Do you get frequent headaches? Chances are you’re not alone. More than three times as many women complain of severe headaches, especially migraine headaches, as compared to men. It’s estimated that between 18-20% of all women experience migraine headaches, which makes it one of the most common disabling conditions around the globe.
Headaches are often triggered by hormonal fluctuations, and changes in weather, both of which are unfortunately unavoidable. However, other triggers, which are avoidable or at least manageable, include stress, sleep disturbances, lighting conditions, and diet. For anyone who suffers from severe or frequent headaches, it’s worth taking a look at your lifestyle to see if changes in these areas might reduce your symptoms.
Often a high stress lifestyle goes hand in hand with poor sleep habits, and a less than desirable diet. It’s worthwhile to learn to identify stressors in your life, and work on developing coping mechanisms and ways to minimize your stress. Also, focus on getting regular exercise (at least 30 minutes of cardio most days of the week), which helps you to manage stress better, and it helps to promote more restful sleep. Since certain foods can sometimes trigger migraine headaches, especially if other triggering factors are present, try to make the following changes in your diet to see if your headaches improve:
Follow a consistent eating pattern. Skipping meals can affect blood sugar and hormone levels, and make you more susceptible to an attack. Eating three regularly scheduled meals and one or two snacks in-between helps to avoid glucose and hormone fluctuations. It also prevents you from becoming overly hungry, and making less than desirable food choices. Try to eat something healthy at least every five hours or so.
Keep caffeine to a minimum. Too much caffeine can trigger a migraine, but if you’re used to consuming large amounts, too little can also trigger a rebound headache. Limit caffeinated beverages to no more than two servings per day, but if you need to cut back, do it slowly, over a two-week period.
Limit alcoholic beverages. Any alcohol can trigger a migraine, and aged alcohol especially, such as red wine, champagne, rum, is a trigger for most individuals.
Minimize food additives and artificial sweeteners. Although scientific evidence isn’t conclusive, many people do report headaches when they consume the sweetener Aspartame, as well as monosodium glutamate (MSG), and nitrates and nitrites in processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and many cold cuts.
Be aware of foods that contain high levels of tyramine and tannins. Both of these compounds occur naturally in some foods, and tyramine levels increase in foods when they are aged, fermented, stored for long periods of time, or are not fresh. Migraine sufferers are usually advised to limit exposure to the following foods:
Tannin rich foods
Tyramine rich foods
Very ripe bananas
Beer on tap
Processed meats with nitrates/nutrites (hot dogs, bacon, bologna, ham, corned beef, sausage)
Fermented soy products such as miso, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce
Aged, dried meats (pepperoni, salamis, liverwurst)
Pickled vegetables (olives, pickles, sauerkraut)
Make sure you get ample amounts of the following nutrients: Magnesium from whole grain breads and cereals, and dried beans, and Riboflavin from dairy foods and eggs. Migraine sufferers often have low levels of magnesium, possibly because foods rich in this mineral are also sources of tyramine, and often avoided. Riboflavin has been shown in some studies, to reduce the frequency and duration of migraines. Take a multivitamin to make sure you're covered.
To learn more about what triggers your headaches, it's helpful to keep a journal and detail your diet, exercise, stress level or specific stressors, and sleep habits, along with your headache history.