Is Your Diet Giving You a Headache?
We know that certain foods can trigger migraines, but what about when you eat—and how much? Learn how your eating habits can contribute to head pain.
Splitting, pounding, squeezing—no matter the specifics of your head pain, making it stop is probably high on your priority list. But of all the places you’ve looked for answers, your dinner plate may not be one of them. But it should be, says Amy Kimberlain, RDN, a registered dietitian in Miami and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics media spokesperson. “A headache, even though the name implies a pain in your brain, is actually pain from a mix of signals between your brain, blood vessels, and nearby nerves,” she says. “There can be inner and/or outer triggers that cause the body to react with pain,” which you experience as a headache. Those signals between your brain and blood vessels can be affected, in part, by what you eat (or don’t eat), and when.
The Diet-Headache Connection
The two most common types of headaches you may experience related to eating habits are tension headaches and migraines. Tension-type headaches often feel like a tight band around your head but can also appear as head pressure or a dull ache, according to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. They can occur when what you eat (or don’t eat) causes a change in your blood sugar levels, and that’s important information for the one-third of Americans who are dieting at any given time, according to Harvard Health. “When you take in less calories than your body needs—what people are doing when they try to lose weight—the blood glucose levels can drop too low,” Kimberlain explains. “When this happens, there’s that sudden drop in blood sugar that can create muscle tension that contributes to headaches.”
Migraines, on the other hand, typically only affect one side of your head, may feel like a pulsating sensation, and tend to be more severe, per the Mayo Clinic. They can also be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or light and sound sensitivity. People who experience migraines may also find certain eating habits trigger their head pain, says Merle Diamond, M.D., president and managing director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, IL, and a member of the board for the National Headache Foundation.
“One of the things we know about patients with migraine is they have a sort of irritable nervous system, which is why we think they suffer from more migraine attacks. Migraine brain in general likes a steady state, so just the simple act of skipping meals is a trigger for some patients,” Dr. Diamond says. “A good way to think about what’s going on in the brain is that there’s some relationship between a stressor, in this case food or absence of food, and a patient’s migraine threshold lowering, so they have more frequent attacks.”
Is There a Weight-Headache Link?
When we think about eating habits, it’s hard not to think about weight, too. After all, the number one reason for calorie-cutting is to shed unwanted pounds. But while some doctors may recommend weight loss as part of a migraine treatment plan, the relationship between weight and headaches isn’t as clear-cut as you may think.
“In patients with chronic migraines, obesity is a risk factor,” says Dr. Diamond. “The question is, what comes first?” For example, she says, some of the older migraine medications can actually cause weight gain. Or you might find that since you’ve had chronic migraines, you’ve been less active, which could lead to some weight gain—because who wants to be running around when you’re in pain? Still, cause and effect remains a question mark.
“It’s still not fully understood how migraines and body composition are related,” adds Kimberlain. “Scientists are looking closely at the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls hunger and that has neurotransmitters associated with migraines, which may play a key role.” Interestingly, a meta-analysis in Neurology shows that both over- and underweight folks are at increased risk of migraine, but more studies are needed to dive deeper into the connection.
Easing Diet-Related Headaches
While scientists grapple with the chicken-or-egg question, there is a positive takeaway: As much as your weight or diet may be causing, your headaches, it can also help you solve them. Working on these healthy habits can help:
Eat on a schedule. Eating meals on a regular schedule can help avoid headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation. That may mean eating three meals a day with a snack at night, or six smaller meals spread evenly through the day. “Often people will run out of house without breakfast, they don’t eat until noon, and their last meal was at dinner the night before—that’s too long,” Dr. Diamond says. Remember, low glucose is your body signal to your brain that it’s headache time.
Eat when you’re hungry. Even if you’re following a schedule and your next meal isn’t for two more hours, if you’re hungry, eat something. “Honor your hunger cues,” says Kimberlain. Hunger is another cue that glucose levels are dropping, but something as simple as a piece of fruit can stabilize the situation until mealtime arrives.
Eat a balanced diet. “Aim to have a balanced plate and avoid overeating any one food group,” says Kimberlain. “Go for a mix of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and non-starchy veggies that contain fiber.” Eating a balanced diet can help you achieve other health goals, such as improving cardiovascular health.
Stay hydrated. One thing experts do know about headaches: They are easily triggered by dehydration. Making sure to drink water throughout the day—not just when you’re feeling thirsty—can help, says Kimberlain. Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses or more.
Keep a headache diary. If you can’t quite pinpoint what’s triggering your headaches, keep a written log of your symptoms, what you eat and drink, and at what times. You can review your notes with your doctor to try and determine any trends, such as meals too far apart or eating too few calories. “Be a detective,” says Dr. Diamond.
And remember—it’s also possible that specific foods themselves could be contributing to your headaches. “About 30% of patients with migraine have some sort of food sensitivities,” says Dr. Diamond. Learning about common foods that may increase migraine attacks, like processed meats and pro-inflammatory foods, can help you pinpoint your specific triggers.
Types of Headaches: Mayo Clinic. (2019). “Headaches: Treatment Depends on Your Diagnosis and Symptoms.” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-daily-headaches/in-depth/headaches/art-20047375
Dieting Statistics: Harvard Health. (2020). “When Dieting Doesn’t Work.” health.harvard.edu/blog/when-dieting-doesnt-work-2020052519889
BMJ Study on Diet Efficacy: BMJ. (2020). “Comparison of Dietary Macronutrient Patterns of 14 Popular Named Dietary Programmes for Weight and Cardiovascular Risk Factor Reduction in Adults: Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis of Randomised Trials.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32238384/
Body Composition and Migraine Risk Study: Neurology. (2017). “Body composition and the Risk of Migraine.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5419981/
Headache Diet Tips: National Headache Foundation. (2020). “Diet for People with Headache Disorders.” headaches.org/2020/03/13/headache-diet-2020/