recommended getting some exercise. Her personal favorite? Pilates. Since headaches can come from muscle tension, she said, any exercise that strengthens the core and leads to better posture can help quite a bit.
“And don’t forget to work on reducing overall stress,” she said, adding that some people consider acupuncture helpful. You can also try other stress-relief techniques like reading, going for a walk, talking to a friend or whatever works for you.
Of course, sometimes even the best-planned preventive measures don’t work, leaving you stuck with a nasty period headache. There’s no harm in taking pain relievers like ibuprofen once in a while as long as you don’t overdo it. Brighten said some other natural solutions can work as well.
“It may seem obvious, but making sure you are hydrated and getting ample sleep can help ward off headaches,” she said. “Ginger has been shown to be as effective as over the counter NSAIDs. Applying hot or cold compresses can also help some women get relief.”
If your issue is migraine-specific, there are migraine-specific pain relievers and even preventive medication that you can take regularly. And according to the National Migraine Foundation, practicing “headache hygiene” can help quite a bit ― doing regular exercise, eating regular meals, getting enough sleep and reducing stress.
Michelle Cady, a New York-based health coach and author of Self-Care in the City, said she has clients who come to her complaining of period headaches all the time. She also recommends they try getting a little more magnesium through their sweet tooth.
“Dark chocolate is a great source of magnesium, which I like to call the natural chill-out mineral,” she said. “When in doubt, get to bed early, eat some dark chocolate ― 75% or higher ― curl up in a dark room and let your body rest.”
Sounds like prescriptions worth following.
“Living With” is a guide to navigating conditions that affect your mind and body. Each month, HuffPost Life will tackle very real issues people live with by offering different stories, advice and ways to connect with others who understand what it’s like. In April, we’re covering migraines and headaches. Got an experience you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.