The holiday season is in full swing. For some people this means a lot of stress! With stress comes some very specific and uncomfortable symptoms, including low energy, upset stomach, muscle tension, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, insomnia, headaches, and more.
There are other causes for headaches, including food related triggers. If you are experiencing headaches this holiday season or have been for some time now, take a look at the most common nutrition triggers for headaches below.
- Tyramine – Tyramine is a vasoactive amino acid found in foods, meaning it effects the diameter of your blood vessels and hence blood pressure. It is a product in the conversion of tyrosine (an amino acid present in many proteins) to epinephrine (a hormone produced by the adrenal gland). Foods that contain tyramine may trigger headaches in certain people by facilitating a chain reaction, which results in cerebral vasoconstriction followed by rebound dilation of the cranial vessels (the most common cause of throbbing headache pain). Some of the foods containing tyramine are aged cheese, smoked fish, cured meat, and some beer.
- Histamine – Histamine is a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger that is produced during an allergic response to cause immediate inflammation. This inflammation is what causes swollen, puffy eyes or skin breakouts during an allergic reaction. Histamines also trigger the release of stomach acid to aid digestion and can be produced by bacteria in the gut. Histamine can be absorbed from histamine-containing foods, like alcohol, canned or pickled foods, matured cheeses, smoked meat products, shellfish, beans, nuts, chocolate, and vinegar. Some people become histamine intolerant, which does not mean there is a sensitivity, but that they have produced too much of it. When histamine levels get too high it can affect normal bodily functions and cause certain symptoms, like headaches, nasal congestion, fatigue, hives, digestive issues, irregular menstrual cycle, nausea, and vomiting.
- Nitrates/nitrites – The body produces a gas that expands blood vessels, called nitric oxide. Nitrates increase the production of nitric oxide, which can trigger headaches and migraines in sensitive individuals. Headaches triggered after the increase in nitric oxide occur when there’s an imbalance in the body’s ability to neutralize free radicals (unstable molecules that damage cells) that result from the production of nitric oxide. Nitrates are found naturally in certain vegetables, such as collard greens, broccoli and root vegetables. Nitrates and nitrites are additives in hot dogs, ham, sausage, bacon, lunch meat, pepperoni, other processed and cured meats, and some heart medications.
- MSG – MSG or monosodium glutamate is another food additive and flavor enhancer that triggers headaches in some people. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid found in your body and most foods. It is unclear why MSG triggers headaches in some people; however, some researchers speculate that large doses of MSG enable trace amounts of glutamic acid to cross the blood-brain barrier and interact with neurons, leading to brain swelling and injury. MSG containing foods include low quality Chinese food, convenience and processed foods, and some sauces and gravies.
- Aspartame – Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in over 6,000 food products as well as in carbonated/non-carbonated beverages, including diet soft drinks, sports drinks, iced tea, fruit drinks, and powdered mixes. Studies have shown that Aspartame causes inhibition of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Since drugs that raise dopamine levels in the brain have proven effective in reducing headache, it makes sense that consuming Aspartame may result in headaches in those that are triggered by low dopamine. Serotonin abnormalities have also been observed in both tension-type and migraine headache sufferers.
- Gluten and other food sensitivities – Gluten intolerance can trigger migraine headaches, as well as other food intolerances, such as egg, yeast, soy, corn, and milk. There is no accurate test for food intolerances, because there are so many different reasons a person could be experiencing the intolerance (reactions can be immunological, physiological, or biochemical in origin). However, common symptoms of a food intolerance include bloating, rash, diarrhea, fatigue, stomach cramps, skin flushing, and headaches.
The only way to determine if the origin of your headaches is food/nutrient related is to completely discontinue consumption of these foods. I usually have clients keep a very detailed food log for a week in order to make connections between what they are eating and what their symptoms are. Then, we remove any potential triggers immediately. If the headaches resolve, then we can determine which foods are causing the issue and eliminate them from the diet. This should relieve headache symptoms… unless you are stressed, like during the holidays!