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Why Do Certain Foods Trigger Headaches?

Trigger Theories

By David R. Marks, M.D

The Headache Prevention Cookbook

The Headache Prevention Cookbook: Eating Right to Prevent Migraines and Other Headaches

There is certainly no factor common to all of the foods that have been identified as headache triggers. The truth is that while theories abound, we are a long way from knowing what really causes the pain in your head. It is probably the result of a complex interaction between the nerves, blood vessels, and biochemicals located in the brain. The details of these interactions are unclear at present, but according to one theory, constriction of blood vessels to the brain decreases blood flow to the sensory area of the brain, resulting in the aura that often accompanies migraines. The blood vessels then expand, sending pulsations of blood to the brain, producing throbbing pain. Many headache specialists think that a neurochemical called serotonin plays a crucial role in bringing about these changes in blood vessels and other brain activity, altering blood flow and setting off a complicated cascade of events in the brain that results in a headache.

Food seems to be able to cause headaches regardless of whether you tend to get migraines, cluster headaches, or tension headaches. 

Although a few health-care practitioners maintain that allergies to certain foods set off headaches, most experts believe that such allergies play virtually no role in causing headaches. It is more likely that substances contained within some foods trigger the headaches either by changing the amount of serotonin in the brain or by affecting the blood vessels in the head. Amines, biochemicals involved in causing blood-vessel constriction and dilation, are found not only in the brain but in many different foods, such as cheese, chocolate, nuts, and certain meats. One common amine, called tyramine, is suspected by many experts to be a major factor in triggering headaches.

Preservatives such as nitrates and sulfites, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin, and food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) have all been implicated as headache triggers. They contain amines, which alter the constriction of the blood vessels. But for many of the foods listed below, the reason they trigger headaches remains a mystery. Scientists do know that alcohol can dilate blood vessels, and this may be one reason that alcohol can cause headaches. Many alcohols also contain amines such as tyramine and histamine. Caffeine can be a good treatment for headaches when used in moderation. Paradoxically, however, when it is taken on a daily basis, it can cause more headaches. Caffeine, in fact, is one of the most common food-related causes of headaches that I see in my practice, and it's the one thing patients often have the most resistance to giving up, until they discover that doing so can help them eliminate disabling pain.

Copyright © 2000 David R. Marks, M.D. and Laura Marks, M.D.
Authors: The Headache Prevention Cookbook


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