Your Frequent and Persistent Headaches Could Signal High Levels of Cortisol Hormone

Studies show how individuals with higher cortisol levels are more likely to experience frequent headaches compared to those with normal cortisol levels.

cortisol and headaches

Headaches can range from mild annoyances to debilitating pains that can seriously disrupt daily life. While they can be triggered by dehydration, digital eyestrain, and lack of sleep, frequent forms of head pains (migraine) can sometimes be a red flag for an underlying health issue, including long-term cortisol hormone levels.

Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” plays a crucial role in the body’s fight-or-flight response during stressful situations. Typically, it increases blood sugar levels for energy, elevates blood pressure, and suppresses non-essential functions like digestion and the immune system’s functions.

However, these disruptions are meant to be short-term. Chronically long-term cortisol(stress) levels can wreak havoc on the body, impacting sleep, mood, metabolism, and causing headaches.

According to a 2017 research,

stress was by far the leading precipitating factor of headache pain (90% of cases), ahead of sleep deprivation (58% of cases) and alcohol (30% of cases).[5]

Cortisol and migraine: A systematic literature review

Elsewhere, studies published in Cephalalgia journals show how individuals with higher cortisol levels are more likely to experience frequent headaches compared to those with normal cortisol levels.

Headache Types and Their Cortisol Connection

Certain types of headaches may be more closely linked to cortisol than others:

  • Tension Headaches: These are the most common type, often characterized by a dull aching or pressure around the head. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol are known risk factors for tension headaches.
  • Migraines: While the exact cause of migraines is unknown, stress is a well-established trigger. Studies suggest a potential link between cortisol levels and migraine frequency.

What is the Complex Link Between Cortisol and Frequent Headaches?

Photo by Alex Green: (Pexels)

The exact mechanism by which cortisol contributes to headaches is still being studied, but several theories exist:

  • Inflammation: Cortisol can trigger inflammation throughout the body, including the blood vessels around the brain. This inflammation can irritate the nerves in the head, leading to headaches.

“When we have chronically elevated cortisol levels, it creates an inflammatory response in the body, disrupting the normal function of our hypothalamic-pituitary pathway in our brain that controls many of the hormones in our body, including thyroid hormone,” says Sean Zager, M.D., of Paloma Health, an online thyroid testing and treatment clinic.

Health Central
  • Blood flow blues: Cortisol can ‘facilitate‘ blood vessel constriction, reducing blood flow to the brain. This decrease in blood flow can deprive the brain of oxygen and nutrients, contributing to headaches. While cortisol doesn’t directly constrict brain vessels, it can amplify the ‘narrowing effect of blood vessels‘ by other hormones, like epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine is the one that causes blood vessel constriction, particularly those supplying non-essential organs like the digestive system, to divert blood flow towards muscles and vital organs needed for the immediate threat.
  • Pain sensitivity amplifier: Elevated cortisol levels may heighten the body’s sensitivity to pain, making headaches feel more intense and last longer.

a migraine attack is often a stressful event and chronic pain like migraine can create high-stress levels. This stress can continue the cycle, triggering future migraine attacks and head pain. As a result, this constant fluctuation of cortisol levels can trigger an attack.

American Migraine Foundation
  • Decrease in stress can trigger headaches!: Interestingly, even a positive change like reduced stress can trigger headaches in some people, possibly due to hormonal fluctuations or changes in brain chemicals in what is known as ‘let down‘. These headaches are usually temporary, but if they persist after stress reduction, consulting a doctor is recommended. In a study at Montefiore Headache Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University,

Stress has long been believed to be a common headache trigger. In this study, researchers found that relaxation following heightened stress was an even more significant trigger for migraine attacks.

Science Daily

Other Known Factors That Trigger Frequent Headaches

pain killers and frequent headaches

While cortisol can be a significant player, it’s not the only factor that can trigger frequent headaches. Here are some other common culprits:

  • Dehydration: Not drinking enough fluids can lead to headaches, especially in hot weather or during strenuous activity.
  • Eye Strain: Focusing on screens for extended periods, bright lights, or uncorrected vision issues can contribute to headaches.
  • Medication Overuse: Over-the-counter pain relievers, while offering temporary relief, can actually worsen headaches with frequent use. This is known as medication overuse headache.
  • Dietary Triggers: Certain foods and beverages, like caffeine, alcohol, and foods containing MSG (monosodium glutamate), can trigger headaches in some people.
  • Sleep Issues: Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can trigger headaches in some individuals. Sleep helps regulate cortisol levels, and disruptions in sleep patterns can lead to elevated cortisol levels and an increased risk of headaches.
  • Stress and Anxiety: High levels of stress and anxiety can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which may increase the frequency and severity of headaches. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises and meditation, can help reduce stress and alleviate headaches.
  • Posture: Poor posture, especially when sitting at a desk or using electronic devices, can strain the muscles in the neck and shoulders, leading to tension headaches. Maintaining good posture and taking regular breaks to stretch can help prevent these headaches.
  • Underlying Medical Conditions: In some cases, frequent headaches can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as sinus problems, sleep apnea, or high blood pressure.

Long-Term Consequences of Frequent Headaches

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Chronic headaches, regardless of the cause, can have a significant impact on your life, affecting your physical and mental well-being in the long term.

1. Physical Effects:

  • Increased Pain Sensitivity: The constant barrage of pain can heighten overall pain sensitivity, making you more susceptible to pain from other sources.
  • Muscle Tension and TMJ Disorders: Headaches often cause muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. Over time, this tension can lead to chronic pain and even temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, affecting jaw function.
  • Sleep Disruption: The discomfort and pain of headaches can significantly disrupt sleep patterns, leading to sleep deprivation. This lack of sleep can worsen headaches and create a vicious cycle.
  • Medication Overuse Headaches: Reliance on pain medication to manage frequent headaches can lead to medication overuse headaches (MOH). This creates a situation where the medication itself triggers headaches, further complicating the issue.
  • Exacerbation of Underlying Conditions: Chronic headaches can sometimes worsen pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure or anxiety.

2. Mental and Emotional Effects:

  • Anxiety and Depression: The constant pain and frustration associated with chronic headaches can contribute to anxiety and depression.
  • Reduced Quality of Life: Headaches can significantly impact daily activities, work productivity, and social life, leading to a diminished quality of life.
  • Concentration and Memory Problems: The pain and discomfort of headaches can make it difficult to focus, concentrate, and retain information.
  • Social Isolation: The fear of triggering a headache or the limitations imposed by head pain can lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
  • Mood Swings and Irritability: The chronic discomfort and frustration associated with headaches can contribute to mood swings and irritability, affecting relationships.

It is important to remember that these are potential consequences, and the individual experience can vary.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Frequent Headaches

If you suspect a link between your frequent headaches and cortisol levels, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional. They can perform tests, such as saliva or blood tests, to measure cortisol levels and determine the underlying cause of your headaches.

The test is simple and involves taking a blood sample from a vein in your arm with a needle. Blood samples are often taken in the morning when cortisol levels are highest. A normal cortisol level in a blood sample taken at 8 AM is 5–25 mcg/dL, but results can vary depending on the time of day and other factors. 

Treatment often involves addressing the root cause. This might include stress management techniques like meditation, yoga, or cognitive-behavioral therapy. In some cases, medications may be necessary to regulate cortisol levels.

Managing Frequent Headaches, Beyond the Doctor’s Visit

child sleeping
Photo by RDNE Stock project: (Pexels)

While addressing the underlying cause is vital, some additional tips can offer temporary relief and help prevent frequent headaches:

  • Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule: Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Practice Relaxation Techniques: Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga can help manage stress and reduce headache frequency.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay adequately hydrated.
  • Limit Caffeine and Alcohol: Excessive intake of these substances can trigger headaches.
  • Identify and Avoid Food Triggers: If you suspect certain foods trigger your headaches, keep a food diary to identify and avoid them.
  • Maintain Good Posture: Poor posture can strain the neck muscles and contribute to headaches.
  • Stress Management: Learning effective stress management techniques like relaxation exercises or meditation can help reduce headaches and improve overall well-being.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep can significantly contribute to headache prevention and overall health.
  • Early Diagnosis and Treatment: Getting a diagnosis for the cause of your chronic headaches allows for targeted treatment and reduces the risk of long-term complications.

How to Live a Headache-Free Life

While frequent headaches can have various causes, elevated cortisol levels may be a contributing factor for some people. Understanding the relationship between cortisol and headaches can help identify triggers and develop effective management strategies.

By addressing underlying causes such as stress, poor sleep, and dietary factors, you can reduce the frequency and severity of headaches and improve your overall quality of life.

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