You’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s never had a headache in their life. But while some of us get away with the odd headache, many others suffer from debilitating migraines that interfere with their daily life and work.1 Some headaches are driven by bodily changes and other factors like stress or sleep deprivation. But did you know that dietary factors can play a part as well, particularly in migraines? In fact, certain foods act as triggers in around 10% of people who get migraines.2
Let’s take a look and see if what you’re eating could be causing that headache.
1. Aged Cheese
Cheese contains a compound known as tyramine, which is formed when protein breaks down. Tyramine is known to cause migraines. When cheeses are aged they have a higher tyramine content. Other factors like differences in fermentation, processing, or degradation can also have an effect on tyramine content. Swiss, feta, mozzarella, brie, parmesan, swiss, gorgonzola, muenster, blue cheeses, and cheddar are some cheeses high in tyramine.3
Interestingly, there’s another take on it. According to some experts, chocolate may not actually be a trigger. Rather, a craving for things like chocolate may be an early sign of a migraine attack.6
Alcohol is another food that’s associated with headaches. Sulfites present in alcohol could be responsible for that throbbing headache. And alcoholic drinks with higher sulfite content may increase your chances of getting a migraine. Alcohol can also lead to dehydration, which can cause headaches. Red wine, whiskey, beer, and champagne are some alcoholic drinks that have commonly been found to trigger headaches.7
4. Processed Meats
Nitrates and nitrites are used as preservatives in many processed and cured meats. These preservatives can dilate your blood vessels, which may cause headaches in some people. Ham, bacon, sausage, and pepperoni commonly contain nitrates or nitrites.8
5. Monosodium Glutamate
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is thought to trigger migraines in 10 to 15% of people who suffer from this condition.9 It is a salt of the amino acid glutamic acid and is naturally present in foods like cheese, tomato, soy extracts, and yeast extract. It’s also added to certain foods like soy sauce to enhance flavor.10
6. Cold Foods
Some people get headaches when cold foods move across their mouth or throat. These are commonly known as “icecream headaches,” although other cold foods like frozen popsicles or cold drinks can also cause this effect.
Although it’s not completely clear why this happens, it could be because blood vessels at the top of your mouth or the back of your throat constrict and dilate when touched by a cold substance. Pain receptors then send a message to your brain, which misreads the discomforting sensations as coming from your head rather than your mouth. Around 30 to 40 percent of people who don’t generally get headaches seem to experience icecream headaches. They are also more common in people who suffer from migraines.11
7. Certain Fruits And Vegetables
Avocados, citrus fruits, onions, bananas, and broad beans have been found to trigger migraine headaches in some people.12 One possible reason for these healthy foods going rogue is that they all contain tyramine.13 14
Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener that is added to processed foods. It is also available under various brand names as a tabletop sweetener. Research has found that it can trigger headaches in some people. One study which looked at about 170 patients from the headache unit of a medical center found that it was reported as a trigger by 8.2% of the subjects.15
id="fermented-foods">9. Fermented Foods
Fermentation increases tyramine in foods. And certain fermented foods like teriyaki sauce, miso, and soy sauce have been found to act as headache triggers.16
Caffeine is found in common foods like coffee, colas, chocolate, and tea. Caffeine may not be a direct trigger for headaches but if you habitually consume a large amount of it you could experience “caffeine rebound headaches” or withdrawal. According to the National Headache Foundation, you should be able to consume about 200mg of caffeine a day without problems. But, if you suffer from headaches frequently, it might be best to avoid daily use.17
How Do You Know What’s Triggering Your Headache?
As we saw a range of foods can trigger headaches. However, the connection between food and headaches can be a very personal one. While research may have found certain foods commonly cause headaches, do remember that this is also an individual-specific thing – what acts as a trigger for one person might not act as a trigger for another.
So how do you identify your individual triggers? Keep a headache diary where you jot down things like when and where you got the headache, what you ate and drank in a 24 hour period before you got it, how much sleep you got etc. This will help you identify patterns relating to your headaches and spot things that might be triggering them.18
Also, do keep in mind that sometimes a headache can be indicative of a serious problem. Do check in with a doctor if you have severe headaches that come on suddenly or if your headache occurs along with other symptoms like fever, a stiff neck, loss of consciousness, pain in your ear or eye, or confusion.19
|↑1||Headaches. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑2, ↑6||Common triggers. The Migraine Trust.|
|↑3||Low-Tyramine Diet for Migraine.
|↑4, ↑9||Diet. American Migraine Foundation.|
|↑5||Dark Chocolate. University of Michigan.|
|↑7||Alcohol and Migraine.
|↑8, ↑14||Low-Tyramine Diet for Migraine. National Headache Foundation.|
|↑10||Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.|
|↑11||By the way, doctor: What causes ice-cream headache?.
|↑12||Migraine. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑13||Avoid Food Drug Interactions. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.|
|↑15||Lipton, Richard B., Lawrence C. Newman, Joel S. Cohen, and Seymour Solomon. “Aspartame as a dietary trigger of headache.” Headache: The Journal of head and face pain 29, no. 2 (1989): 90-92.|
|↑16||Why That Banana or Onion Might Feel Like Three Martinis. The Wall Street Journal.|
|↑17||Does Caffeine Trigger or Treat Headaches?.
|↑18||Managing migraines at home. National Institutes of Health.|