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Tyramine and Migraines

In some people, certain foods and drinks -- or components they contain -- can trigger a migraine. One well-accepted migraine trigger is tyramine.

Tyramine is a substance found naturally in some foods. It's especially found in aged and fermented foods, such as:

  • Aged cheeses
  • Smoked fish
  • Cured meats
  • Some types of beer

Also, foods high in protein may contain more tyramine if:

  • They have been stored for a long time
  • They have not been kept cold enough

How Scientists Found a Link Between Tyramine and Headaches

Experts have long known that tyramine can be harmful to people's health in some cases. Discoveries they made since the 1950s help explain how this ingredient can trigger migraine pain.

Because of its chemical structure, tyramineis called a monoamine. An enzyme in our bodies that breaks down monoamines is called monoamine oxidase (MAO). The enzyme helps process tyramine.

In the 1950s, anti-depression drugs that inhibit MAO went on the market. These drugs, which are still used today, are called monoamine oxidase inhibitors.

Soon after these drugs became available, some people began developing problems when they ate foods containing tyramine while they were taking these drugs. They had headaches as well as high blood pressure.

People taking these drugs can't break down tyramine properly. As a result, tyramine can get into the bloodstream and raise blood pressure. That's why people taking these drugs are supposed to limit the foods they eat that contain tyramine.

In the late 1960s, researchers began suspecting that tyramine could also play a role in migraines. One researcher noted that some people with migraines who also had a deficiency of MAO had headaches after they ate foods containing tyramine.

Migraine Research

In a 2010 study, headache researchers talked to 200 people with migraines about factors that triggered their headaches. Eighteen percent reported that their diet could trigger attacks. The specific foods that came up most often included cheese and hot dogs.

Another study from the same year included 126 people who had migraine with an "aura." It also found that cheese triggered migraines in some people.

Experts are still trying to understand how tyramine can trigger migraines. One explanation is that tyramine can cause nerve cells in your brain to release the chemical norepinephrine. Having higher levels of tyramine in your system -- along with an unusual level of brain chemicals -- can cause changes in the brain that lead to headaches.

Foods That Contain Tyramine

Here are examples of especially tyramine-rich foods:

  • Aged chicken liver
  • Aged cheese
  • Beer on tap
  • Meats that have been fermented or air-dried, such as summer sausage
  • Red wine
  • Sauerkraut
  • Soy sauce

Other foods that may contain tyramine include:

  • Sauces containing fish or shrimp
  • Miso soup
  • Yeast extract

How to Check if Tyramine May Be Triggering Your Migraine

Keeping a "headache diary" for several months can help you and your doctor determine whether tyramine or some other trigger may be linked to your migraines. Take note of the time and date that a migraine begins. Then answer these questions:

  • How exactly does the migraine feel?
  • If you're a woman, where does the migraine episode fall in your menstrual cycle?
  • What have you eaten recently?
  • Have you been exposed to other common headache triggers, such as a change in altitude, change in temperature, strong smells, bright lights, loud noises, changes in sleep habits, or unusual stress?

It's worth remembering that headaches may not begin for 24 hours after you eat certain trigger foods. As a result, including the foods you've eaten during the past day or two may help you learn if tyramine could be linked to your migraines.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 26, 2012
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