Headaches can be a big problem for many women around the age of 50, especially when menopause is involved. For women who have suffered headaches their whole life, menopausal headaches are common and often debilitating, but even those who have never suffered headaches before can begin experiencing some discomfort.
The exact connection between menopause and headaches is somewhat unclear, however much of the blame can be placed upon the hormonal changes your body goes through during menopause.
Around the time of menopause, the levels of female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, may fluctuate almost daily. Oestrogen is thought to cause blood vessels to dilate, while progesterone causes them to tighten. As the level of these hormones fluctuate, the blood vessels are constantly expanding and contracting. This causes pressure changes in the head, resulting in painful headaches.
There are several types of headaches that menopause can trigger, including:
Tension headaches are characterised by a feeling of tightness or moderate pain across the forehead and back of the head and neck. In tension headaches, stress tends to be the precipitating factor. Preventative strategies include cognitive and behavioural therapies such as stress management and counseling, stretching, exercising, and heat or cold packs.
There are two types of migraines that menopausal women experience – migraines with aura and migraines without aura. Migraines without aura (a neurological phenomenon) are the most common, and occur on one side or both sides of the head. In some cases, mood swings or fatigue may occur 24 hours before the migraine begins. Nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light often accompany migraines without aura.
Aura migraines can include symptoms such as flashing lights, blind spots, difficulty focusing on things, balance and coordination problems, stiffness and tingling in the neck, and difficulty speaking.
The sinuses are small, air-filled cavities behind the forehead, cheekbones, and the bridge of the nose. If the lining of these sinuses become inflamed, you may feel congested and experience facial pain.
Although hormonal imbalance is the primary cause of these headaches, there are other factors that can trigger or exacerbate headaches, such as:
- Bright lights, loud noises, and strong odours,
- Stress and anxiety,
- Weather changes,
- Stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine,
- Lack of or too much sleep,
- Skipped meals or fasting, and
- Certain foods.
It is generally recommended that women begin with the least invasive treatment options when trying to manage hormonal headaches. This can mean:
Simple changes in lifestyle can reap huge benefits in terms of limiting pain caused by headaches and achieving a higher overall level of health. Small life changes can include:
- Regular exercise,
- Avoiding environmental and dietary triggers,
- Reducing stress with techniques such as yoga or meditation,
- Taking fewer medications,
- Changing your lightbulbs, and
- Dressing in layers to adjust to temperature changes.
Studies have shown that diets rich in foods that promote estrogen levels (such as soy, apples, alfalfa, cherries, potatoes, rice, and wheat) go a long way in helping regulate menopausal symptoms such as headaches. Dietary changes aren’t just about avoiding triggers such as cheese, chocolate, and caffeine, and should include the addition of the right foods.
Alternative approaches involve little or no risk, and can be extremely effective in reducing headache frequency. Herbal supplements are an easy approach to headaches, requiring little time or monetary commitment, and help treat hormonal imbalance directly at its source. They come in two varieties – phytoestrogenic herbs (e.g. Black Cohosh) and non-estrogenic herbs (eg. Macafem).
Phytoestrogenic herbs contain estrogenic components produced by plants, and treat hormonal imbalance by introducing plant-based estrogens to the body. As a result of adding outside hormones, however, there is a risk that you may become less capable of producing estrogen naturally. This can cause a further decrease in hormone levels, resulting in even more headaches.
By contrast, non-estrogenic herbs stimulate a woman’s hormone production by nourishing the pituitary and endocrine glands, causing them to more efficiently produce natural hormones. This ultimately results in balancing estrogen, and eliminating hormonal headaches.
When seeking any advice regarding alternative medicines or treatments, it is best to consult a qualified practitioner within that field. Headaches may not always be innocent and a well-trained practitioner will know when to refer you to your GP for more extensive testing.
Even if you think you drink enough water every day, partial dehydration could be causing some of your headaches. Different factors such as exercise, climate, and other health conditions may warrant you to drink more water to keep your body in balance. Monitor your water intake, and adjust it accordingly.
Practicing meditation and other relaxation exercises can offer wonderful relief from approaching headaches. Based on ancient spiritual traditions, meditation teaches its practitioners to focus attention and awareness, while ignoring outer and inner distractions that may cause stress. As for yoga, the promotion of deep breathing together with the stretching out of muscles can offer instant relief.