Dietitians Dish: Certain food components suspected to cause headaches

June 1, 2010 at 1:01 a.m.

By Elizabeth Sommerfeld, MS, RD, LD

June 6-12 is Headache Awareness Week.

Did you know headaches affect one in every four households in America? That is 29.5 million people according to the National Headache Foundation.

While the cause of migraines is still something of a mystery, doctors say everything from changing hormone levels, to poor sleeping habits, to low blood sugar can trigger them. Stress and eye strain have also been linked to causing headaches.

But certain food components - natural or added - have been suspected, not proven, to cause headaches in some people.

Tyrosine (in cheese and chocolate), histamine (in red wine), caffeine (in coffee and cola), benzoic acid (a preservative) and alcohol may be food-related triggers.

The National Headache Foundation has a low tyramine headache diet located on its website ( It breaks down foods that are low in tyramine, those which contain increased levels of tyramine and should be used with caution and then those foods that are high in tyramine and should be avoided.

General guidelines include:

Avoiding high sugar foods on an empty stomach, when over hungry, or in place of a meal.

All foods should be eaten freshly cooked.

Cigarette and cigar smoke contain many chemicals that will trigger or aggravate your headache.

Eat small, frequent meals that contain magnesium, which can reduce migraines.

Some foods may help fight migraines. Those rich in healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocados, help reduce inflammation. Inflammation is a trigger for migraines.

One study found that the anti-inflammatory compounds in olive oil suppress the same pain pathway as ibuprofen. Also, like mentioned above, foods that contain magnesium may help reduce migraines. Foods that are rich in magnesium include nuts, fish, legumes, bran flakes and dark green leafy vegetables.

If you experience chronic headaches, check with your doctor for a medical diagnosis.

To determine which foods or drinks, if any, trigger headaches, keep a food diary of what you eat. A registered dietitian can help you pinpoint trigger foods and make alternate choices.

Elizabeth Sommerfeld is a registered and licensed dietitian and has a master of science degree. Send questions or comments to



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