Suffer from Headaches? Tweaking Your Diet Might Help

What you eat may help relieve common tension headaches and even migraines.

May 21, 2020
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Photo by: monstArrr_/Getty Images

monstArrr_/Getty Images

Nearly one in four households has someone who suffers from migraine headaches, and tension-type headaches are even more common. The causes of both of these headache types aren’t fully understood; however, there are some smart eating strategies that may help decrease frequency, or even help prevent headaches.

Headaches have complex causes and symptoms. “Tension-type headaches usually involve the tightening of muscles in the head, neck shoulder and jaw,” says Daniel Mattson, MD, neurologist at SSM Health Medical Group in St. Louis. Migraines can result from the pain caused when brain blood vessels swell, pressing on nerves, explains Mattson. “And visual and sensory changes common with a migraine aura can be caused by a disruption of brain signaling chemicals.”

The list of dietary factors that can contribute to a headache include these potential triggers: alcohol, coffee, soda, beans, citrus, artificial sweeteners, nuts, cured meats, aged cheeses, MSG, chocolate. The problem is that none of these foods have actually been proven to cause headaches, says Mattson.

For example, some researchers have noted that migraine sufferers may crave chocolate when they are about to experience a migraine, thus eating chocolate might be associated with a headache. In addition, many of these foods including chocolate, nuts, beans and dairy foods are important sources of magnesium and riboflavin, which have been found to help with headaches.

“Magnesium works inside cells to relax contraction that contributes to tension headaches,” says Ashley Koff, RD, registered dietitian at The Better Nutrition Program. Magnesium may help stabilize brain chemicals in migraines and even decrease or block pain transmitters notes Koff.

To help handle headaches, try these dietary strategies.

What May Help Relieve Headaches

Do keep a headache diary. Track the foods you ate 24 hours before a headache began. Download a free headache journal from the American Migraine Foundation.

Do manage your caffeine. For some people, caffeine can help migraines because it constricts enlarged blood vessels in the brain. But for others, too much caffeine (or caffeine withdrawal) is a migraine trigger.

Do eat foods high in magnesium. A majority of Americans don’t get enough magnesium and this mineral need may be even higher for headache sufferers. Koff recommends food first to help meet requirements beginning with four servings daily of the following magnesium-rich foods: 1/2 cup kidney, pinto or black beans; 1/3 cup peanuts or pumpkin seeds; 2 oz dark chocolate; 1 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal or barley; 3/4 cup cooked greens. For those that can’t or choose not to eat foods with magnesium, supplementation may be indicated. Koff recommends working with a registered dietitian to determine intake needs.

Do eat foods high in riboflavin. Also known as vitamin B2, riboflavin is involved in energy production, including in brain cells. In one study, riboflavin supplements were linked to lower incidence of migraines in headache sufferers. Beef, enriched tofu, milk, seafood, mushrooms, eggs, nuts, greens, fortified breakfast cereals and bread made with enriched flour all contain riboflavin.

What Might Make Symptoms Worse

Don’t dump all potential food triggers at once. Not only can you be missing out on important nutrients, but you’ll be unable to decipher which food is a potential trigger.

Don’t get dehydrated. Dehydration can be a big trigger for headaches. Flavored drinks and iced tea can hydrate, but they can also contain caffeine. Stick to plain herbal tea, water or add just a splash of an electrolyte-rich sports drink to water for some flavor.

Don’t skip meals. For both tension and migraine headaches, not eating regularly can contribute to onset. Eating meals and snacks at nearly the same times every day keeps the blood sugar at a more stable level to nourish the brain. Skipping meals causes the body stress. And stress in any form, from physical to mental is often a factor in headaches. Eating six smaller meals throughout the day can help.

Don’t get a lot of calcium without getting plenty of magnesium. If you eat a lot of dairy foods or take calcium supplements, make sure you’re getting enough magnesium too, as these minerals work together in the body. “Often I see patients whose intake of calcium, especially supplemental, is creating a conditional imbalance with magnesium which can contribute to headaches,” explains Koff.

Serena Ball, MS, RD is a registered dietitian nutritionist, food writer, and mom of four children. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Instagram.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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