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How to Avoid Headaches through Diet

We all know that foods have the ability to impact pain levels. Some foods (and drinks) are linked to increased inflammation, for instance, while other foods can noticeably decrease it. It turns out, according to a recent report, that the things we consume are also linked to migraines. The new review found that there are several key foods to avoid – and several to include in your diet – if you want to steer clear of headaches.

Study Overview

The review, titled “Diet and Headache” was published in two parts in the publication Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain.[1] The researchers examined 180 research studies that dealt with the connection between diet and migraines. Although the role of diet in headache pain management is still a controversial topic in the headache field, the researchers note, their goals were to determine which foods are linked to the onset of headache pain and what a comprehensive, headache-reducing diet might look like.

Key Findings

One of the main items that was found to impact headaches was, in fact, caffeine. Both not consuming enough caffeine – aka caffeine withdrawal – and consuming too much caffeine were found to trigger headache symptoms. So if you’re a regular coffee consumer, try not to abruptly decrease your intake. But also be careful not to exceed 400 milligrams of caffeine a day (which comes out to a little over 3 cups), since that seems to be the maximum amount migraine sufferers can handle. Even if you’re not a regular migraine sufferer, it may be a good idea to cut back, since large amounts of caffeine have actually been shown to cause symptoms related to anxiety and depression.

MSG, a component in many processed foods, was another ingredient strongly linked to headaches. Limiting MSG is pretty simple; the FDA requires it to be listed on packaging as monosodium glutamate, so checking the labels of foods before you buy them could help you reduce it in your diet. It’s often found in things like Chinese food, salad dressing, snack foods, ketchup and barbecue sauce, among others. According to the review’s authors, it’s most likely to trigger an attack when it’s in a liquid, like soup.

Alcohol, especially red wine and vodka, may be problematic for some with headaches, although the researches note that there’s less evidence demonstrating this. Similarly, nitrates – preservatives in processed meats – may have the ability to trigger headaches in about 5% of people.

A Change in Diet

An elimination diet, in which you avoid foods and ingredients known to trigger headaches, is one approach to avoiding the onset of a migraine. The other is adopting a comprehensive diet, one that decreases the bad ingredients while upping the good. These include diets that are low in fat (where fat is less than 20% of the daily diet) and carbohydrates, in addition to those that increase omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed, salmon, cod, scallops) while decreasing omega-6 fatty acids (vegetable oils, peanuts, cashews). (If you’re considering adopting one such diet to help with your headache pain, always consult a physician to ensure the diet is safe and that you remain healthy.)

Gluten-free diets, on the other hand, haven’t been shown to reduce the likelihood of headaches unless the person suffers from celiac disease.

Implications for the Future

This study may help a lot of people prevent painful headache occurrences, but the authors do note that more clinical trials on the topic will be needed. Yet switching to a healthier diet is no doubt a smart plan of action, one that can not only lead to fewer migraines, but also decreased inflammation and pain throughout the body, as well as weight loss and the prevention of heart disease.

If headaches are still interfering with your daily life, consider seeking help from a pain management physician, who will be able to suggest various treatment options based on your condition.


[1] Martin, Vincent T. and Brinder Vij. “Diet and Headache: Part 1” and “Diet and Headache: Part 2.”  Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 56, no. 9 (October 2016).