Are your favorite snacks to blame for migraine headaches?
Crunching numbers at the Congressional Budget Office might give
most of us a headache. But for budget analyst Geoff Gerhardt, the problem is
munching, not crunching. According to his calculations, ham plus cheese equals
a classic migraine.
"It's like being hit by a truck," says Gerhardt, who
has had migraines for more than 15 years. "Four to five hours after eating
processed meats or certain kinds of cheese, I start having trouble with my
vision. Then I get a strong pain in one temple or the other, accompanied by
nausea and loss of balance."
Most headaches can be diagnosed by a medical history and physical exam. Rarely, to rule out other causes of headaches such as an aneurysm, tumor, or structural abnormality, a doctor may call for vision tests, X-rays, a CT scan, MRI, a lumbar puncture, or an EEG.
Seymour Diamond, MD, founder of The Diamond Headache Clinic in
Chicago, says more than a quarter of migraine sufferers have specific triggers,
including food. "One of the most common triggers is aged cheese,"
Diamond tells WebMD.
Hold the Cheese, Please
The trouble with aged cheese is that it's high in tyramine, a
substance that forms from the breakdown of protein in certain foods. The longer
a food ages, the greater the tyramine content is. For people with a sensitivity
to tyramine, The Cleveland Clinic warns against the following types of
Other foods high in tyramine include processed meats, pickles,
onions, olives, certain types of beans, raisins, nuts, avocados, canned soups,
and red wine.
Doctors concede it can be difficult to avoid all of these
foods. Nestor Galvez-Jimenez, MD, a neurologist with The Cleveland Clinic
Florida, says some of his tyramine-sensitive patients prefer to take their
chances. "They want to drink wine even if they know it will give them a
headache. In that case, I recommend a preventive dose of medication before
dinner." He stresses that patients should discuss this idea with their
doctors before trying it.
Certain food additives, including nitrites and some food
colorings, are also common headache triggers. Like tyramine, these additives
may increase blood flow to the brain causing headaches in some people.
"We don't understand exactly why this happens,"
Galvez-Jimenez tells WebMD, "but it has to do with changes in blood
Unlike classic migraines which affects are also triggered by a
substance and are felt on one side of the head, headaches induced by additives
or other substances are usually sensed on both sides of the head:
Occur within a specific time after substance intake
Disappears when a substance is eliminated or within a specific time
Monosodium glutamate-induced headaches, previously known as
Chinese restaurant syndrome, occur within an hour after ingestion of MSG and
can cause at least two of the following:
Pressure in the chest or face
Burning sensation in the chest, neck, or shoulders
Experts continue to debate the effects of MSG, an additive
found in soy sauce, Chinese foods and many packaged foods. "MSG is a big
one," says Galvez-Jimenez.
But Diamond, who is currently executive chairman of the
National Headache Foundation, says new research may show MSG is not a typical
trigger after all.