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Headache And Food

  • Definition

    In many patients, eating certain foods may cause headaches. For these patients, a change in eating habits is an effective treatment for headaches.


    The diet-related causes of headaches are numerous and include the following:


    headache is one of the symptoms of low blood sugar, so diabetic patients taking high doses of insulin should carefully monitor their intake. A glass of orange juice or other simple carbohydrate may help alleviate both the low blood sugar and the headache.

    Caffeine Withdrawal

    Heavy caffeine users can develop withdrawal headaches when they abruptly cut caffeine out of their diets. Recently, researchers have demonstrated that even persons who drink as little as two-and-a-half cups of coffee a day can suffer headaches when they quit.

    If you want to give up caffeine and avoid withdrawal headaches, the best method is to slowly reduce your caffeine intake.


    Tyramine, a substance found in foods such as aged cheese, yeast extracts, liver, and red wine, can also bring on headaches. That risk is much greater if a person is also taking MAO (monoamine oxidase) inhibitors such as phenelzine (Nardil) and tranylcypromine (Parnate).

    This food/drug interaction can also trigger acute hypertension (high blood pressure) and intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding).


    Histamine intolerance, based on a deficiency in the enzyme diamine oxidase or reduced activity of the enzyme, may be a cause of chronic headache. A histamine-free diet (e.g. no red wine) is the treatment of choice.

    In fact, it is important to avoid alcohol altogether, as it may act as a diamine oxidase inhibitor.

    food allergy

    In the last decade, researchers have found that an immunological reaction to food can trigger migraine headaches. In one well-controlled study, 82 of 88 children with frequent and severe migraines had fewer attacks after being put on a hypoallergenic diet of lamb or chicken, rice or potatoes, bananas or apples, water, and vitamin supplements.

    By reintroducing common foods into the children's diet gradually, clinicians were able to pinpoint specific allergens. Among the most common were eggs, chocolate, oranges, and wheat.

    food additives

    Although allergies are apparently responsible for many headaches, one cannot assume that an individual is allergic to a certain food just because his headache disappears when he stops eating it. Sometimes, it is what is added to the food during processing, rather than the food itself, that is to blame.

    Knowing that fact allows people to switch to a chemical-free product rather than give up a favorite food. Nitrites are among the many preservatives that may cause headaches. They are used to cure bacon, ham, salami, and several other luncheon meats. Other possible culprits are nitrates, also found in some meats; monosodium glutamate, sometimes added to Chinese food and many soups; sulfites, found in alcoholic beverages; and tartrazine, a food coloring agent usually listed on labels as FD & C yellow #5.


    Nitrites typically cause a dull, aching pain accompanied by facial flushing, while MSG-induced headache usually comes with facial pressure and burning in the torso.

    Tyramine headaches can come on immediately after eating the offending foods but may take as long as 12 hours.

    Caffeine withdrawal-induced headaches usually start eight to eighteen hours after a person has had his last dose and peak three to six hours later.

    Most allergic reactions develop within four hours of ingestion, though delayed reaction allergies can take up to 72 hours to produce symptoms.

    If timing and symptoms are not enough to pinpoint the source, the sufferer should start a food diary. Listing everything eaten over at least a 7-day period, along with the symptoms, may help identify the guilty foods.

    Of course, food is not the only cause of recurrent headaches. You should have a thorough medical work-up done to rule out the many other causes of headaches.


    Are there any tests that should be done to make sure the headaches are not caused by some organic disorder or disease?

    What foods and substances cause the headaches?

    Should I keep a record of my headaches and the foods I've eaten?

    If I eat something that triggers a headache, what measures should I take to make it go away faster?