It’s no secret that headaches and migraines can be brought on by stress, fatigue, dehydration and even exposure to loud noises.
But what you eat and drink could have a significant impact, too. In fact, around 10 per cent of migraine sufferers cite food and drink as a trigger, according to experts.
“Migraine triggers are very individualised,” says registered dietician Tory Tedrow. “What causes a debilitating migraine for some people may have zero effect on others.”
Even so, there are some foods and drinks that are notorious for bringing on a serious case of brain pain. Here are some of the most common culprits.
Cheeses like cheddar, blue cheese Camembert and Swiss might be delectable, but they all contain the amino acid tyramine, which can trigger a splitting headache.
Normally, the body has no problem processing tyramine. But if you’re deficient in the enzyme needed to break tyramine down, the amino acid can build up in your bloodstream and raise your blood pressure.
Tyramine is also believed to trigger the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine.
“This combo of brain chemicals and elevated blood pressure could possibly be what contributes to headaches and migraines,” Tedrow says.
The amount of tyramine in foods increases over time, says the US's National Headache Foundation. That’s why aged cheeses are more likely to trigger headaches than their fresh counterparts, like ricotta or cottage cheese.
No doubt, alcohol’s dehydrating effects can leave your noggin feeling nasty. But red wine also contains tannins – flavonoids found in grape skins that give red wine its characteristic dry, astringent quality.
Findings suggest that tannins can spark changes in the levels of certain brain chemicals that can trigger headaches, as well as prompt the release of headache-causing compounds called prostaglandins.
The good news? Some red wines might be less likely to cause headaches than others. One study found that lower-tannin wines, like Cabernet and Merlot, were less likely to cause headaches than higher-tannin wines, like Malbec and Tannat.
CURED MEATS OR FISH
Like aged cheeses, cured meats like salami and sausage are loaded with tyramine. It’s a similar story for smoked or pickled fish, like lox, pickled herring or caviar.
To make matters worse, many cured meats – hot dogs, pepperoni, bacon and ham, to name a few – also contain headache-sparking preservatives like nitrates and nitrites.
Both preservatives can cause blood vessels to expand and increase blood flow to the brain, which can trigger headaches in some people, Tedrow says.
SAUERKRAUT OR KIMCHI
Both of these salty sides are good for your gut, but they might not necessarily be great for your head.
Like aged cheeses and meats, fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi tend to be high in migraine-triggering tyramine, says Tedrow.
Many headaches are caused by dilated blood vessels. Caffeine helps constrict blood vessels, which is why it’s used in many over-the-counter headache medications.
And yet, plenty of people find that caffeine-heavy drinks like coffee, cola or black tea actually cause them to have a headache.
But according to headache experts, caffeine doesn’t directly cause head pain.
Instead, most caffeine-related throbbing is actually the result of caffeine rebound – or withdrawal that occurs after consuming too much caffeine. Keep your caffeine consumption below 200 milligrams daily (roughly the amount in one or two cups of coffee) and you’ll probably be fine.
DRIED OR OVERRIPE FRUIT
By now, you might not be surprised to hear that even fruit that’s been sitting around for a while, like overripe bananas and avocados, can harbour higher levels of tyramine.
Preserved fruits, like raisins or dried apricots, are other common culprits. Not only do they boast higher levels of tyramine, but they also contain sulfites, a preservative that prevents browning.
For the time being, there’s no definitive research linking sulfites to headaches, says Tedrow. But anecdotally, plenty of people complain of headaches after eating sulfite-rich foods. So if you find that they bother you, consider steering clear.