Beat the pounding: Avoiding foods that trigger headaches

Stress, hormone changes, physical exertion, certain medications and intense sensory stimuli can all trigger headaches or migraines but food can also act as a major trigger for many people.


The following foods are among the most common offenders. If you are prone to headaches or migraines and discover that one of the foods listed here is a trigger, then you know that you need to avoid that particular food if you want to minimise migraine frequency. Unfortunately symptoms often don’t hit you immediately after eating these foods, so you need to keep a diary for several weeks to notice a pattern. The time lag is due to the fact that the problem arises when the food reaches the liver, and should be broken down by enzymes. 


Tyramine or phenylethylamine:

Two amino acids found in chocolate, aged or fermented cheese, soya foods, all nuts and most seeds, citrus fruits, and vinegar (red and balsamic). Bear in mind that tyramine content in food increases over time, especially if food is improperly stored; so you may need to avoid eating leftovers.



Beer, red wine, sherry, and vermouth contain large amounts of tyramine, which can cause migraines. In addition, all alcohol can cause dehydration, which also can trigger headaches.



Tea, red-skinned apples and pears, apple juice and cider, and red wine, which contain tannins.


Deli meats and other foods containing nitrites:

These include pepperoni, bacon, hot dogs, sausages (including chicken, turkey and soya sausages/bacon/hot dogs that list nitrites in their ingredients), bologna, pastrami, jerky (beef and turkey), corned beef, and all other beef/poultry/pork/wild game/fish that has been cured, smoked, pickled, canned or preserved with nitrites. 



This preservative is commonly found in wine (more so in white wine), most dried fruits (including prunes, figs, apricots), canned vegetables and many processed foods. Check labels.



Check labels carefully and avoid foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolysed plant protein (HPP) and any products claiming to have “natural flavour” or “natural flavourings.”



Be cautious of foods and beverages made with this artificial sweetener.



People with sensitivity to caffeine can develop migraines after drinking black tea, green tea, coffee, cola soft drinks, or other caffeinated soft drinks. But caffeine can also be used to stop a migraine that is just beginning — that’s why many over-the-counter migraine medications contain caffeine. Test your personal response to caffeine. If it gives you headaches, avoid it.


Nutrients, supplements and self-help tips to reduce headaches:


  • Magnesium helps your muscles to relax and a deficiency can trigger headaches. So make sure your diet includes foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, soya beans and whole grains. One study showed that women who took 300 mg twice a day of magnesium reported fewer headaches than those who did not.  (An excellent form of magnesium I use in the clinic is Magnesium EAP, see the Resources Page).
  • Make sure your diet is rich in essential fatty acids – especially omega 3 – found in oily fish, nuts and seeds. Another study suggested that migraine sufferers showed a significant reduction in symptoms when they took omega 3 fish oils every day.  With migraines the blood vessels in the brain constrict and then dilate.  These engorged blood vessels irritate and inflame the nerves.  This stimulates the vessels to swell further, causing a cycle of pain which can last for hours or even days.  Prostaglandins can also be stimulated and there can be an increase in the production of PGE2 or ‘bad’ prostaglandins, which can increase the inflammatory response and pain.  Omega 3 fatty acids produce PGE3, the ‘good’ prostaglandin, which is anti-inflammatory and that is why they can help to reduce the pain during a migraine attack.  (I use Omega 3 Plus which is an excellent fish oil combination of both EPA and DHA – see the Resources Page).
  • Folic acid, the vitamin found in dark green leafy vegetables, which lowers the risk of birth defects, may help reduce the risk of migraines with auras according to new research.
  • One study showed that 70 percent of migraine sufferers had less frequent attacks when taking the herb feverfew. Feverfew blocks the production of the inflammatory prostaglandin PGE2. 
  • Some women only get premenstrual or menstrual migraines and in this case it is important that your liver is functioning efficiently.  Your liver eliminates hormones and waste products and can help to eliminate ‘old’ hormones safely and efficiently during each cycle.  To improve liver function use the herb milk thistle.  The more effectively your liver is working, the better it will be able to deal with fluctuating hormones leading up to your period.  A healthy liver will also be able to produce all the enzymes needed to break down certain foods that might trigger a migraine.  (See the Resources Page for a good milk thistle.).


Missing meals or nutrients can trigger a headache so make sure you don’t leave more than three hours between meals and snacks.


Activities that require repetitive motion such as chewing gum or grinding teeth can also trigger headaches.


Learn to relax. By reducing muscles tension you may be able to ward off a fair number of headaches. Sit or lie down in a dark, quiet room for 20 minutes. Place an ice pack on your forehead. Tension headaches sometimes respond better to the application of heat. When headaches or migraines play a part in your process, try to regard them as evidence that the body needs time to be alone, to recharge. Lie in total silence, in complete darkness, and sleep, if possible, until the headache is gone.


Regular exercise and stretching can prevent many tension headaches.

Treat yourself to a neck, shoulder and head massage. Whether it is a traditional massage or acupressure, releasing physical tension and improving circulation can promote feelings of wellbeing and even prevent headaches. Simply rubbing your temples can relieve pain.


It is also possible to suffer pain as a result of taking too many painkillers. It can be a vicious circle as many over-the-counter painkillers contain codeine or caffeine, which makes them addictive. It is also possible to develop an intolerance to painkillers so that the dosage has to be increased to get an effect, which leads to a rebound headache and a need for more painkillers.


Note: Don’t ignore headaches that occur over and over again. They could be a sign of an underlying health problem. If you have tried various DIY measures or your headaches become more intense or persistent ask your doctor for advice.

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