Dealing with a headache is infuriating enough. Trying to figure out exactly what caused it … well, that in itself could just about give you a headache. Many people who suffer from chronic headaches, including those who experience migraines, often get so fed up with them that they discover the factors that trigger their headaches so that they can avoid them in the future. For some people, environmental elements, such as cigarette smoke or heavy perfume, bring on headaches. For others, excessive stress or lack of sleep is enough to cause an attack. And according to some experts, up to 30 percent of headache sufferers are affected by the foods they eat. What kinds of foods cause headaches, and why?
There’s no conclusive evidence to prove which foods cause headaches, and not every headache and migraine sufferer is affected by food. But the accepted reality is that many people are, so avoiding headaches means avoiding certain kinds of food. One of the biggest triggers is cheese, specifically the aged varieties. Cheese is high in an enzyme called tyramine, an amino acid known to raise blood pressure, which can contribute to headaches. Tyramine forms from the breakdown of protein in foods, so the longer a food has aged, the greater the amount of tyramine present. Blue or moldy cheeses, Brie, Muenster, parmesan, and cheddar tend to be the worst offenders.
Plenty of foods besides cheese contain tyramine as well. People who are headache-prone are usually cautioned to avoid processed and aged meat products (like salami, pepperoni, and hot dogs), pickles, fava beans, avocados, and most kinds of nuts. Tyramine’s most severe effects happen to people taking monoamine oxidase inhibitor medications, but it has the potential to affect anyone.
Red wine negatively affects so many people that “red wine headache” is sometimes considered its own syndrome. Having a sensitivity to red wine isn’t the same as developing a pounding headache after drinking a bottle or two (that’s called a hangover, of course); true red wine headaches usually develop within just a few minutes after someone drinks the wine. People used to blame the headaches on sulfites, the compounds added to wine to halt fermentation or act as preservatives. In the early eighties, the FDA began to require wine producers to state on their bottles whether their wines contained sulfites, since a small portion of the population is allergic to them, so many people assumed that sulfite allergies were what caused the infamous red wine headaches. In fact, sulfite allergies are much more likely to trigger breathing problems than headaches and are far less common than people think. Also, white wine usually contains more sulfites than red wine, yet few people complain of white wine headaches. No one is sure, but some people think that it’s actually the mouth-puckering tannins that cause the reaction, since experiments have shown that tannins cause the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been linked to headaches. Other scientists reject the tannin theory and blame histamines, which are present in red wine in levels twenty to two hundred times those of white wine. Some believe that the histamines trigger an immune response and inflammation, which can result in a headache. However, there are inconsistencies and holes in all of the theories about red wine, and controlled experiments have failed to pinpoint exactly what links it to headaches.
Some food additives are known to trigger headaches in sensitive individuals. As with other triggers, scientists don’t know exactly what about nitrates, artificial sweeteners, MSG, and food colorings causes headaches, but their prevailing belief currently is that these substances increase blood flow to the brain. Headaches caused by additives tend to be slightly different than regular headaches. Those caused by MSG can result in pressure or a burning sensation in the face, neck, and chest, dizziness, and abdominal discomfort. Highly processed foods of any kind, such as Velveeta cheese or frozen TV dinners, also cause the same symptoms. Unlike migraines, which are usually felt on only one side of the head, headaches caused by food additives tend to occur on both sides.
Other foods that have been known to cause headaches include cultured dairy products, chocolate, dried or pickled fish, canned soup, nut butters, pudding and ice cream, freshly baked bread, dried fruit, overripe bananas, papayas, and any beverages containing caffeine.
The list of foods that could potentially trigger headaches is so long, it’s nearly impossible to avoid everything. Doctors recommend keeping a food journal to monitor your diet and see how it correlates with headaches. It’s a lengthy trial-and-error process, but once you find out exactly which foods seem to trigger your headaches, it becomes easier to avoid the specific offenders.
The worst-case scenario is that the food causing your headaches is a food you love. If you simply can’t live without indulging in gorgonzola, Côtes du Rhône, or MSG-laden Chinese food but you know a headache is sure to follow, a preemptive dose of pain reliever is usually enough to mitigate the damage. But don’t say you weren’t warned.