There are many different types of headaches and migraines. Some are caused by stress, muscle tension or hormones; while others are linked to certain foods. These trigger foods affect blood flow to the brain, creating pressure that can cause pain. Alex Royal, a Cape Town dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), explains what to eat – and to avoid – to help prevent the ache.
By Lauren Shapiro
Tyramine is an amino acid created by the breakdown of certain proteins. It is thought to lead to headaches by affecting the blood vessels in the head. Some vessels constrict, which causes others to rapidly dilate in response. This increases the blood pressure in the brain, resulting in that pounding headache. Tyramine is present in red wine, soy sauce, yeast extract (such as Marmite), and aged or processed cheese and meat.
A study by the American Headache Society points to additives as headache triggers. MSG (monosodium glutamate) – a flavour enhancer widely used in sauces, spices, chips and many other processed foods – can increase blood flow to the brain, as well as excite neurotransmitters, which results in a headache. Nitrates, nitrites and other preservatives in processed meats can have similar effects.
Ice cream headaches (technically ‘cold stimulus headaches’) occur when there is a rapid change in temperature at the back of the throat or roof of the mouth (caused by that ice cream or very cold drink). This causes a change in blood flow and a corresponding response in the nerves connected to the brain. The pain is protecting the brain from what it perceives as pending damage and it will disappear when the stimulus does.
EAT, DRINK and be merry
Dehydration (caused by not drinking enough) and hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar, caused by not eating regularly) can cause headaches. Combined with excessive alcohol, these produce the dreaded hangover headache. The best practice is to drink at least two litres of water a day, eat fresh, unprocessed foods, and take time out for exercise and stress management.
Each person is unique. Some are very sensitive and will get a headache if they ingest just a small amount of a trigger food, while others may only experience symptoms with a large amount. Use a diary to keep track of what you eat and when headaches occur. Then start an elimination diet, removing suspected triggers one by one and reintroducing them slowly to test each item’s effects. Always follow a dietitian’s advice when making any changes to your diet.
Sulphites, the preservatives found in wine and dried fruit, have got a bad rap as headache triggers. Recent studies suggest they’re more likely to cause asthmatic than inflammatory effects, and that other additives may be the cause of the headaches some people get when consuming these foods.
Caffeine may actually help your headache. Although some blame the pain on their morning cuppa, new research shows caffeine can actually improve the analgesic (painkilling) effect of pain medication and speed up its absorption, reducing the discomfort of a headache.