Headaches and Hormones: Is There a Connection?
Few things in life can ruin your day quite like a painful headache. I should know because I suffer from them frequently. Sometimes they’re brought on by my allergies. Other times, there’s a different culprit responsible: my hormones.
Being a woman has its advantages and disadvantages. Hormonal headaches are one of the downsides. The good news is we don’t have to take it lying down (with an ice pack on our heads).
Once you identify hormones as the trigger for your migraines, you can devise an effective strategy for reducing or eliminating the number of hormone headaches you have each month.
Stick with me as I talk about the following details that can help you to tame your hormones:
- Hormonal headache vs. classic migraine
- Common hormone headache triggers
- How to diagnose a hormonal headache
- How to get rid of a hormonal headache
Hormonal headache vs. classic migraine
When you have a headache, you probably don’t really care whether it’s from tension or raging hormones. You just want it gone. However, knowing what kind of headache you’re experiencing can help you to relieve it (and possibly prevent future occurrences).
If you suffer from classic migraines, you might easily mistake them for a hormone headache. They can feel very similar and produce comparable symptoms. This chart breaks down the signs of each so you can pinpoint the cause and get faster relief.
Treating a hormone headache like you would a classic migraine won’t alleviate the pain. In fact, in some cases, it can make it worse. Make sure you identify the kind of headache you’re having first, so you don’t prolong your suffering.
Common hormone headache triggers
If you’re having hormone headaches, certain conditions can trigger them. You may be thinking, “well, duh, it’s my hormones.” While this is true, there always is an underlying reason your hormones are behaving badly. Here are a few common causes.
Birth control pills
Ladies, if you’re taking the pill for any reason – controlling painful periods, family planning, managing conditions like PCOS, regulating periods – you probably have suffered at least one hormone-related headache.
Women have a choice between combination birth control pills and progestin-only (minipills). Combination birth control pills are more likely to trigger hormone headaches because they contain both estrogen and progestin. You have 3 weeks of “active” pills and one week of “inactive” pills each month.
One word of caution: when you transition to the inactive pills, your body stops receiving estrogen. Its natural response might be a headache because of the fluctuation of hormones in your body. Wait a few weeks, though. You will likely see a drop in the number of headaches you get per month.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can signal that you’re getting close to starting your period. More than 90% of women report they get some PMS symptoms each month, including bloating, headaches, and mood swings.
Right before you start menstruating, your estrogen and progesterone levels drop. When that happens, it causes your FSH and GnRH levels to rise. FSH and GnRH are the female hormones that stimulate your body’s ability to ovulate and conceive.
This cyclical shift in hormones can cause a doozy of a headache in some women.
Perimenopause and menopause
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse ladies, mother nature exclaims “hold my beer” and introduces us to the joys of perimenopause and menopause. As you probably have guessed, your ovaries start winding down during this time in your reproductive life cycle. Your body slowly decreases the amount of estrogen it produces, which eventually stops your monthly cycles completely.
A 2021 study found a correlation between fluctuating hormone levels during perimenopause and frequent headaches. According to the findings, you can expect the biggest impact to happen when estrogen levels fall below 45 to 50 picograms per milliliter.
The good news is that once you complete menopause, your chances of ever experiencing a hormone headache again are slim.
Let’s face it, ladies. Pregnancy wreaks havoc on our bodies. From relaxed ligaments to heartburn and sleeplessness, pregnancy hormones cause a lot of unpleasant issues. One of them can be frequent headaches.
If you’re experiencing headaches early in pregnancy, it’s likely because of the increase in the volume of blood your body is producing to support the growing fetus. Changing hormone levels – with progesterone ramping up – can also trigger headache pain.
Pregnancy headaches can rise to migraine status for some women, causing nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. You’ll know it’s a migraine and not just a regular hormone headache if you get a throbbing pain on one side of your head.
How to diagnose a hormonal headache
Diagnosing a hormone headache can be tricky. Your doctor may ask you to chart when they happen to determine if they occur at the same time each month. If you’re taking the birth control pill, your doctor may evaluate whether the pill is your trigger.
Some of the questions your healthcare provider may ask include:
- Where is your head pain located and how severe is it?
- How often do you get headaches?
- Is there anything that makes your headache better or worse?
- Does anyone in your family get frequent headaches?
- How do you feel before, during, and after the headache?
Be as accurate and truthful as possible when answering. Each of these questions helps your doctor pinpoint triggers that can determine whether you’re having a classic migraine or a hormonal headache.
Diagnostic testing for hormonal headaches
There are no diagnostic tests that specifically identify whether your headaches are classic migraines or hormonal. However, your physician may order bloodwork and imaging tests like CT scans or MRIs to rule out other causes for your headaches.
Your doctor might ask you to keep a migraine or headache journal. Documenting when you get symptoms, what you were doing when they happened, and how long they lasted can help your doctor determine if you’re having a classic migraine or a hormonal headache. You may even be able to use the information to prevent flare-ups.
How to get rid of a hormonal headache
Now for the best part of this entire article. You’ve gone through the process and decided you’re having a hormonal headache. How do you get rid of it?
Traditional solutions for hormone headaches
There are traditional medications – over-the-counter and prescription – that can ease your symptoms and reduce the likelihood of future occurrences. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help with pain once an attack has started. Migraine-specific prescription medications called triptans can reduce the intensity of hormonal headaches.
If you have frequent hormonal headaches, your doctor may explore preventative therapy that can include:
- Calcium channel blockers.
You also might be a candidate for hormone replacement therapy if your hormone imbalance is such that it’s significantly impacting the quality of your life.
Natural solutions for hormonal headaches
Not everyone likes to rely on prescription medications for headache relief (me included). Prescription medications and even some over-the-counter pain relievers come with scary side effects. Here are some all-natural alternatives that can effectively relieve your pain so you can get back to enjoying life.
- Apply pain spray. Premiere’s Pain Spray isn’t just for joint and muscle pain relief. With menthol, eucalyptus, and peppermint oil as active ingredients, you can massage a small amount into your temples and the base of your neck to get immediate respite from your hormonal headache pain.
- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can bring on a hormonal headache or make one worse. Make sure you drink the right amount for your body size daily. Here's an effective tool for figuring out just how much water you need.
- Embrace the power of essential oils. Essential oils can help alleviate symptoms associated with many common ailments. Some people have found chamomile, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, and rosemary essential oils effective in combating hormonal headache pain. You can diffuse them or consider applying them directly to the affected area.
- Get a massage. If you want to regulate your hormones naturally, regular massage therapy sessions can help. Massage helps keep cortisol – the hormone that triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response – in check. It also can be an effective method for easing pain if you already have a headache.
You don’t have to let your hormones ruin your day. Talk with your doctor, and give these all-natural solutions a try to keep hormone headaches under control.
Shari Berg is a researcher, frequent blogger, feature writer, and author of Wars End with Me.
- CT (Computer Tomography) Scan. my.clevelandclinic.org. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH) Levels Test. medlineplus.gov. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone (GnRH). my.clevelandclinic.org. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- Headaches. menopause.org. Accessed July 20, 2022.
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- Headaches in Early Pregnancy. stanfordchildrens.org. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- Hormone therapy: Is it right for you? mayoclinic.org. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- Hormonal contraception in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: choices, challenges, and noncontraceptive benefits. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- Migraine. mayoclinic.org. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). my.clevelandclinic.org. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). womenshealth.gov. Accessed July 20, 2022.
- The complex relationship between estrogen and migraines: a scoping review. systematicreviewsjournal.biomedcentral.com. Accessed July 20, 2022.