Diet for Headache prevention & support
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– Pain receptors in head and headaches
– Potential causes of headaches
– Diagnosis of headache type
– Factors considered when diagnosing a headache
– Different causes of headaches and how they can be treated
– Headaches caused by diet and food
– Foods to help prevent headaches
– Important lifestyle factors
Please note: Sometimes people confuse headaches with migraines and vice versa. For more understanding about both conditions, please also refer to the article Diet for Migraines.
Headaches can be one of the worst pains to experience and quite debilitating to the point where you think you would do almost anything to stop the intense pain. Depending on the type of headache, they can produce either constant pressure, stabbing pains or throbbing pain felt in various parts of the head, behind the eyes and in the neck.
A headache can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. In rare cases, some can be constant for years. The most common types of headaches are derived from tension or muscle/neck strain.
Other headache types include cluster headaches, which are severely painful headaches that come and go in clusters, and sinus headaches, which usually co-occur with sinus infection symptoms like fever, stuffy nose, cough, congestion, and facial pressure.
Headaches can be very complex and it is important to see your doctor to evaluate your headache, especially if your headache:
- follows a bump to the head or any head trauma, which could indicate concussion, needing urgent medical attention
- is new for you
- is unusually severe or persistent
- is accompanied by fever, a change in your strength, coordination, or senses
- is accompanied by neck or back pain
- is associated with a chronic run-down feeling with pain in your muscles or joints
- is combined with drowsiness, or difficulty thinking or concentrating
- wakens you from sleep
- get progressively worse over time
Pain receptors in head and headaches
When different structures of your head are inflamed or irritated the pain receptors in your head are triggered and you feel pain. These structures include:
- Constricted arteries leading to the brain
- High blood pressure
- The nerves of the head and neck
- The muscles and skin of the head
- Over dilated arteries leading to the brain, sending too much blood flow
- The membranes of the ear, nose, throat and sinus cavities can become inflamed, especially when there is an infection or allergies
Potential causes of headaches
Anything that stimulates the pain receptors in a person’s head or neck can cause a headache, including:
- Stress which creates muscular tension in the head and neck areas
- Sinusitis, hay-fever, congestion in the head and face
- Concussion, head trauma or a bump to the head
- Dental or jaw problems, especially temporomandibular (TMJ) disorder issues that can cause pain in the jaw muscles and jaw joint
- Teeth grinding at night (dental splints can help)
- Infections, colds, flu, Lyme’s disease, Ross River fever, meningitis and most viruses
- Diet: allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, histamine reaction from foods
- Eye problems: eye strain, poorly fitting glasses, heavy glasses over sinuses, wrong prescription, or needing glasses
- Hormonal influences: especially The Pill or HRT, but can be various other hormonal imbalances especially with DHEA (adrenal hormones) or oestrogen dominance, excess testosterone or low progesterone to oestrogen ratio. Often headaches coincide with pre-menstrual or menstruation times
- Medications: as a side effect (check with your doctor)
- Disorders of the ear, nose or throat
- Disorders of the nervous system
- Injury to the head, neck or spine &/or spinal misalignment, pinched nerves
- High blood pressure, which can result from lifestyle choices
- Even low blood pressure can create headaches
- Excessive exertion which elevates blood pressure
- Poor posture: puts unnecessary strain on the muscles of the back and neck, particularly when using a computer or keyboard
- A sloppy, non-supportive mattress or a lumpy irregular pillow
- Hangover from use of alcohol, drugs or caffeine withdrawal
- Temperature: extremes of heat or cold e.g. a ‘brain freeze’ from ice drinks
- Dehydration: affects blood pressure and increases toxins in the blood
- Noise: especially loud or sudden noises
- Temporal arteritis: inflammation of the artery at the temple, most common in elderly people, but anyone can get it. Observed by ultrasound of the temporal arteries
- Arthritis: especially of the neck area and upper vertebrae
- Heavy metal toxicity & mineral imbalances
- Toxicity problems: chemical (organic acids, pesticides, herbicides) environmental (pollution), perfumes, personal care toxins
- Gut issues: such as leaky gut, bacterial overgrowth of bad bacteria
Most headaches have more than one of the above contributing factors, which makes it more complex to work out the triggers.
Some of the more common triggers for headaches are lifestyle related factors such as poor diet, stress, muscle tension and lack of exercise.
Serious underlying disorders such as brain tumours are rarely the cause of headache, but a persistent headache always needs to be investigated by a doctor. An MRI, contrast CT, or SPECT scan will show if there are any serious issues such as tumours, and a MRA will show if there are any brain aneurysms or blockages with arteries. An ultrasound or X-Ray can look at any pinched nerves.
These tests need to be referred by a doctor, specialist, neurologist or similar medical practitioner.
Diagnosis of headache type
Headaches can be caused by many contributing factors working together and are rarely due to one isolated reason (apart from a concussion) so it is best to get professional advice to investigate and properly diagnose the specific factors behind your headaches. In some cases, headaches may be a warning about a more serious underlying health problem, so don’t just gloss over it as ‘just a headache’ that will pass.
Factors considered when diagnosing a headache
- location of the pain, such as around one eye or over the scalp
- degree of pain experienced
- duration of the headache
- how often the headache recurs
- other symptoms, such as visual disturbances or a sore neck
- factors that improve the headache, such as massage
- factors that worsen the headache, such as certain foods or drinks
Different causes of headaches and how they can be treated
Headache caused by stress or tension
Tension headaches are the most common type. These headaches feel like a tight band of pressure around the head and are often associated with muscle tightness in the head, neck or jaw. They can be caused by physical or emotional stress and are generally best treated by making lifestyle adjustments, such as exercise, diet, stress management and attention to posture.
Misalignment of the spine and neck, poor posture and muscle tension can refer pain into the head. Therapies to treat recurring headache caused by musculoskeletal problems include osteopathy, physiotherapy, massage or chiropractic adjustments.
Stress can trigger our body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, giving rise to symptoms such as shallow breathing, faster heart rate, raised blood pressure and greater amounts of ‘stress chemicals’ such as adrenaline.
Stress can cause or make a headache worse by tightening muscles, particularly in the upper back, shoulders, neck and head. Stress also lowers tolerance to pain and reduces the level of endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals.
Headache from jaw or dental problems
If the teeth of a person’s upper and lower jaw fail to align properly then this will create muscle tension in the jaw and often cause teeth grinding at night, all of which can cause headaches. Treatment may include correcting the bite, replacing any missing teeth or using a mouth guard at night, which allows the jaw to close without dental interference. Surgery may be needed in severe cases.
Tooth decay, dental abscesses and post-extraction infection can cause headache, as well as referred pain to the face and head. These need to be professionally treated by a dentist.
Headache caused by infection
Many infections in the nose, throat and ear can cause headaches, along with viruses such as head colds and flu. Rarer headaches come from infections like Lyme’s, Ross River Virus, Dengue fever, Bahma Forest Virus and similar retro-viruses.
Headache from sinus problems and ear, nose and throat disorders
- sinus problems & hay fever: when the immune system overreacts to irritants such as pollen or foods
- sinus infection symptoms like fever, stuffy nose, cough, congestion and facial pressure
- labyrinthitis: inflammation of the inner ear
- infection of the ear, nose or throat including tonsillitis, a throat infection usually caused by the bacterium
- trauma: such as a blow to the ear or perforation of the eardrum
Headaches and the nervous system
Irritated, inflamed or damaged nerves can bring on a headache, especially where the nerve is in the head or neck area. Causes may include:
- haemorrhages: some health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure (hypertension) can damage the blood vessels
- infections: such as meningitis, which is inflammation of the membranes lining the brain and spinal cord
- nerve damage: can be caused by vitamin deficiencies or trauma to the head or neck
- very rarely, a tumour
Cluster headaches are severely painful headaches that occur on one side of the head and come in clusters, where you experience cycles of headaches followed by headache-free patches.
They are relatively uncommon, however I have seen an increase in the number of people with cluster headaches in recent years. Thought to be more common in men, but for some reason I have seen most of them in women. Perhaps that could be because the percentage of women who visit naturopaths is higher than men.
- are usually localised to one eye and involve severe pain
- often include other symptoms, such as swelling and watering of the eye where the pain is
- can be triggered by alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine or even a food allergy
- are generally treated with medication or oxygen therapy, but extra magnesium, potassium and withdrawal of offending foods and substances can help.
Headaches and the thyroid connection
The thyroid system helps to maintain normal body temperatures. Low body temperature can result in recurring headaches, possibly because low temperature leads to relaxation and dilation (expansion) of the blood vessels, which results in more fluid leaking into the tissues of the brain. Swollen brain tissues inside the closed space of the cranium can explain the characteristic throbbing pain experienced by headache sufferers.
Even though the body’s temperature is a possible connection between thyroid and headaches, body temperature is an important reading that many doctors don’t check in relation to headaches.
Under stress, the body temperature tends to drop as a coping mechanism, but unfortunately, the temperature can tend to stay down even after the stress has passed and thyroid blood tests show normal.
This is known as Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome and it occurs most frequently in women. The good news is that when the temperature is normalized the body can often maintain normal temperatures on its own again. If you suffer from headaches, start checking your body temperatures to find out if this is the cause.
Often people can normalise their own body temperatures with lifestyle changes such as healthy diet, rest, exercise and eliminating stress. Some people respond well to a prescription T3 medicine protocol (WT3 protocol) to increase their body temperature.
Headaches caused by diet and food
According to some studies, what we eat and when we eat it can play a significant role in headaches. Different causes of diet-related headache include:
- fluctuations in blood-sugar levels, leading to spasm of the arteries in the head
- magnesium deficiency is very common with headaches – magnesium relaxes muscles in the head and neck
- caffeine withdrawal, commonly caused by regular and excessive consumption of coffee, tea or other caffeinated beverages
- food additives, such as MSG (monosodium glutamate)
- naturally occurring chemicals in foods, such as amines, oxalates, glutamates and salycilates as well as sensitivity to the nightshade family foods e.g. tomatoes
- histamine levels in foods can cause headaches in some people who are sensitive to histamine, common at high oestrogen times of month but can be anytime
- gluten sensitivity is a common cause of headaches via gut inflammation and toxicity
Seek the support of your health provider to help identify foods that may be triggering your headaches.
Foods to help prevent headaches
In clinic, headaches are one of the most common symptoms I’ve seen, even if the headache was not the primary reason for my clients’ visits. I have discovered so many different causes for headaches that I could fill a book with them along with successful case studies.
What I have learnt is that there is usually more than one trigger that causes headaches, so it can be tricky to determine those causes. Getting help from your health practitioner is very important. Never stop looking for the reasons so you can get the right help and support.
It’s all about thresholds. A threshold is where things build to a point of creating an issue. It’s similar to when someone gets frustrated with something minor, then another issue pops up to add to the frustration, then another and suddenly they explode with far more fury than the event deserved.
It’s like this with headaches – combine a bit of stress at work, with a little extra chocolate (due to the stress at work), then not drinking enough water, and one of the kids is sick or hasn’t done their homework (more stress), then you go to make dinner and realise you forgot to defrost the meat…and before long you hit the threshold and have a headache.
Sometimes it can be more insidious, where your hormones may be a little out of whack, or you stretched too far at the gym, ate take-away for lunch (with a touch of MSG and extra salt) and you take a headache home with you. Or you may have slept on a twisted angle in bed due to a restless night (or a child or animal takes up extra space in bed with you) and you wake with a headache because your neck is out.
When you take away some of those factors that trigger headaches, then there is less chance of them happening.
What does all of this have to do with food, you may ask? Well, many headache triggers are diet related, which is why this section about diet and headaches is so important.
Stressful events of any kind, be it hormonal, work load, kid’s issues and so on, all rob the body of B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C and other trace elements. A balanced diet rich in these nutrients will help the body to cope with stress better, thereby reducing one of the threshold factors.
Unbalanced blood sugar is a common trigger for headaches. Balancing blood sugar levels by eating quality proteins, good fats and non-stimulating carbohydrates (vegetables and salads) while avoiding sugar, simple carbs and quick-fix foods and drinks, can all make a huge difference.
While this type of diet is quite normal for many people, it is very easy to let your guard down when you are tired, run-down and stressed and then reach for comfort foods or skip meals. The result – another potential threshold builder which can bring on a headache.
Potential food sensitivities are also worth investigating. Many of my clients had issues with food sensitivities they weren’t aware of until we trialled different foods and combinations of foods, through a process of eliminating and then reintroducing the foods and observing the results. This is what an Elimination Diet is all about.
And to top it off, if there is a bacteria imbalance in the gut you can even get a headache because of an upset tummy.
A low histamine diet can help women, especially for headaches that coincide with either ovulation or menstruation. Histamine sensitivity can increase at high oestrogen times and when your hormones are naturally adjusting at certain times of the month, the extra histamine created by certain foods can trigger a headache. Men can also be affected by headaches if their diet is high in histamines.
In a diet for headaches, the focus is on avoiding some of potential trigger foods such as gluten, dairy, additives, high histamine foods and most sugar (as this feeds bacteria to cause the gut related headaches).
There may also be other trigger foods such as grains, eggs, nuts or seeds that can be discovered by an elimination diet, which is why it is important to work with your practitioner to find the best diet for you.
Include foods rich in magnesium and potassium along with anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fish, fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh food is really important, because histamine levels naturally increase in deteriorating foods due to the natural fungal and bacterial agents on the food.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep you hydrated and reduce or eliminate dehydrating drinks like coffee, tea, sodas/soft drinks and alcohol.
A diet for headaches may help to relieve and/or prevent headaches, but if the headaches persist, investigate potential food intolerances by trying a low reactive food diet or an elimination diet.
While a diet to support and prevent headaches is not considered a cure, the idea is to eliminate foods considered detrimental and include foods that support your body to do its natural job of healing.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Important lifestyle factors
If you feel stressed and over worked, take a quick walk in the fresh air, breathe, and do some simple stretches. This can do wonders, even for a few minutes. If you’re on the computer and can’t get out, even a few neck, body, arm and leg stretches every hour can help. Also get plenty of movement in your day to keep the blood flowing. Have consistent exercise times.
Also give your eyes a break to avoid eye strain (a common trigger for headaches); close them for a minute or two, breath gently and allow your eyes to gradually relax. Support your posture, particularly when online or watching television.
Consider using a food, mood and symptoms diary to see if you can unravel any patterns between headache occurrences and what preceded them. Take note of times of the month, your emotions, how you felt regarding stress levels, anxiety, neck, shoulder and jaw tension, and your food choices.
Create a routine that works for you and eat at regular times of the day. Don’t skip meals (unless part of a special diet or intermittent fasting regime).
Sleep consistency is really important. Having to get up early after a late night (without alcohol) can be a huge trigger for headaches. I call them ‘lack of quality sleep hangovers’ where the person is groggy, tired, irritable, nauseous and has a headache. The solution: go to bed earlier.
Quantity can make a difference. One cup of coffee might help to ease a headache, whereas two or more can bring on a headache via dehydration. Overeating at night can result in restless sleep because the body is working hard to digest the excess food. The result another ‘lack of quality sleep hangover’.
Stress is a big contributor to headaches, and the way you deal with stress, or don’t let it build up in the first place, can make a big difference to your life. For example, if you react to something, such as another’s comment or action, it affects your body. But instead, if you pause momentarily and respond calmly, you minimise potential hassles and stress.
If you feel stressed, sitting quietly for a few minutes with eyes closed and gently breathing through the nose can really help. Alternatively sit with eyes closed and simply focus on different parts of your body, one at a time, particularly tight areas such as the neck, shoulders and head, which can be invaluable to dissipate tension in the body,
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when working out why you have headaches and how to prevent future headaches. You may not get to be 100% headache free as life throws us challenging moments, but the more you can do to investigate the potential causes and make the necessary adjustments to your diet and lifestyle, you may find that you can live headache free most of the time.
Client name and identifying information changed
Sarah had been getting headaches over many months. Sometimes 2-3 times per week; sometimes they would last for a week. They didn’t appear to have a pattern, so I asked her to keep a diary of food, mood, events, how her body felt and what she did to cope.
Sarah’s initial food diary was short of information without any clues, so I asked her to write a much more detailed diary which she did for three weeks.
Then a story unfolded. After a stressful day at work (which was most weekdays) Sarah was tired and wired when she got home and would often drink a glass of red wine or a beer to relax. Often too tired to cook, she sometimes ordered take away Indian food, which contained more salt than she would normally eat. Other times she made something simple like corn chips with avocado & tomato.
Yet on other days when stressed, Sarah came home and took the dogs for a walk in the park, taking a bottle of water to drink. Back home and feeling more energised, she prepared a salad with fresh fish or chicken, followed by her ‘relaxation piece’ of chocolate.
I could see that Sarah was consuming high histamine foods with the corn chips, red wine, beer and chocolate and dehydrating on the days she drank alcohol rather than water.
The stress and tension was constant, but how she dealt with it varied.
We spoke about her being more aware of her cycle and to be gentler with her body, especially leading up to and during her period, and to avoid excessive activity when she was feeling extra pre-menstrual stress.
We set up a trial to replace high histamine foods with low histamine options that were quick and easy to prepare when she was tired, cut out salt to reduce dehydration, drink more water and walk regularly after work. We included more magnesium and vitamin B rich foods and supplements, as magnesium helps to relax the muscles and B vitamins can help to reduce stress.
Very quickly (by the second week) Sarah’s headaches were completely gone and only returned if she snuck in some chocolate on a super-stressful day. It appeared that chocolate was fine to eat when she wasn’t stressed and premenstrual.
After the trial, I also suggested that Sarah have a massage once a fortnight.
With headaches, it’s a good idea to observe what the main triggers are. Sometimes it can be a combination of 2 or 3 things that trigger headaches. It’s all about balance and thresholds, but having said that, the more triggers you remove, the more vitality you will feel.
In Sarah’s case, we discovered her headaches were triggered by a combination of stress, neck tension, high histamine foods/drinks, hormone shifts and dehydration.