Headaches and food: What’s the connection?

Headaches aren’t always hangover-related but, one thing that is for sure is that they’re always uncomfortable, inconvenient, and we’d rather live life without them. And, while sometimes the cause is environmental or physiological, research shows that diet may play a notable role.

A man sits with his hand on his head as he works

So, we’ve rounded up the top food-related preventive measures that you can take, to ease the pain.

Identify your own triggers

Especially if you’re experiencing headaches regularly, keep a food diary for a couple of weeks to see if you notice any patterns.

Pay special attention to common trigger foods: chocolate, cheese, beer, wine, cured meats and soy sauce. These are all rich in histamine that can cause blood vessels to either swell or dilate. This is what can cause you to have a headache or leave you feeling flushed, itchy and miserable – particularly during the summer months.

Tyramine-rich foods may also cause migraines. So, be mindful of these types of foods: avocados, bananas, cabbage, canned fish, potatoes, raspberries, red plums, tomatoes and yeast.

Watch your blood sugar

Low blood sugar, in particular, could be a trigger. Support blood sugar by eating protein at each meal and try to avoid refined white foods i.e. sugar, white bread, rice and pasta, cakes, breakfast cereals. Look to replace these with whole-grain, complex carbohydrates.

Eat on the reg

Be sure to eat a good breakfast and don’t skip meals. Research has found that timing is an important dietary trigger for migraines and headaches. Going without food could induce a migraine, especially in young children.

You may notice that missing breakfast or going on a diet makes your symptoms worse, too. Sometimes all you need is a quick snack to raise your blood sugar levels and that can prevent the onset of a headache.

Drink plenty

Staying hydrated is really important for reducing headaches and overall fatigue. And when we say drink plenty, we mean plenty of water.

Particularly if you regularly suffer from headaches or migraines, try to avoid alcohol as much as possible. Or, where possible, choose light coloured drinks like gin or vodka over red wine or dark liquors, which tend to have lower amounts of headache-inducing histamine and sulfites.

Also, be mindful of your caffeine intake. Experts recommend limiting your intake to no more than around 300-400 mg per day, which works out to around two or three cups of coffee. Also, it’s good to be consistent with your intake. It’s advisable not to go heavy on the caffeine one day, only to go cold turkey the day after.

Chopping kale

Avoid inflammatory foods

An excessive amount of foods containing both omega-6 and arachidonic acid may lead to inflammation if eaten in excess. These foods include baked foods, vegetable oils, fried foods, high intake of grain-fed meat and dairy.

Grass-fed meat and dairy contain more anti-inflammatory omega 3 fat, so if eating meat and dairy, it is better to opt for grass-fed.

Increase the colour

It’s always good to try and eat a balanced diet, containing a wide variety of foods with as many colours on your plate as you can manage. But, it’s particularly good to up your intake of anti-inflammatory, colourful foods such as salmon, mackerel, berries, carrots, peppers, apples, sweet potato and green leafy vegetables.

Especially greens like kale, spinach and chard, which are loaded with the B vitamin folate and magnesium.

Increase magnesium-rich foods

Research has suggested migraine sufferers can show a deficiency in magnesium. Foods that contain magnesium are broccoli, cauliflower, kale, beans, nuts and seeds.

A supplement with higher levels of magnesium may be useful but be sure to check with your GP or nutritionist before taking any supplements. 

Is it a headache or a migraine?

Migraines are more than just headaches; the pain is severe and throbbing in nature and can last several days. Sometimes you may experience a visual disturbance, such as dizziness which may also be accompanied by nausea or even vomiting.

A migraine attack usually means lying very still until it passes and this can be up to 72 hours. They can be a very dilapidating condition.

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between a headache and a migraine so keeping a diary of symptoms may be useful.

How can a nutritionist help with migraines?

The way you manage your migraine will be unique according to your symptoms and triggers. If you believe food to be a major trigger, you could be able to control your symptoms by identifying the trigger foods, avoiding them for a few weeks and documenting the effects.

Speaking with a nutritionist should ensure that whatever you do is right for you, personally. A nutritionist will construct a diet plan tailored to your own needs and preferences. They will offer the knowledge, experience and support to help you enjoy food while avoiding the debilitating effects of migraines.

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Written by Becky Banham
Becky is Brand and Social Strategist for Happiful and a writer for Nutritionist Resource.
Written by Becky Banham
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