What foods and drinks are thought to trigger headaches in susceptible people?

First, it’s important to note that most of the information about possible food triggers of headache come from patient self reports and not from randomized scientific studies. Despite the lack of science, the most common foods and drinks reported to be potential headache triggers include:

  • Aged cheese (blue cheese, brie, cheddar, English stilton, feta, gorgonzola, mozzarella, muenster, parmesan, swiss)
  • Alcohol (red wine, beer, whiskey, Scotch, and champagne are the most commonly identified headache triggers)
  • Peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, and 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, garlic
  • Avocados
  • Certain fresh fruits, including ripe bananas, citrus fruits, papaya, red plums, raspberries, kiwi, and pineapple
  • Dried fruits (figs, raisins, dates)
  • Soups made from meat extracts or bouillon (not homemade broth or bouillon cubes that do not have MSG or “all natural preservatives” on the label)
  • Canned soups
  • Cultured dairy products, sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt
  • Chocolate
  • Caffeinated beverages, including coffee, tea and colas
  • Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners
  • Nitrate/nitrite-containing meats including hot dogs, sausage, bacon, lunchmeats/deli meats, pepperoni, other cured or processed meats
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) containing products including soy sauce, meat tenderizer, Asian foods, and a variety of packaged foods. MSG is an often disguised ingredient; also look for these common aliases: monopotassium glutamate, autolysed yeast, hydrolysed protein, sodium caseinate

How common are food triggered headaches?

Only about 20% of headache patients are thought to be food sensitive.

How do I determine which foods and drinks are my headache triggers?

One common suggestion for figuring out your own personal headache triggers is to track the foods and drinks you consume in a daily food headache diary. You may consider yourself to be sensitive to a certain food or drink if you get a headache consistently 20 minutes to 2 hours after eating that certain food.

However, keep in mind that even though it sounds simple to track what you eat to try to figure out what foods and beverages might trigger your headache, it’s not this simple.

Problems with food headache trackers

Is it truly the food or drink that is causing your headache or is it one of the many ingredients or chemicals in these foods? Foods consist of many ingredients that contain many chemicals. Chemicals include nitrates/nitrites, phenylethylamine, sulfites, tannins, tyramine, salicylates, aspartate, added sugar, alcohol, caffeine, gluten, glutamate and capsaicin to name a few.

Even beyond consumed foods, drinks and ingredients/chemicals are other factors that must be considered that may complicate identifying the true trigger of your headache. These factors include:

  • Have you had a recent change in headache medication or dose?
  • Did you miss/skip a meal or eat earlier or later than usual?
  • Are you staying well hydrated or do you think your intake of fluids was lower than typical before the headache started?
  • How many hours of sleep did you get the night before the headache?
  • What physical activity were you doing before the headache occurred?
  • Did any stressful events occur before the headache started?
  • What stage of the menstrual cycle (hormonal changes) were you in when the headache started?
  • What was the weather like before your headache started? (weather triggers may include bright sunlight, high humidity, stormy weather, high humidity for example)
  • Do you have a family history of headache?

With so many complicating factors, what’s the best approach to reduce my chance of getting a headache?

Being aware of foods, drinks and most importantly, the ingredients and chemicals that have been reported as headache triggers can be a helpful tool, a good starting point. Keep in mind that headache triggers vary from person to person. Also understand that pinpointing a headache trigger goes far beyond food/drink products that may have been consumed in the hours or even days before the headache started. So many other factors influence the occurrence of a headache.

So then, what can you do to lower your chance of headache? The best approach may be to begin to control known influencers of headache. A family history of headaches is something you cannot control. However, getting a good night’s sleep, not skipping meals, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and exercising regularly are some of the other things you can control.

As far as foods, drinks, and ingredients are concerned, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try to figure out if one or more food items (or ingredients) might be triggering your headache. Eliminate one item at a time over weeks or months and record this information in a headache diary. Only cut out a food if you have a high suspicion it causes headaches, otherwise you might remove foods you enjoy! In this diary, also track other factors that occurred within 24 hours of the headache (did you eat on time, skip meals, experience a stressful event, stage in menstrual cycle etc). With all of this information in hand, you can begin to sort out and discover for yourself the factors that provoke your headache.

Final advice about reducing the chance of any foods being headache triggers:

  • Eat a well-balanced healthy diet full of vegetables, fresh foods, and low fat protein.
  • Avoid processed (packaged) foods.
  • Do not miss meals.
  • If you do not recognize what is on the label, it is probably best not to eat it.

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