13 Surprising Things That Could Be Triggering Your Headaches

Updated: Apr. 02, 2020

Caffeine, dehydration, bright lights—all are potential headache causes. Check out this list to help figure out why your noggin is throbbing

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Do you recognize these surprising triggers?

Stress and loud noises are obvious reasons for a headache, but some lesser-known culprits could be anything from harmless old habits to weather changes. Here are some surprising things that could trigger a headache.

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Pickled, aged, smoked, or marinated foods

Tyramine, a naturally occurring compound that can contribute to headache pain, is in a wide variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables. The highest amounts are in foods that are aged, marinated, smoked, or pickled—think sauerkraut, tofu, cheeses, and pickles. Significant amounts of tyramine are also found in bananas, (especially overripe ones—tyramine increases as the fruit ages), avocados, onions, and chocolate. The more tyramine-rich foods you consume, the worse your pain may be.

“As the proteins in cheese break down over time, the tyramine content goes up,” says Tania Elliott, MD, an allergist and internist and former host of the TV show The Doctors. “You’ll want to be careful with aged cheese like bleu, Gouda, and Parmesan, as well as other foods containing tyramine.” Here are 13 foods that can make your headache worse.

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Having sex

This may be one of the most surprising headache causes, says Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert with Maple Holisitics. “Believe it or not, there is such a thing called a sex headache,” he says. “Although these headaches are rare, they can be debilitating, both physically and mentally.”

Sex headaches are more common in men, and they are usually the result of a spike in blood pressure, says Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, a physician and health and wellness expert. “However, if a sex headache occurs for the very first time or its onset is extremely sudden, it’s definitely something to discuss immediately with your doctor to ensure there isn’t a serious underlying problem occurring, like a brain hemorrhage,” Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe says. Learn more about the 8 types of headaches—and how to get rid of them.

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Tight hairstyles

That chic, pulled-back look can hurt your head: “Hairstyles like ponytails, braids, high buns, and various other updos can sometimes elicit tension on the scalp from the tug and tight pull on the hair,” Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe says. “This constant pulling and traction may potentially irritate certain nerves in the scalp.” Let down your hair, and the headache should cease. And keep an eye out for 16 signs that your headache is something much worse.

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Jaw misalignment

Jaw joint dysfunction and bite-related problems are two common headache causes, says Ronald Konig, DDS, a dentist in Houston who specializes in TMJ treatment. “A big contributor to these headache episodes is a bad bite relationship. Simply said, this means that the upper and lower jaws have a poor alignment, which results in the muscles of the head and neck being strained,” Dr. Konig says. “The strain is made worse every time you eat, chew or swallow, which is probably in the range of 2,500 to 3,000 times per day.”

Sleep can add trouble: “If you clench or tighten your jaw when sleeping, it can cause discomfort with frequent headaches or ear ringing,” says Dr. Anne Bierman, DPT SCS, a physical therapist with Athletico Physical Therapy. Here are 10 unexpected reasons why you’re waking up with a headache.


Strong smells

“Many people experience headaches triggered by the presence of strong scents,” Backe says. “These pounding headaches are often prompted by perfumes, cigarette smoke, and even gasoline.” If you have experienced migraines, smells might be a primary trigger. “This can include an array of noxious smells, as well as some that are typically considered pleasant, such as perfume,” says Kevin Gebke, MD, a family medicine physician at Indiana University Health.

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“Dehydration can cause headaches,” says Clint Steele, DC, a chiropractor and holistic health expert from Portland, Maine. “Making sure you are drinking enough water is hugely important. Consuming at least 64 to 70 ounces of water every day is crucial in helping to prevent health problems and also in helping reverse current health issues, including headaches.” However, keep in mind it’s possible to drink too much water. (Don’t miss these other 10 natural remedies for headaches.)

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Hunger or “hangry”

No, you’re not imagining things when you’re ready to eat. Hunger is one of several surprising headache causes. If you unintentionally skip meals and your blood sugar declines, you can get a headache, according to the National Headache Foundation.

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Monosodium glutamate

This common food flavoring is linked to headaches, says Dr. Elliott. “A lot of people think MSG is specific to Chinese restaurants, but the truth is that MSG pops up in a lot of packaged and processed foods, like potato chips and salad dressings,” she says. When you eat foods that contain MSG, it dilates your blood vessels and excites the nerves in your brain, Dr. Elliott explains. This can cause a headache and trigger a migraine if you’re susceptible.

“You’ll likely start feeling the effects within 20 to 25 minutes of consuming MSG,” Dr. Elliott adds. This is why you get headaches when you fly.

Cup of coffee on the table


This is one of those headache triggers no one wants to hear about, but that coffee you’re sipping may cause your head to pound. “Caffeine is a tricky trigger topic since small amounts can actually help with a migraine, while too much can increase your likelihood of getting a headache,” Dr. Eillott says. If you cut back, caffeine withdrawal can also trigger a headache. “If you have a daily coffee or tea routine, the best bet is to keep your intake low to moderate to avoid triggering brain pain,” Dr. Elliott says. These 32 easy habits can reduce your risk of headaches—guaranteed.

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Bad posture

“One of the most common causes of tension headaches is poor posture,” Dr. Bierman says. “I’ve noticed an increase in posture issues related to the prominence of hand-held tech devices, like tablets, laptops, and phones.” Dr. Bierman says using these devices requires you to look down and put your neck in an unnatural position. Keeping your neck projected forward instead of maintaining a straight spine puts pressure on the joints and nerves in your neck.

“This habitual bad posture can result in neck pain and postural headaches,” Dr. Bierman says. Try these headache stretches that can work as well as pain pills.

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Weather and temperature changes

Those ominous thunderclouds may dampen your mood, but a weather shift can also cause a headache. “Weather is a common trigger for migraines,” says Vincent Martin, MD, the director of the Headache and Facial Pain Center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute and president of the National Headache Foundation. “Barometric rises and falls could trigger a headache by activating the trigeminal nerve in the sinuses. The changing pressure could be sensed by the inner ear, too,” he says.

If the weather brings a change in temp, Martin says, your head could suffer. “Changing temperatures are also commonly reported by migraine patients as a trigger, particularly large swings in temperature.”

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Bright lights

Strobe lights in a theater production, club, or movie may do more than make you dizzy, says Dr. Martin. “Flashing lights might trigger migraines, particularly in those that have a visual aura,” he says. “They likely trigger headaches by activating nerves in the part of the brain that is responsible for sight.”

Florescent lights can also be an unusual headache cause. “They emit blue light that can be particularly bothersome,” Dr. Martin says.

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Sleep posture

Dr. Bierman says how you sleep may be responsible for how you—or, rather, your head—feels when you wake up. “If you sleep with your head in a flexed position—sometimes caused by sleeping with too many pillows—you may experience postural headaches,” she says. Take advantage of these 13 secrets to sleeping better from sleep docs.