Mr. Norris, someone told me that certain vitamins, minerals and herbs can help relieve the pain of headaches. True? – Sierra C., Salt Lake City
In Part 1, I discussed the power of eliminating foods filled with headache-causing tyramine, nitrates and monosodium glutamate, or MSG. I then explained the power of eating more foods with complex carbohydrates, which help produce the feel-good brain chemical serotonin.
This week, I will begin addressing the question above by discussing what nutrients or supplements might play a natural role in relieving our headaches, as well.
Joy Bauer, nutrition expert for the “Today” show, explained in her book “Food Cures,” “When a group of migraine sufferers took 400 milligrams of riboflavin (vitamin B-2) daily for three months, 59 percent experienced at least a 50 percent reduction in migraine attacks.”
Riboflavin is used to produce coenzymes that are needed for many chemical reactions in the body, including converting carbohydrates into energy and the metabolism of proteins and fats. Dairy products provide half of the U.S. intake of riboflavin, but it’s also found in fresh lean beef, lamb, venison, liver, poultry, fish, eggs, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, kale, spinach and whole-grain cereals. The milling of grains often removes riboflavin. That’s why many grain products are enriched or fortified with it.
While we’re discussing B vitamins, B-6 is another vitamin that studies have shown to be helpful in preventing headaches and even migraines, as well as relieving PMS symptoms. Vitamin B-6 is a collective term used to describe three B vitamins – pyridoxine, pyridoxal and pyridoxamine, which are involved in more than 100 chemical reactions in the body. B-6 is found in fish, poultry and potatoes, as well as bananas and avocados – though the latter two are banned here for having excessive amounts of tyramine.
According to Dr. Alan M. Rapoport, assistant clinical professor of neurology at the Yale University School of Medicine and co-founder and director of The New England Center for Headache, the brain uses B-6 to increase serotonin levels, as well as dopamine and other neurotransmitters, “so a good intake of B-6 might help relieve migraines, even if you’re not deficient in it.”
Though it’s not totally clear why, certain minerals – specifically calcium, magnesium and iron – also have been proved in clinical studies to help prevent and treat migraine and tension headaches.
Calcium, a nutrient also often acquired in dairy products, is well-known for achieving and strengthening bone mass (bones and teeth contain 99 percent of the body’s calcium). But did you know – according to the University of California, Berkeley’s “Wellness Foods A to Z” – that it also helps regulate muscle contraction, reduces the risk of ischemic stroke (the most common type), helps control blood pressure (with potassium and magnesium) and may lower blood cholesterol? One easily can see how those additional non-bone-related benefits of calcium might help reduce headaches.
In fact, the Journal of the American College of Nutrition reported that calcium in supplement form may help reduce symptoms of PMS, including headaches and mood disorders. One study discovered that women who took 200 milligrams of calcium a day (only 20 percent of their daily value) had fewer headaches than those who took less.
The best and most common food sources for calcium are, of course, dairy products, but one also can get it in fortified orange juice, salmon, broccoli and fortified cereals.
The Vegan Society reported that “a study in the U.K. of 34,696 adults, over five years, found that the vegans studied had a higher risk of bone fracture than the meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians studied. This appeared to be a result of their lower calcium intake.”
Because vegan and vegetarian diets often comprise relatively low-calcium nutrients from non-dairy products (e.g., green leafy vegetables – such as spring greens, kale, broccoli and parsley – as well as oranges and whole-grain breads) and foods – such as soy products, bananas, avocados, dried fruit and nuts – that are high in the headache-producing compound tyramine, some people who are on those diets and are prone to headaches have complained of getting headaches.
To balance the vegan and vegetarian diets, calcium supplements are often recommended. The experts at UC Berkeley report that up to 2,500 milligrams of calcium daily is safe but that one should take doses in 500-milligram increments with meals throughout the day.
As always, consult with your physician or health practitioner before changing your diet or adding supplements to it.
In the final installment on this subject, I will discuss the roles that exercise and certain minerals and herbs play in helping to treat and prevent headaches.