Headaches and Hydration: Drink Up! (Part 1)

Hangovers, loud noises, bad smells, hunger, thirst, smoke, stress, tension, red wine, bad posture, worry, lack of sleep, allergies, bright lights, hormones, annoying relatives. What do all of these things have in common? Each item on this list can give you a headache. You’ve probably rubbed your brow once or twice over more than one or two of these triggers.

Today we’ll take a look at what is actually happening there in your noggin and explore some preventative measures – to keep that smile on your face as we dive into the heat of summer. Dehydration is a major headache producer. Given the season and the forecast, this is a real threat.

When dehydration sets in, your brain becomes as parched as your throat might feel. Your brain is like a sponge, sucking up water. And like a sponge, when it gets dry, it shrinks and pulls away from the skull. This pulling away signals the pain receptors in the membranous coverings of the brain and spinal cord. And blammo, headache time!

Doctors categorize two types of headaches: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are those that are not associated with other medical conditions. Secondary headaches are associated with conditions like infections (think sinus infection, sinus headache), head injury, tumors, dental conditions, etc. There are four main types of headaches (the first three are primary, the fourth secondary):

Migraine – Recurrent, often life-long, and characterized by recurring attacks.

Tension-type headache – The most common primary headache disorder. Its mechanism may be stress-related or associated with musculoskeletal problems in the neck. This headache is described as pressure or tightness, often like a band around the head, sometimes spreading into or from the neck.

Cluster Headache – Relatively uncommon, characterized by frequently recurring (up to several times a day), brief but extremely severe headache, usually focused in or around one eye, with tearing and redness of the eye, the nose runs or is blocked on the affected side and the eyelid may droop.

Medication-overuse headache – Caused by chronic and excessive use of medication to treat headache. (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs277/en/)

Dehydration can contribute to each of these types of headaches, but is fairly well known as  a migraine trigger. While staying hydrated will not necessarily preclude a migraine, it is a great first step toward a healthy brain (this back to the dried out sponge in paragraph three).

But how much is enough? The medical establishment typically recommends 8 ounces of water, 8 times a day. Which might feel like the whole ocean to some. But look at it this way – your body starts to dehydrate with every breath. When we perspire, when we urinate, we are losing water almost constantly. In order for the healthy function of body and brain, these liquids must be replenished.

8 x 8 is the commonly accepted hydration equation. But what your body needs will depend upon your body size, your environment, and your activity level. For example, if you are running a marathon in the desert, you’ll need to take on more water than if you are a desk jockey in an air conditioned office. Generally speaking, an average sized man in a temperate climate, should drink 3 liters (about 13 cups) of fluids daily, a woman in the same climate should drink 2.2 liters (about 9 cups).

The best way to know if you are drinking enough is to check your urine color. It should be straw-colored or transparent.