Head Off Headaches, Naturally

One in four people who get headaches, and 30 percent of migraine sufferers, blame certain foods and drinks.  Fortunately, science can help you protect your noggin.  Beyond the great results of chiropractic and Active Release Technique, here are a few other medicine-free options to try:


Caffeine: Throbbing caffeine-withdrawal headaches affect nearly half of caffeinated-beverage drinkers.  Caffeine narrows blood vessels, so missing your daily dose lets major arteries in the brain expand…ouch!  “The more caffeine you regularly get, the bigger your chances for a headache if you miss your morning cupful or have it later than usual,” notes Vincent Martin, M.D., director of the Headache and Facial Pain Center at UC Health in Cincinnati.  Aim to keep your caffeine habit consistent day-to-day.

Skipping Meals: Giving up lunch to power through your day leaves you more than just hungry.  Plummeting blood sugar can make your head hurt when brain cells react to low levels their favorite fuel.  One in five migraine sufferers, and one in seven people who get headaches say that hunger can kick-start the pain.  In fact, daytime fasting (eating only at night) nearly tripled migraine risk in people who regularly get them, according to a study in the Journal of Headache and Pain.

Alcohol: Hungover?  Thank dehydration for your headache.  Plus, when you drink, your liver makes excess acetaldehyde as it breaks down alcohol, and this compound can make blood vessels in your brain expand and throb.  As for migraines, in a recent survey of 116 patients at a neurology clinic, 39 percent reported that sipping alcoholic drinks triggers migraines–but there’s more at play than just the alcohol.  Alcoholic drinks, particularly red wine, contain artery-dilating histamines and flavonoids that affect serotonin levels (researchers believe that changes in this brain chemical may cause or worsen head pain.)


Maybe/Maybe Not Triggers:

MSG: Forget “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” says a review of MSG food tests involving 635 people in the Journal of Headache and Pain.  One early study found that women reported headaches after eating MSG.  But the researchers cautioned that MSG’s distinct taste (at the high does subjects received) could have resulted in a placebo effect.  Add caution for now.

Chocolate: Two decades ago, estimates said up to 42 percent of migraine sufferers got smacked down by this treat.  But chocolate’s been downgraded to a niche nuisance.  When 326 migraines tracked their diets for 3 months, only 2.5 percent of them named chocolate as at rigger, reported a 2016 study.

Tyramine: Found naturally in many foods, including beer, cheese, sausage and yeast breads, this amino acid was demonized as a migraine trigger in the 11960’s and ’70’s.  But scientific opinion has shifted, Martin says: “Older studies that found a link were not well-designed and more-recent studies have not found a clear connection.”

Sulfites: Migraine-sparking wine may contain sulfites, but the sulfites might not be to blame.  A recent review out of the Headache Center of Rio in Brazil found that foods that also contain sulfites (often at higher levels than wine), such as dried fruit aren’t pain triggers, while low- or no-sulfite wine can still trigger head pain.

Written by Sari Harrar for Eating Well magazine


Looking to prevent headaches naturally,

Dr. Phil Kotzan, DC