Got a headache?

Ever get a headache?  I would say that most people I talk to have experienced a headache in the last couple of weeks. Indeed, a 2014 telephone survey found that headaches were one of the top five symptoms reported on a weekly basis, with over one-third of those questioned experiencing an episode. Increasingly, it is more than an infrequent occurrence that can be put down to an occasional late night (lack of sleep), being dehydrated or too much alcohol the night before. In fact, I think that headaches have come to the point where we’ve normalised them so much we barely see any reason to pay them much credence. Everyone gets a headache – what’s the point in worrying about it? Nothing ibuprofen can’t fix.

In my opinion, this normalisation of pain is how we’ve addressed (or not) the chronic stress, tiredness, bloating, inability to wake up properly or the slight malaise we might feel on a day to day basis. For a lot of people what I’ve described is just ‘life’. There’s no point complaining because this is what everyone is experiencing so we may as well buck up and get on with it. Like all of the conditions I’ve mentioned above, frequent and recurring headaches impact massively on quality of life. While obviously migraines are a type of pain that would cause more disruption to everyday life, a headache shouldn’t just be dismissed either. It’s a sign that something is out of balance in your life that you should probably address. That said, a closer look at your diet might reveal elements which could be changed or optimised to reduce the likelihood ot these occurring, Specifically, there are nutrients which have been found (in addition to an awesome diet) to be useful for reducing severity and frequency of headaches or migraines occurring. While the jury is out on both omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin D (with some research suggesting that too much vitamin D may have the opposite effect), there is fairly good evidence to suggest that these may be useful:

Magnesium: in powder form, along with a citric acid or as an amino chelate – up to 600mg per day over three months (this might equate to 2.5g – 5g of powder from a brand such as Bioceuticals Ultraeaze). Studies have shown that many experience a reduction of attacks by up to 41%. Now that is significant.

CoQ 10: not just as part of face cream, in doses of up to 300mg/day (which is fairly substantial) has been found to reduce frequency of attacks and also symptoms of nausea associated with headaches.

Riboflavin: this amino acid in doses of 400mg/day over four months have also been found to reduce severity and frequency of attacks – people of European background are more likely to respond than others due to genetic differences.

A well balanced whole food/paleo diet contain substantial amounts of these nutrients. Magnesium is abundant in vegetables, animal products and fruit; CoQ 10 present in salmon, sardines, red meat, nuts such as almonds, and seeds such as sesame   seeds; and riboflavin is found in substantial amounts in cheese, beef, pork, eggs and oily fish. However if you are consuming such a diet and not experiencing relief, it might be worth considering supplementing in addition to this.

Now people who experience migraines are likely to know which foods trigger an attack. A well studied group of amino acids have been found to trigger headaches and migraines in susceptible people: tyramines, histidines and arginine.

  1. Tyramines: are found in fermented foods (such as sauerkraut, kimchi), blue cheese, broad beans, beer and sulphate-containing wine, dried fruit, grapes, cured meat and fish (not a complete list). Some people lack the enzymes to inactivate these and it can lead to a build up in the blood, causing temporary nausea, increase in blood pressure, sweating and migraine headaches. Tyramines are found in fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurts), blue cheese, broad beans, in beer, wine that contains sulphates, other sulphur-based dried fruits, grapes, cured meat and fish.
  2. Histamines: are a result of the conversion of an amino acid histidine by two enzymes diamine oxidase and histamine N-methltransferase. People who have low levels of these enzymes have a build up of histamine in the body as they are unable to metabolise it. Histamines, like Tyramines are found in fermented based foods, along with all alcohol and vinegars. Other sources are fruits such as strawberries, avocado, and bananas, vegetables (tomatoes, spinach, eggplant) and nuts including walnuts, peanuts and cashews.
  3. Arginine: is an amino acid that causes vasodilation of the blood vessels by increasing the amount of nitric oxide in the blood. Great if you’re an athlete wanting to go at higher intensities, not so great if it causes pain through vasodilation and expansion of the cranial blood vessels. Avoiding these foods can minimise this, and nuts and chocolate have the highest amount of arginine in them. (As a side note, people who might experience break outs in the herpes virus have been recommended minimising these foods in their diet).

Not all of these groups of food are going to affect everyone, and not all foods within the different groups are going to trigger a migraine or tension headache, but it’s a process of figuring out which ones do by eliminating them from the diet for one to three months to see if there is respite from frequent migraine headaches, then reintroducing them (as you would any food).

There are many things which affect frequency and severity of headaches and migraines. Like other stressors, the effects of these (or anything) that might trigger an attack can be made worse depending on overall stress load. If you are lacking in sleep, relying on sugar or coffee for energy, have a lot on your plate at work, drinking too much alcohol (etc) then you may well experience more of an effect compared to other times where you feel a little more on top of things. So while you can remove certain foods from your diet and optimise others to minimise attacks in the short term, looking at the root cause of what is causing the headaches is clearly the best option long term.

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