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Ask The Sage

I get frequent headaches and I'm worried about the potential effects of taking OTC pain relievers too often -- are there any particular foods that I could add to my diet to help prevent or alleviate headaches?

July 10, 2012

Chronic headaches (and migraines) are common in people, though the triggers for such are varied. I understand your concern for OTC pain relievers - most of them either have long term effects on the kidneys or liver. Though I do not know the exact reason for your headaches, finding out the trigger will be key to helping you prevent the occurrence (though expect to have one every once in a while). Below are a list of triggers - if you have the time, choose one and eliminate others in the meantime for a few days and see if that triggers your headaches. It may sound weird, but the “elimination method” is common practice.

Tyramine (which is an amino acid, part of protein) is an uncommon trigger and occurs in people who are sensitive to it. Are YOU sensitive to it? Not sure. But the following foods have it: aged cheeses, blue cheeses, processed meats, cured olives, pickles, onions, processed soups, red wine, nuts, and avocados.

Sensitivity to MSG is also a culprit for headaches (usually an hour after consumption). This is not as common as people think (a lot of asian restaurants will advertise “no MSG” to lure people in even if they still use it) even though concern is warranted. The thing about MSG is that it is still FREQUENTLY used in MANY foods, included rice mixes, snacks, and frozen/processed foods. It is a useful tool in Big Food's toolbox so they aren't as willing to let it go. A physician can help you determine if you are sensitive.

Then, there is a category I'd like to call “irritants.” These are substances that are commonly related to headaches. They can include: alcohol (including liquor and red wine), caffeine (coffee, tea, 5-hour energy, red bull, chocolate, the list goes on), and sugar (this includes sugar substitutes such as Equal and is commonly found in diet beverages). Regarding sugar and caffeine, the “withdrawal” period is most likely the culprit here, though studies are mixed. Aspartame (a sugar substitute) can cause a reaction in the body causing headaches, among many other negative reactions.

Lastly, lifestyle. Getting 6.5-8 hours of sleep per night can help reduce headaches. Physical activity increases blood flow and thusly can help reduce the occurrence, as well. And as hard as this may sound, reducing stress throughout the day will ultimately help you. Yoga, meditation, among other stress-relieving activities (use your imagination) can help not only individualize your plan to reduce your personal stressors, but also your headaches.

So, I went on a rather large tangent about prevention rather than addition of foods. The truth is, prevention is really key. Key things like drinking lots of water (something I'm sure you heard) may help, as well as maintaining a healthy diet and eating regular small meals (think half of the MyPlate). Magnesium and Riboflavin supplements MAY be associated with reducing headaches, but don't go running for the pharmacy counter just yet. If your diet is adequate and/or you take a multivitamin 3x a week, then this part is covered. There are by far more serious consequences of overdosing on vitamins than headaches, I assure you.

Though long-winded, I hope this response suits your needs. If not, please feel free to let me know so I can hone in on a better response. Keep in mind any personal sensitivity issues you have towards certain food substances will need to be checked by a physician, but avoidance of common culprits along with a healthy lifestyle should provide more than enough relief.

Good luck and happy eating!

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