Certain foods can trigger that familiar dull, aching pain.

By Rebecca Norris
October 23, 2020
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The occasional headache is normal. But pounding, recurring ones? Not so much. While they are an excruciating reality for those with migraine disorders, as a general rule of thumb, frequent head pain points to something larger about your overall health. In fact, according to board-certified naturopathic doctor Dr. Olivia Audrey, in some cases, headaches can be a sign of neurological or chronic health issues; at the very least, they are symptoms of emotional or environmental stress. The latter involves a myriad of things, from the scent of your space to your diet. And believe it or not, what you eat (or don't eat) just may be the biggest pain-inducing factor. That's why we spoke with a few of doctors, Dr. Audrey included, to determine the correlation between headaches and your diet—here's what they have to say on the topic.

Credit: Getty / Fiordaliso

The Connection

Outside of migraine disorders, allergy side effects, and reactions to chemicals and strong scents, the most common cause of headaches is the food you consume. "A great deal of attention has been paid to food triggers because unlike the other categories of triggers, we have complete control over the foods we eat," says Dr. Michael Teixido, the co-founder and vice president of the Association of Migraine Disorders. While Dr. Teixido—who is an ear, nose, and throat physician with a sub-specialization in neurotology (neurology and neurosurgery of ear ailments)—says that there are hundreds of potential food triggers for migraines, in general, they typically fall into two categories: complex chemical byproducts of food aging and fermentation and foods with chemicals similar to neurotransmitters our brains use.

"Byproducts of food aging are found in fermented, aged, [or yeast-containing] products like red wine, aged cheeses, fresh bread, craft beer, and yogurt," he explains. "Foods with chemicals similar to our own neurotransmitters which may aggravate migraines are coffee, chocolate, MSG, and the nitrates used as preservatives in many of our prepackaged foods." In essence, this means treats that are high in sugar and processed foods are most likely to encourage headaches. Still, it's worth noting that severe headaches aren't necessarily the result of simply including these foods into your diet—restricting them can cause pain, as well. If you are used to eating items within these categories at every meal, cutting them out can cause a type of painful withdrawal.

Going Cold Turkey

Either way, if you find yourself with an aching head in your hands, Dr. Teixido recommends a dietary trial to determine whether or not a specific food is to blame. "If good results are not achieved within a few weeks of restricting headache-inducing foods, a more comprehensive diet, which eliminates all potential migraine triggers, can be tried," he explains. But take caution, he adds: "Our experience with many patients is that those who attempt 100-percent diet list compliance create stress for themselves and for their families. This can be counterproductive, as stress is guaranteed to make migraine symptoms worse."

Pain Relief

In terms of diet-related migraines, cutting out those headache-inducing foods is the first step. Relief might not be immediate, which is why Dr. Audrey says both over-the-counter headache medication and natural remedies can be beneficial in the short term. "Chamomile tea is great for stress headaches, as is aromatherapy," she explains. "Scents such as ylang-ylang and jasmine can also have anti-vasodilation qualities, which can help ease the stress and pain caused by headaches."

Dr. Teixido notes that one of the most effective natural ways to ward off headaches is a daily dose of magnesium. "Migraine sufferers have been shown to have low levels of magnesium in their cells; this does not always show up on routine blood tests," he explains. "Taking 500 milligrams twice a day may be very helpful for some—and is safe unless you have severe kidney disease." Other research-backed migraine mitigators include coenzyme-Q (which Dr. Teixido says has been shown to reduce headaches by as much as 50 percent) and riboflavin (or vitamin B12), which he recommends taking 400 milligrams of each day. Again, results won't be immediate—these remedies are not effective at the time of a headache and may take weeks to improve headache severity or reduce frequency.

Talk to a Doctor

If you're considering the supplement route, speak with your doctor before adding anything into your routine. A visit with your physician is also beneficial if you attempt a baseline elimination diet to no avail. "Anytime there is a consistent pattern of headaches or vision changes, you should consult your doctor or healthcare professional," Dr. Audrey explains. "Typically, a common headache is one that is less severe and brought on by an external stimulant or stressor and shorter in duration. Anything outside those parameters can be a different classification of migraine, which can be treated by your doctor."

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