Can Certain Foods Trigger a Headache?

Ever find yourself with a pounding headache, one that has you popping painkillers in hopes of easing your misery? Well, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that roughly 45 million Americans have chronic severe headaches. Meanwhile, 25% of women and 8% of men will experience a migraine at some point during their life.

As it happens, what you eat — or don’t eat — may trigger the pain in your noggin. Here are five foods that are thought to be some of the biggest culprits when it comes to causing headaches.

headache and red wine

Headache Trigger #1: Red Wine

It goes without saying that if you drink too much red wine (or any alcohol for that matter), you’re going to wake up with a wicked hangover headache. But for some, having just a few sips or a glass of wine is enough to trigger head pain. A lot of folks think it’s the sulfites in the wine that are to blame.

Meanwhile, others point the finger at histamine and tyramine, both naturally present in wine — the idea being that histamine dilates blood vessels while tyramine initially constricts then dilates blood vessels, leading to that familiar throbbing in the temples. And then there are the tannins. Some researchers have found that wines with more tannins trigger migraine attacks.

Headache Trigger #2: Coffee

headache and coffee

Coffee — or caffeinated tea and soda — can be OK for some and bad for others. Caffeine is in fact a common ingredient in headache medications as it’s been found to make painkillers 40% more effective. It also speeds the absorption of these medications into your body.

That said, some folks may experience moderate to severe withdrawal headaches with caffeine. This happens when someone who regularly drinks two or more cups of coffee a day misses his/her daily dose of caffeine.

headache and cheese

Headache Trigger #3: Aged Cheese

We mentioned that there’s tyramine in red wine. Well, aged cheese has a ton of it, and tyramine has been found to trigger migraine pain.

If you’re one of 18 million Americans who suffers from migraines, you may want to consider cutting out aged cheese, especially blue, brie and cheddar cheese.

Stick to fresh low-fat cheeses such as cottage, ricotta or cream cheese instead.


headache and cured meat

Headache Trigger #4: Cured Meats

Cured meats are right up there with aged cheese when it comes to having high levels of the migraine-inducing tyramine. Basically, the more a food ages or ferments, the more tyramine is produced in said food.

As well, some nitrites — a preservative and flavor enhancer known to trigger headaches — are often added to hot dogs, deli meats, jerky, salami and sausages.

A number of other foods — such as raw onions and citrus fruits — also contain tyramine. If you think you have a sensitivity to tyramine, you may want to follow a low-tyramine diet.

Headache Trigger #5: Chocolate

headache and chocolate

The debate continues as to whether chocolate triggers headaches. One camp talks to the fact that chocolate contains tyramine and phenylalanine, which has also been shown to trigger migraines. Meanwhile, the other camp believes that chocolate may simply be a craving that precedes the onset of a migraine.

If you’re a headache or migraine sufferer, keeping both a food and headache diary may help identify whether chocolate or any other food is a likely trigger. Tracking exactly what, how much and when you eat as well as noting things like lack of or too much sleep, skipped meals as well as spikes in stress and hormone levels (women experience more headaches around their period) can all help towards pinpointing what, if anything, to cut out and what to keep in your diet.

Whatever the case may be, eating a well-balanced diet that includes three meals plus a snack or six small meals a day is key to managing headaches triggered by your diet.

Lisa is the director of content strategy at Zipongo. Her experiences include editorial and strategy at both start-ups and enterprise companies along with cooking at a top restaurant in NYC.

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