Mr. Norris, I suffer from chronic headaches. I’ve been to every specialist under the sun, and still they remain. I’ve done some reading on foods and headaches, but not much. Can things I eat head off headaches at the pass? – Mrs. S.D. Andrews, Martinez, Calif.
There are two major types of headaches. The first is a tension headache, caused by tightened muscles in the neck and scalp. The second type is a vascular headache, including migraine, caused by the expansion and contraction of blood vessels in the head, face and neck.
Because headaches can originate from a plethora of sources – from stress and pollutants to medical problems and even mixing medicines – we must be careful not to overgeneralize their origin or remedy. Other culprits can range from changes in weather and hormone levels to those difficult to detect – such as diet deficiencies, environmental allergies, Lyme disease and cervical nerve damage. So it is definitely necessary to consider a wide array of sources and, if need be, consult a variety of specialists, from nutritionists to neurologists.
However, there is something to say about decreasing food and beverage triggers and increasing nutrients that can soothe and even eliminate many headaches. Adjusting your diet – i.e., replenishing bodily shortages or deficiencies – can be a natural remedy for headaches.
And it all starts with the most overlooked element to nutrition: water. It is the most foundational aspect of life and the single most important nutrient. Water is critical throughout the entire body.
Proper hydration is first on the checklist in examining ill patients for Dr. Don Colbert, author of “The Seven Pillars of Health,” no matter what the ailment. Joy Bauer, nutrition expert for the “Today” show, also noted in her book “Food Cures,” “Dehydration is a common migraine trigger.”
This is the equation needed to figure out the recommended amount of water your body needs: Your weight divided by two equals the number of ounces of water you need to consume daily.
One of my favorite naturalistic resources is “The Doctors Book of Food Remedies,” by Selene Yeager and the editors of Prevention. In it, they discuss how the most common food triggers for headaches are those containing tyramine, an amino acid that sparks the body’s release of hormones that constrict blood vessels. The body’s defense against tyramine is to fight back by widening the blood vessels, causing the throbbing pains of a headache.
Avoiding tyramine can be tricky, but it’s necessary for those who suffer from headaches related to foods. The compound is found in aged dairy products, avocados, bananas, dried fruit, beans, nuts, nut butters, beer, chocolate and soy products.
Another consumptive culprit for headaches is nitrates, which are used to cure meats such as bologna. Unlike tyramine, which constricts blood vessels, nitrates can painfully dilate blood vessels.
One last headache-producing substance worth ridding from your diet is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which is a flavor enhancer and preservative found in a host of foods, such as frozen dinners, canned soups and Chinese food. One more reason to always read labels.
Dodging certain foods, however, is only half the battle plan for heading off headaches. Consuming foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates, which contain starch, is the second strategy, because they help produce the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Such foods include potatoes, corn, rice, legumes, bread, pasta and cereal.
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, low levels of serotonin are often responsible for headaches, which is likely why depression and stress are culprits, too, because they deplete the body’s serotonin reservoirs.
The editors of Prevention concur, saying, “Raising the levels of serotonin can ease headaches or even prevent them entirely.”
In addition, according to Dr. Judith Wurtman, author of “The Serotonin Power Diet,” foods high in starch actually separate tryptophan from other amino acids, sending the latter to muscle cells and leaving the former in the bloodstream to sedate the brain.
Combining lots of fiber with some complex carbohydrates – for example, in whole grains, dried beans, green beans, broccoli and spinach – also can be a great way to treat headaches. Extra fiber slows down the absorption of the carbohydrates.
Those with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or diabetes, however, likely will find that eating fewer carbohydrates actually eases headaches. Dr. Melvyn Werbach, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of “Healing Through Nutrition” and “Nutritional Influences on Illness,” says that if one notices headaches coming on after eating carbohydrates, one “should try eating slightly more protein in the form of lean meats, eggs or low-fat cheese.”
Though it’s often difficult to discern the foods at the root of a headache, I encourage you to do what Rapoport prescribes: The instant you feel a twinge of a headache, document in a food diary everything you’ve eaten in the past 24 hours. The goal is for certain cycles or foods to surface, exposing the origin of your cranial discomfort.
Next week, I will discuss the roles that vitamins, minerals and a few herbs can play in preventing and treating headaches.