June 28, 2014

Headaches: Foods that help, foods that hurt

Friends and family suffering from headaches ask me for dietary advice regularly, so I'd like to address the topic here. The people I know experience daily headaches rather than migraines and both can be debilitating, negatively affecting quality of life.  This topic is vast and complicated so I'm going to do a small series about nutrition and headaches.  First, I'll talk food then present some information on supplements.  The research available is compelling!  My friends with headaches see many specialists and get prescribed treatments and medications.  Some are left being told there's nothing they can do.  If this is the case, why not try some dietary changes or a simple supplement?  If your treating physician is open to it, what do you have to lose?

Foods that may help 
When using food to improve headache symptoms or reduce incidence and severity, think calming inflammation, preventing constriction of blood vessels and adjusting potential deficiencies. Including the foods below would be healthy anyhow and maybe they could help with headaches, too!
1.  Omega 3 fatty acids
 Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, algae, flax and walnuts help prevent constriction of blood vessels, which may help to improve headache symptoms.   And of course, omega-3's are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.  Less inflammation=less pain.
2.  Being hydrated 
Stay on top of a headache by hydrating with water early and often.   When you don't have enough fluid on board, your sensitive brain gets irritated and is affected by the drop in blood pressure.    

3.  Nuts, seeds and beans
There is a whole lot of information on magnesium and headaches out there.  Some go so far as to say that a migraine sufferer is more likely to be magnesium deficient than someone without headaches.  Many foods contain this mineral, so this is an easy thing to increase in the diet.  Magnesium is known as a natural muscle relaxer and a calming agent.  Try: pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, black beans, unprocessed organic tofu or edamame, and quinoa.

4.  Green leafies
Green leafy veggies like spinach, kale, and beet greens contain both magnesium as well as riboflavin which is also shown to help with headaches and migraines.  Increase your green leafy vegetables (for many reasons) and include eggs, mushrooms and tempeh in your diet as well. 

Foods that may hurt
Everyone is different, but what if you have a sensitivity to one of the foods known to cause or increase headaches?  It might be worth trying to avoid one or more of these categories while keeping a food journal to see if there are any improvements as you experiment.   To this this right, meet with a doctor or dietitian who specializes in headache elimination diets.  

1.  Ripe banana, avocado, and dried fruit (figs, raisins)
This is an easy place to start. The sulfites in dried fruits can trigger headaches in some.  The other fruits contain potential headache triggers tyramine and histamine.

2.   Tyramine-containing foods
Tyramine is a substance that occurs in foods as they age  (think cheese, processed meat, soy sauce/tempeh and pickles/olives).  It crosses the blood-brain barrier and has long been linked to headaches and migraines.   If this could be a trigger for you, there are low-tyramine diets available and a dietitian could help you with that.  For now, try avoiding:  Blue cheese, Brie, Cheddar, Feta, Gorgonzola, Mozzarella, Muenster, Parmesan, and Swiss cheeses.  Cut out pickles, olives and anything fermented.  While you're at it, you may as well try avoiding all dairy because there is some evidence that this can help as well. 

3.  Alcohol
All alcohol (especially red wine or champagne) can trigger headaches.  Alcohol increases blood flow to the brain and can also contain unwanted preservatives and additives. 

4.  Food Additives
This one is also easier - don't eat processed foods.  Nitrates/nitrites (think hot dogs) and MSG (sauces and flavoring packets) have been linked to headaches in some people.

American Academy of Neurology (AAN) 
American Headache Society (AHS)  
Natural Medicines Database
Life Extension

*Whoa!  I'm not a doctor, I'm a dietitian.  The info above is not intended to take the place of a doctors advice.  If you have headaches, you need to get them checked out by a specialist for safety.  The advice here is not intended to treat or take the place of working with an MD.  Always check with your doctor before you experiment with any of my information - it is for informational purposes only on this site.  


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