You eat lunch and suddenly have a splitting headache. You figure you must be tired or haven't had enough caffeine. You may be surprised to know that some foods may be to blame for your aching head.
Because headache sufferers vary in their sensitivity to certain foods, keep a food diary, either on paper or electronically. Have columns for time, foods eaten and amounts, and any headache symptoms. That way you can determine any patterns or changes in headache symptoms, based on what you eat. You can show your health care provider the log, too.
Learn more about Headache Help Without the Drugstore.
Here are some foods that can trigger headaches.
- Aged cheese
Aging helps some cheese taste better. Unfortunately, the longer cheese ages, the more tyramine it has. Tyramine may make your blood vessels narrow. When that happens, blood vessels in your head can widen to let more blood flow through. This can make your head throb. Cheeses high in tyramine include feta, cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan and blue cheese.
- Artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are used as sugar alternatives in many processed foods. However, these sweeteners can cause migraines. Aspartame—which is 150 times sweeter than sugar—is thought to trigger migraines, says the Mayo Clinic.
Bananas could trigger a migraine in people who are sensitive to tyramine. It's especially true with overripe ones; the tyramine levels become higher as the banana ages. Studies have found that the peel has more tyramine than the banana pulp. So avoid the stringy pieces of inner peel that stick to your banana.
- Ice cream
Ever experience brain freeze when you've eaten ice cream or an icy beverage? An ice cream headache usually comes on fast and hard. Then it disappears a minute or two later. When you slurp on a cold food like ice cream or an ice drink, it may cause the blood vessels around your head to constrict. You may need to eat these foods slowly or avoid extremes of food temperatures entirely, says the National Headache Foundation.
- Foods with MSG
Beware of your beloved Chinese takeout. Monosodium glutamate—MSG—is a glutamic acid that's in our bodies naturally. It's also in some foods and a food additive to enhance flavor. It's found in frozen foods, canned soups, snack foods and some Chinese foods. MSG is sometimes listed on packaged foods as hydrolyzed protein or all-natural preservatives.
- Red wine
You may have a hangover after you drink any kind of alcohol. But red wine's tannins—which give it its dry, astringent quality—can trigger the release of headache-causing compounds. That can trigger changes in the levels of certain brain chemicals, causing your aching head. Some red wines, like cabernet and merlot, have been less likely to cause headaches (thanks to having lower tannin levels) than higher tannin ones like tannat and malbec.
- Cold cuts
You may need to say good-bye to that turkey sub. High levels of tyramine and food additives like nitrates or nitrites can increase blood flow to the brain in some people. Hot dogs, salami, bacon and other deli meats also contain nitrites or nitrates.