Whether you’re experiencing a sudden headache, an incessant dull throbbing one, or a full-blown migraine, one thing is for sure—headaches hurt! And if you experience them on a regular basis, they can start to impact your quality of life and even become debilitating. If you’re a headache sufferer, take note: The foods you eat may be causing your headaches and even be making them more severe. Identifying food triggers, as well as ensuring that you eat more frequently, can help ease headache pain and perhaps put an end to them for good! Let’s take a look at some of the biggest headache triggers to watch out for:
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Tyramine is a substance that forms from the breakdown of proteins in certain foods. Some of us don’t have issues digesting this substance, while others can be quite sensitive to it. In fact, for those with a sensitivity or those on a medication that can inhibit the breakdown of tyramine (such as certain anti-depressant drugs), eating foods containing tyramine can bring on headaches and even intense migraines. Foods to watch out for: Tyramine is found in aged and fermented foods such as aged cheeses, cured meats, smoked fish and even in red wine and some beers. You can even find tyramine in pickles, avocados, and even raisins. If you notice you tend to get a headache or one intensifies after eating foods such as these, it’s possible that you have a sensitivity to tyramine and should limit your intake of foods rich in this substance.
Certain additives can increase blow flow to the brain and trigger a headache. This can include nitrates and even food colorings. Typically, headaches associated with food additives are felt on both sides of the head versus just one side (which is more common in classic migraines). Headaches usually come on within a specific period of time after consuming these additives and can be felt anywhere from immediately to a few hours after eating. When the substance is eliminated, you’ll usually feel relief. Foods to watch out for: Are you eating a large amount of processed foods? Do the foods you’re eating contain preservatives, chemicals, nitrates, or artificial colorings? If so, try removing these foods from your diet for one week and track your symptoms. If you notice an improvement, add a processed food with these ingredients back one day and see if it triggers a headache. If it does, aim to avoid these additives as much as possible.
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MSG, which stands for monosodium glutamate, can trigger a headache within an hour after consuming it. In addition, you may experience symptoms such as dizziness, abdominal discomfort, or even pressure in the chest and face. Although the exact mechanism of how MSG triggers these symptoms is debated, it is thought that it affects blood vessel vasoconstriction (the narrowing of blood vessels by small muscles in their walls). Foods to watch out for: MSG is often found in soy sauce, commercially prepared Chinese food, fast food, and many packaged foods. The FDA only requires labeling of MSG when it is added as a direct ingredient to food, which means it can go undetected in certain foods, such as those which use hydrolyzed proteins for flavoring. If you’re prone to headaches, avoid foods known to contain MSG. In addition, if certain processed foods or proteins with added flavorings seem to cause symptoms, it’s possible these foods contain low levels of MSG and you may do best with finding alternatives with little to no added ingredients.
It May Not be What You’re Eating, But How You’re Eating
Keep in mind, headaches are not only caused by what you’re eating, but can even be impacted by how you eat. Skipping meals and erratic eating patterns can cause drops in blood sugar which not only impact mood and energy levels, but can trigger headaches as well. Aim to eat a small meal or snack every 3-4 hours to keep your blood sugar levels steady to prevent headache-triggering crashes.
Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE.