Whether a dull ache or a splitting migraine; headaches aren’t fun. Here are the most common triggers and tips for how to reduce them.
Potential Nutritional Deficiencies: Although headaches can be attributed to a nutritional deficiency, it’s not one of the most common causes. However, headaches can result from a deficiency in magnesium and folate (vitamin B9). If you don’t consume the recommended amount, between 320 to 420 milligrams of magnesium a day, depending on your gender and age, you might experience migraine headaches. This is due to magnesium’s effect on neurotransmitter release and vasoconstriction. More rarely, headaches can also be a symptom of megaloblastic anaemia, caused by a deficiency in folate.
Boost magnesium consumption by eating more green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. In terms of folate, adults should aim for 400 micrograms a day unless you’re pregnant or nursing, which requires 600 micrograms and 500 micrograms, respectively. Dietary sources of folate include vegetables, fruits and their juices, nuts, beans, peas, dairy, poultry, meat, eggs, seafood and grains.
Nutritional Excess: In some cases, headaches might be the result of a nutrient excess rather than deficiency, e.g. a symptom of vitamin A and zinc toxicity. The upper level for vitamin A is 10,000 international units per day and it’s typically exceeded when you consume too much in the form of supplements. The upper level for zinc is 40 milligrams a day for adults. If you are pregnant or getting your body ready for pregnancy, do not take multivitamins containing vitamin A, unless advised to by a doctor.
Sugar: The most common cause of headaches and migraines is low blood sugar. When you eat sugar or carbohydrate rich foods, blood sugar rises and your body attempts to dilute the excess sugar by triggering thirst. If you ignore this signal the combination of dehydration and blood sugar highs and lows will often trigger a headache. Ice cream, milk shakes and other sweet dairy treats and chocolate can cause sinus inflammation, triggering headaches. Some people are allergic to the phenylethylamine in chocolate, which is also an ingredient in some wines. Cakes such as doughnuts, biscuits and sweet bread contain refined flour and sugar that encourage the growth of candida, a fungus that can cause sinus infections. Avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates is the key to keeping your blood sugar level stable. This means no skipping breakfast, eating complex carbs (slow releasing) including whole grains, brown rice, lentils and beans with protein and snacking on low glycaemic index fruit, such as apples, pears and strawberries.
Red Food Colouring: Red food colouring causes headaches in some people. Foods containing food colouring are typically low in nutritional value and generally include sweets, cake mixes, fizzy drinks, chewing gum and cake icing.
Low-Carb Diet: A low-carb diet might be an efficient way to lose weight, but research indicates the side effects of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet (consuming less than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates a day) include headaches, along with constipation, muscle cramps, diarrhoea, weakness and skin rash. To avoid experiencing this, keep your carbohydrate consumption above 50 grams a day.
Hidden Allergies: If you repeatedly experience headaches or migraines it could indicate a hidden food allergy. The most common offenders are wheat, gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats), dairy products, citrus foods, caffeine and yeast. A number of additives have also been found to trigger migraines, including MSG and aspartame. For some people, cheese and chocolate are particularly bad triggers.
Physical and Emotional Triggers: Too much time sitting down in front of a computer and too little time stretching can cause misalignments of the cervical vertebrae in the neck, triggering headaches and stiffness in the back and shoulders. A chiropractor or osteopath can help with tension-reducing massage. If stress is a trigger, headaches and migraines may be your body’s way of telling you to slow down or take a break. If you are pushing yourself beyond your capacity, you may need to re-evaluate your priorities.
Pollution: Pollution and exhaust fumes can trigger a headache. If you live in a big city, eating a diet rich in antioxidant nutrients, including fresh fruit and vegetables – especially red, orange and purple varieties such as berries, apricots, sweet potatoes, peppers, and carrots will help reduce the negative impact of exposure to pollution, radiation and harmful chemicals. Also drink approx. 1.5 litres of filtered water a day, and reduce coffee and alcohol as they increase dehydration. Supplement with an antioxidant complex that contains at least 5000mcg of vitamin A (as mixed carotenoids), 1200mg of vitamin C and 130mg of vitamin E. Also supplement with omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs) to support nerve and cell membranes that are susceptible to damage – 300mg of EPA, 200mg of DHA, and 100mg of GLA.
Other common causes of headaches include; hangovers and dehydration, being overtired, over exercising, vision problems, medications, lack of sleep, menstruation, hormone level changes, smoking, loud noises and long car trips.
- When a migraine is in full swing, the digestive system shuts down so it’s best not to eat or take supplements.
- If you can’t identify a particular trigger but suffer badly try taking 100-200mg of niacin, a vasodilator. Studies have shown migraines can be relieved by supplementing either vitamin B2 or B3 (niacin) if you do this in the early stages. Start with 100g and work your way up as it will cause a flushing sensation and intense feeling of heat – you may want to try this at home first!
Shani Shaker BA (hons), dipION, mBANT, CNHC, is a registered nutritional therapist with a focus on regenerative and functional nutrition, disordered eating, addiction and mental health. Based in London her services include individual and group consultations and Skype sessions. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: The information provided is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. Headaches can be a symptom of more serious conditions, so if you’re experiencing them regularly, consult your GP to eliminate the possibility of any other underlying cause. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition. Supplementation should only be temporary. If you’re eating a nutrient-rich diet, extra supplementation should only last for a month or two, just long enough to resolve the deficiency.