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Food and Headaches
More than 90% of people would experience headaches during their lifetime. However, about half of the people are prone to frequent headaches. That is a considerable number of people. Fortunately, 98% of all headaches are benign and readily managed. Headaches are the cause of concern only in about 2% of cases1.
Headaches are pretty challenging to understand as they occur due to many reasons. In some, it may occur due to vascular changes in the brain, sometimes caused by certain foods. In other cases, headaches may occur due to the impact of nutrition on brain cells.
Studies show that headaches are more complex than imagined, and they are now regarded as a neurological disorders. Just take an example of migraine headaches. Researchers used to think that they are related to changes in blood vessels due to the throbbing nature of headaches. However, that theory failed to explain aura, or how psychological stress trigger migraine or other headaches.
Since foods, aromas, environmental changes, emotional stress, and other factors may trigger headaches, it is clear that they occur due to some peculiarities of the brain or even some pathological changes.
Common Types of Headaches
Chronic headache disorder may not kill, but it causes considerable disability and significantly impacts social life. Unfortunately, though headaches are so common, science does not understand their cause and the underlying mechanism.
The most common headaches are tension headaches, migraine, and cluster headaches1.
Tension headaches are dull and usually slow to start. They often hurt both sides of the head and are symmetrical. They may last for a few hours to days. As the name suggests, they mainly occur due to mental stress.
Migraine headaches are throbbing headaches that start with aura. They cause severe pain, nausea, and even vomiting. Light sensitivity is also common in migraines. All this points to the complex nature of these pains. These pains occur due to some changes in the brain.
Cluster headaches have a sudden onset and may affect a part of the head like one eye and cause watery eyes. There might be several headache attacks in a short time with changing locations.
Foods can trigger just any kind of headache, but they are more likely to play a role in migraine headaches. They might play a role in a tension headache or cause other types of headaches, too.
Foods that Trigger Headaches and Underlying Mechanism
Although there is no doubt that foods can trigger headaches, science is struggling to understand the underlying mechanism. It is very difficult to understand due to limited knowledge of the brain's working.
But that is not all, food items contain thousands of chemical compounds, and it is difficult to guess what compound triggers headaches. For example, foods contain preservatives, caffeine, alcohol, amino acids, tannins, sulfates, nitrates, and much more.
Some of the foods that are well known to trigger headaches in some individuals are aged cheese, alcohol, various nuts, organ meat, pickled foods, beans, onions, canned foods, and many more.
The problem in understanding the underlying mechanism is that one food item may cause headaches in some, while other foods may be in others. There is no uniformity or consistency. Very few foods like high alcohol consumption may cause headaches in most cases.
Nonetheless, studies have identified some of the underlying mechanisms or ways in which specific foods may trigger headaches.
One such reason for headaches is the high content of histamines in some foods like red wine. But not only that, but histamines are also in egg white, fish, strawberries, citrus fruits, and other foods. So if a person is sensitive to histamine, consuming these histamine-rich foods may trigger headaches2.
An amino acid called tyramine may trigger headaches in many. It is known to affect blood vessels and play a role in regulating blood pressure. Products rich in this amino acid, like aged cheese, sour cream, and even red wine, may elicit headaches. Some EEG studies show that tyramine may also have a role in triggering migraine headaches3.
Another reason for headaches could be food intolerances. Food intolerances are common, and so are the headaches in people living with the condition. However, researchers have struggled to understand the underlying mechanism. It could be due to some chemicals or irritation of nerve endings. Food intolerances may affect the gut-brain axis, which may ultimately cause severe headaches.
Another well-known mechanism is the impact of foods on blood vessels. Foods can alter the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Additionally, some foods may directly impact blood vessels in the brain, like high alcohol consumption. But then, there is a significant role of individual food sensitivities, too.
Despite decades of research, there are limitations to these understandings. For example, science still cannot say the exact reason for headaches after some foods. Experts think that some foods cause the secretion of vasoactive substances, while others affect neurotransmitters' availability.
Perhaps the most effective way of preventing headaches caused by foods is to identify the food item that triggers headaches. The next step is just to avoid those foods.
In some cases, doctors can identify histamine or tyramine-associated headaches. This is done by a challenge test. This means that a person is given that food in a high dose to confirm if it causes a headache. Thus, a challenge test by red wine may confirm sensitivity to histamine, and aged cheese may demonstrate sensitivity to tyramine.
Once doctors have identified the cause of headaches or foods that a person is sensitive to, the next step is excluding those foods from the diet. For example, if a challenge test for red wine is positive, it is necessary to switch to a low histamine diet4. It is a matter of some trials and errors to identify all foods that cause headaches in an individual.
In the case of food intolerances, just avoid the foods that are difficult to digest. Switching to gluten-free, low fats, FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols) free diet may also help in many cases. These diets may also help control other symptoms like bloating and abdominal distress and may positively impact mood.
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- Ahmed F. Headache disorders: differentiating and managing the common subtypes. Br J Pain. 2012;6(3):124-132. doi:10.1177/2049463712459691
- Wantke F, Götz M, Jarisch R. The red wine provocation test: intolerance to histamine as a model for food intolerance. Allergy Proc. 1994;15(1):27-32. doi:10.2500/108854194778816599
- Moffett A, Swash M, Scott DF. Effect of tyramine in migraine: a double-blind study. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1972;35(4):496-499.
- Wantke F, Götz M, Jarisch R. Histamine-free diet: treatment of choice for histamine-induced food intolerance and supporting treatment for chronical headaches. Clinical & Experimental Allergy. 1993;23(12):982-985. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2222.1993.tb00287.x