How many of us deal with sudden, sharp headaches for no reason at all or have had a bout of migraine after a meal? You will be surprised to know that it is more common than you think. There are many causes of a headache but diet is the one factor that we ignore as a trigger. Yet most of our solutions lie in identifying stressors in our food.
Every headache does not need to be associated with sharp pain, it can also be a mild discomfort in the head, scalp or upper neck region. It can be primary, tension-related, migraine and cluster-type. “There are certain scientifically proven triggers of headaches like stress, dehydration, sudden changes in weather, inadequate sleep, unhealthy diet, bright lights, loud noises and certain smells,” says Dr Ishank Goel, Associate Consultant Neurology, Fortis Hospital, Mohali. The idea is to identify the triggers and start working on them daily.
What are the foods that can trigger a headache, especially migraines?
People with migraines, adds Dr Goel, must avoid certain foods like cheese, chocolate and aerated or sweet drinks. These contain a compound called phenylethylamine which triggers migraine. Similarly, bananas and beers contain other triggers like histamine while ice-cream and wine have tyramine.
Dr Anurag Lamba, Associate Director, Neurology, Paras Health, Panchkula, lists nitrate-containing processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, deli meats, MSG, a flavour enhancer in processed food, and aspartame as well as other artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas and sugar-free gum.
Other triggers could be phenyl ethylamine, an amino acid found in chocolate, nuts, citrus fruits, soy foods, vinegar, alcoholic beverages and caffeine-containing beverages like coffee.
Inflammatory foods such as full cream dairy and gluten may be a cause of migraine for a few patients, as could be certain vegetables, including tomatoes and onions. Caffeine is a tricky one when it comes to migraine. Some people believe it to be a trigger rather than a relaxant.
Can food cravings cause headaches?
Cravings and hunger pangs, caused by low levels of blood sugar, may be the real trigger because by the time you find something appropriate to eat, it’s often too late — a headache or migraine attack may already be coming.
“More research is needed to understand if the true cause is hunger, food, or a combination of these. Another possible culprit could be food temperatures. Eating or drinking something that’s too hot or too cold may sometimes trigger an attack,” says Dr Sonia Gandhi, Head, Department of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, Fortis, Mohali.
Any foods which help prevent headaches and migraines?
Certain foods and drinks, believes Dr Gandhi, may help prevent headaches.
Magnesium-rich foods: Research on mostly White females shows that magnesium may offer migraine relief. Foods rich in magnesium include dark leafy greens, avocado and tuna.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Research indicates that increasing Omega-3 fatty acids may help people with migraine. Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids include fish, such as mackerel and salmon, seeds, and legumes.
Ketogenic foods: A keto diet may help reduce migraine attacks compared with a standard diet. Some people who get migraine attacks try to go on elimination diets (like keto) to fix the problem. Elimination diets that cut out entire food groups and essential quality nutrients can lead to malnutrition. In some cases, this may cause far more harm than good. It should be followed with expert advice and for a short span only to avoid deficiencies.
Water: Maintaining good hydration levels may help prevent migraine and reduce symptoms.
Certain changes to the eating pattern may include limiting sodium and fat or trying a low glycaemic diet, avoiding processed foods in favour of whole foods and avoiding additives like artificial flavourings, sweeteners or preservatives.