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ISOMATIC Integrative Health Centre



When a severe headache strikes, the intense aching and throbbing pain can be debilitating, leading to missed appointments, work, and precious time with family and friends.

Regardless of whether you are prone to migraines, tension headaches, or cluster headaches, understanding their triggers can potentially reduce their frequency. Let’s delve into the most common triggers for each of these types of headaches:

  1. Stress:

    • Impact: Stress can cause tight muscles in the shoulders and neck, often leading to tension headaches. Frequent tension headaches make the pain in the shoulder and neck muscles translate to head pain.
  2. Dietary Factors:

    • Migraines: Hunger itself can trigger migraines or tension headaches. Certain foods, such as beans, nuts, avocados, bananas, cheese, chocolate, citrus, herring, dairy products, and onions, may act as migraine triggers.
    • Processed Foods: Processed foods containing nitrites, nitrates, yellow food dyes, or monosodium glutamate can be particularly problematic.
  3. Alcohol Intake:

    • Migraine Trigger: Alcohol, especially red wine, is a common trigger for migraines. It’s unclear if the alcohol itself is responsible, or if another component in the drink causes the problem.
  4. Environmental Factors:

    • Migraines: Bright light, smoke, humidity, intense scents, or cold weather are associated with migraine headaches. Cluster headache sufferers often note that headaches coincide with specific seasonal changes.
  5. Hormones:

    • Migraines in Women: Changes in estrogen levels are linked to migraines in women. Women suffer from migraines more frequently than men. Menstrual cycles may be associated with migraines in younger women, and perimenopausal estrogen level variations can trigger migraines.
  6. Caffeine Withdrawal:

    • Migraine Trigger: Abruptly stopping caffeine intake, commonly found in coffee or tea, may trigger migraines. Caffeine causes blood vessels to constrict; withdrawal widens and bulges the blood vessels, contributing to the pounding pain of migraines.
  7. Lack of Sleep:

    • Association: A lack of sleep is associated with migraines and tension headaches. Falling asleep can often stop a migraine attack or decrease its severity.

Common Types of Headaches and Symptoms:

  1. Tension Headache:

    • Pain starts in the neck and back, feeling like a tight band around the head. Often relieved with rest.
  2. Migraine Headache:

    • Pain typically begins on one side of the head, throbs or pounds, accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound. Nausea may occur, and migraines can last for hours or days.
  3. Cluster Headache:

    • Feels like a stabbing pain in the eye, causing eye tearing or redness, runny nose, or nasal congestion. Can last for minutes or hours, occurring several times per day in clusters.

Managing Headaches: Understanding triggers can help avoid headaches, but if it’s not enough, consider the following:

  • Keep a headache diary to note triggers.
  • Consult a doctor for prescription medications or pill-free treatments like acupuncture, meditation, biofeedback, and relaxation therapy.
  • Ensure sufficient sleep, exercise, a healthy diet, limited alcohol intake, and stress reduction for overall balance to combat hypersensitivity, a common condition associated with headaches.

Scarborough in Toronto

Andrew Chan, R.H.N., DOMP, B.Sc., DO (Euro)

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