Foods That May Trigger Headaches and Why

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An estimated 10% to 15% of the population suffers from repeated migraines, mostly women, while as many as 40% of people regularly get common headaches.

The Wall Street Journal’s Sumathi Reddy points out that headaches can be triggered by a range of things, from stress to lack of sleep to a change in the weather, and every person is susceptible to different triggers, or combination of triggers.

Experts say food can be another factor that sets off a headache. But David Buchholz, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book “Heal Your Headache,” says a big difference is that people might be able to avoid the foods that prompt the ailment.

Reddy notes some experts think there may be a chemical reaction that leads to some headaches or foods that trigger a vascular response involving nerves and blood vessels around the head.

A newer theory suggests that certain foods may prompt an immune-system response that triggers headache. A possible culprit is tyramine, a naturally occurring chemical in food.

“There’s a fairly long list” of foods that can potentially trigger headaches, says Linda Porter, a pain-policy adviser at the National Institutes of Health.

“I think the difficulty is that the triggers may be more a combined effect from different things. They can sometimes be a little bit hard to identify.” Still, she says, if it isn’t an essential food, it’s worth eliminating it from one’s diet.

According to an analysis of studies on headache triggers published last year in the Handbook of Clinical Neurology, more than 50% of migraine sufferers change their diet or avoid specific foods.

And as many as one-third of people who regularly get common headaches have reported a link between eating and drinking and headache, the analysis said.

3 Potential Headache Triggers:
Courtesy of The Journal’s Sumathi Reddy

Monosodium Glutamate

The most commonly reported dietary headache trigger is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a flavor enhancer that may be added to canned vegetables and soups and processed meats.

The time interval between consuming a trigger food and contracting a headache can be a few hours to 48 hours.

“If I have MSG, the next day I’ll have such a terrible headache I feel like I’ve had about 1,000 drinks even though I haven’t had any,” says Amy Worcester Lanzi, of New York City.

“You get to the point where you just avoid it.” Other trigger foods for the 39-year-old include flavored chips and sugary treats, she says.


The National Headache Foundation suggests patients might want to limit their intake of tyramine to help control headaches. Tyramine’s connection to headaches came to light with the advent of a class of antidepressants, known by the acronym MAOIs.

The drugs block an enzyme that breaks down excess tyramine, which can boost blood pressure and cause headaches and nausea when it accumulates in the body.

Certain foods, including some aged cheeses, pickled products and nuts, have relatively high levels of tyramine, which is formed from the normal breakdown of an amino acid.

Tyramine can accumulate in foods that are aged, fermented or stored for long periods, experts say.

Examples of Tyramine-rich Foods:

Aged chicken liver
Aged cheese
Beer on tap
Red wine
Soy sauce
Miso soup
Yeast extract
Sauces containing fish or shrimp
Meats that have been fermented or air-dried


Foods with nitrites are all processed meats, such as ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, hot dogs and sausages.

Additionally, according to an analysis from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, a five year report concludes no amount of processed meat is considered safe.

Other foods that may trigger headaches include citrus foods and juices, freshly baked goods with yeast, and caffeine and alcohol, even in very small amounts.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper