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Fighting Food-Related Headaches


Avoid Additives

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 vessels."

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 thereafter

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
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal discomfort

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.

Beware of "Brain Freeze"

Most of us have experienced that brief stab of severe pain that comes with eating or drinking something too cold. Previously called ice cream headaches or "brain freeze," this sensation usually lasts less than five minutes. This type of headache is usually felt in the middle of the forehead, but for migraine sufferers this pain can be felt in areas that are affected during a migraine. For people prone to migraines, it can be the beginning of a full-fledged attack.

"You eat ice cream or another cold food and the next thing you know, boom, a migraine starts," Galvez-Jimenez says. According to The Cleveland Clinic, more than 90% of migraine sufferers say they have to be cautious with cold foods and drinks.

Don't Skip Meals

While many people have sensitivities to particular foods, others develop headaches when they don't eat.

"Anything that disrupts your body's normal stability can cause a headache," Diamond tells WebMD. That includes oversleeping and skipping meals.

"It's always important for me to eat the right foods at the right times," says marketing manager Jeff Patton. "That means eating lots of protein in the morning and having lunch on time. If I skip either meal, I get a headache. Then I get crabby and I can't focus, so it affects my work. It's extremely annoying."

But recognizing the link between headaches and skipped meals doesn't make it any easier for Patton to eat according to a regular schedule. "I still get headaches every day," he says, "because I get distracted at work and I don't eat right."

Patton's headaches usually disappear soon after he eats, so he rarely turns to aspirin or other medication. "By eating, I treat the cause rather than the symptom," he says.

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