Nearly everyone experiences headache pain over a lifetime. It’s a common reason people visit their doctors — and a serious public health problem. According to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003, headaches are one of the most common causes of pain and they result in a significant loss of productive time in the United States workforce.
“There’s no question that headache pain diminishes the quality of life for millions of people, but it’s not because there aren’t effective treatments available,” says Robert Bonakdar, MD, a physician at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, California.
Those treatments include acupuncture, biofeedback, medication and psychotherapy. Yet even with these options, many headache sufferers don’t seek help, because they think the pain is only a minor problem. In other instances, headaches are not being properly diagnosed.
“What we have found is that most headache sufferers report some sort of trigger, often in their diets,” Dr. Bonakdar explains. “When this is the case, the solution may be as simple as identifying and avoiding these triggers.”
While many foods can cause headaches, some are more common than others. Dr. Bonakdar tells his patients to avoid the following whenever possible:
These are foods that can cause an allergic reaction. Some of the most common are peanuts and foods made with gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
Pre-packaged and processed foods often contain additives to preserve their flavor, color and texture.
These ingredients are common in a lot of diet foods to reduce the calorie content or serve as a preservative. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose are common headache triggers.
The aging process can create some naturally occurring compounds such as tyramine and tannins, both of which could be a headache trigger. These foods include wine, cheese, sauerkraut and cured meats.
“People should keep in mind that diet is just one component of headache management,” says Dr. Bonakdar. “It’s important to look at the whole person to develop a treatment plan that includes a healthy lifestyle, integrative therapies — and when appropriate — medication.”