Brain-pain go away! How to beat back summer headaches
It’s not just tension that cause primary headaches such as migraines, tension-type and cluster headaches.health and fitness Updated: Apr 16, 2016 15:30 IST
Surviving the summer heat is not quite like being the last team standing in the popular TV-series Survivor, but it comes close. Most of us use a medley of things to beat the heat, dust and insects that accompany summer, but some swear by a signature solution that helps them thrive while others shrivel and wilt away.
Some tank up on water to prevent dehydration, others slather sunscreens and wear flowing linen to avoid tans, some don’t venture out without spray-on insect-repellants, while a few like me develop a sudden obsessive-compulsive attachment to sunglasses because the bright summer glare gives me killer headaches.
I first thought dehydration was to blame, and then was convinced for a while it was the heat I couldn’t bear, but soon realised that sunglasses was all that was needed to stop my head from throbbing.
Why the pain happened, though, remained a mystery. Were the dark glasses fooling my brain into thinking I was in 5-degrees cooler shade? Or was blocking out the bright sunlight aborting the mind-numbing ache?
It’s not just tension that cause primary headaches -- such as migraines, tension-type and cluster headaches – that are defined as aches not caused by an underlying health problem ranging from poor vision, high blood pressure to brain tumours and aneurism. These aches are caused by a complex interplay of genetic and environmental risk factors, so identifying and eliminating the triggers is the only way to stay free of pain.
Bright sunlight can make your head ache, shows research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Neurons in the thalamus, which controls sensory information such as vision, sound, taste and touch, are sensitive to both light and the membrane surrounding the brain called the dura. The Harvard study found that headaches, including migraines, are mediated by signals transmitted to the brain from the dura, and worsen on exposure to light. Putting on sunglasses with polarised lenses and UVA and UVB protection before stepping outside prevents the overactive thalamus from sending out pain signals.
Apart from keeping the brain sharp, water moistens tissues, cushions the joints, regulates body temperature and helps the body absorb nutrients and flush out toxins. Dehydration shrinks the membrane called dura that surrounds the brain, which pulls the pain-sensitive nerves of the head. Most people tolerate up to 4% decrease in total body water without a problem, but losing between 5% and 8% causes fatigue and headache.
Don’t wait for the feeling of thirst to kick in, which happens when you’re already dehydrated. You need to track your overall intake of fluids, which includes water found naturally in fruits and vegetables, juices, milk and yoghurt, and even the much-abused diuretics such as tea and coffee to have at least two litres a day, and more if it’s hot or you have been exercising, dieting or been sick. Babies, children, older persons and people who are fasting or ill need more water than healthy people.
Red wine and aged cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss cheeses like Gruyere, Brie and blue cheeses contain tyramine, which is formed when protein breaks down as the food ages. Tyramine constricts the blood vessels and raises blood pressure, causing headaches. Polyphenols found in red wine also interfere with the metabolism of the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin in the brain, which aggravates the sensation of pain. Cured, smoked, picked and canned foods, including cold cuts, contain synthetic food preservatives than can cause headaches.
Ice-cream and other very cold foods can lead to brain freeze, which is a sharp pain on the sides of the head. The pain, which generally lasts for less than a minute, is caused by the sudden stimulation of temperature-sensitive nerves and blood vessels in the roof of the mouth.
Having too many painkillers such as paracetamol, ergotamine, triptan or opioids lead to medicine-overuse or rebound headaches, which causes an oppressive, persistent pain that is worst when you get up and may worsen with physical or mental exertion. People who have frequent migraines or cluster headaches suffer the most as they are most likely to overuse painkillers, which starts a vicious cycle of overuse and abuse.
Caffeine in coffee, tea, colas and some medicines causes acute withdrawal if people who have it in large amounts suddenly stop having it. The ache usually begins behind the eyes and then moves up to the front of the head. To avoid it, limit your daily dose to 200mg of caffeine, which is about two mugs or four cups of brewed coffee.
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First Published: Apr 16, 2016 15:30 IST