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Diseases & Conditions

Headaches and Food

By tracking your headache episodes through your headache diary, you may be able to identify specific foods that trigger your headaches.

Not only can specific foods trigger a headache, but dietary habits can also play a role. Fasting, dehydration, or skipping meals may cause headaches in some people.

Some of the most common foods, beverages, and additives associated with headaches include:

Aged Cheese

For people who take monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) medications, avoidance of all foods containing tyramine — including aged cheeses, red wine, alcoholic beverages, and some processed meats — is essential.

Tyramine is found naturally in some foods. It is formed from the breakdown of protein as foods age. Generally, the longer a high-protein food ages, the greater the tyramine content. The amount of tyramine in cheeses differs greatly due to the variations in processing, fermenting, aging, degradation, or even bacterial contamination.

The following types of cheeses have been reported to be high in tyramine:

  • Blue cheeses
  • Brie
  • Cheddar
  • English stilton
  • Feta
  • Gorgonzola
  • Mozzarella
  • Muenster
  • Parmesan
  • Swiss
Alcohol

Blood flow to your brain increases when you drink alcohol. Some scientists blame the headache on impurities in alcohol or by-products produced as your body metabolizes alcohol. Sulfites used as a preservative may also cause headache. The higher the sulfite content, the greater the chance of developing migraine. Alcohol also causes dehydration, which may also cause migraine. Red wine, beer, whiskey, Scotch, and champagne are the most commonly identified headache triggers.

Food additives

Food preservatives (or additives) contained in certain foods can trigger headaches. Nitrates and nitrites are additives in:

  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Sausage
  • Bacon
  • Lunch meats and deli-style meats
  • Pepperoni
  • Other cured or processed meats
  • Some heart medicines

These substances dilate blood vessels, causing headaches in some people.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a food additive/flavor enhancer that may trigger headaches. MSG is one of the active ingredients in soy sauce, meat tenderizer, Asian foods, and a variety of packaged foods. Be aware of labeling such as “hydrolyzed fat" or “hydrolyzed protein” or “all natural preservatives” since these are terms used synonymously with MSG.

Most symptoms begin within 20 to 25 minutes after consuming MSG. They include:

  • Pressure in the chest
  • Tightening and pressure in the face
  • Burning sensation in the chest, neck, or shoulders
  • Facial flushing
  • Dizziness
  • Headache pain across the front or sides of the head
  • Abdominal discomfort
Cold foods

This condition is caused by eating cold ice cream quickly or gulping ice drinks. It's more likely to occur if you are over-heated from exercise or hot temperatures. Pain, which is felt in the forehead, peaks 25 to 60 seconds and lasts from several seconds to one or two minutes. About one-third of people experience “head rushes”, or "ice cream headache" and more than 90 percent of migraine sufferers report an increased sensitivity to ice cream.

Other foods

These foods have been identified as triggers by some headache sufferers:

  • Peanuts, peanut butter, other nuts and seeds
  • Pizza or other tomato-based products
  • Potato chip products
  • Chicken livers and other organ meats, pate
  • Smoked or dried fish
  • Pickled foods (pickles, olives, sauerkraut)
  • Sourdough bread, fresh baked yeast goods (donuts, cakes, homemade breads, and rolls)
  • Brewer's yeast found in natural supplements
  • Bread, crackers, and desserts containing cheese
  • Most beans including lima, Italian, pole, broad, fava, navy, pinto, snow peas, garbanzo, lentils, and dried beans and peas
  • Onions
  • Avocados
  • Certain fresh fruits including ripe bananas, citrus fruits, papaya, red plums, raspberries, kiwi, pineapple
  • Dried fruits (figs, raisins, dates)
  • Soups made from meat extracts or bouillon (not homemade broth)
  • Cultured dairy products, sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt
Caffeine

Found in chocolate and cocoa; beverages such as coffee, tea, and colas; also found in certain medications. Small amounts may improve a migraine, but limit the amount to less than 300 mg/day or caffeine can produce a headache.

Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are linked to headaches in some people.

References

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 4/12/2011...#9648