Food and stress can trigger headaches

By Chuck NewcombFebruary 22, 2013 

A headache is the most common form of pain and a major reason people miss work or school and visit the doctor.

The most common type is a tension headache, which is due to tight muscles in shoulders, neck, scalp and jaw or even eye strain. It is often related to anxiety, depression or stress and frequently occurs when you are overworked, don't get enough sleep or miss meals. Snacking between meals may prevent some headaches.

Other common types of headaches include migraines, cluster headaches, and sinus headaches. Most people can feel better by making lifestyle changes, learning to relax and taking pain relievers. Hormone fluctuations can trigger migraines, though in some women, they may alleviate migraines.

The American Headache Society stresses the importance of avoiding large fluctuations in blood sugar. This means eating regular meals that contain an adequate balance of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Eating high-fiber fruits and vegetables, and avoiding processed foods or sweets is part of this strategy.

Clinical research from the National Headache Foundation suggests that a large percentage of all migraines are linked to food allergies or reactions caused by food additives, especially certain preservatives and colorings, caffeine and chocolate.

The best way to test for possible food allergies is to try eating a basic restricted diet for a period of time and then gradually reintroduce one type of food at a time to see if there is any change. Keep in mind that a small amount of something may be no problem but larger amounts or frequent consumption could cause a reaction.

Alcohol, MSG, certain cheeses and processed meats are common headache triggers. Other less common trigger foods include raisins, bananas, yeast bread and avocados.

Caffeine acts as a stimulant to the nervous system. Moderate caffeine intake is about 300 milligrams per day, which is equal to about three cups of coffee. Caffeine intake increases with the addition of sodas and tea. Limiting caffeinated drinks may prevent or reduce the frequency of caffeine-related headaches. Giving up caffeine can also cause temporary headaches, but those go away in a few days.

In addition, caffeinated drinks should be limited or avoided as much as possible and replaced with water or perhaps natural fruit juices, due to the diuretic properties causing dehydration. The rule of thumb is to drink at least eight cups of water a day.

Low magnesium levels have also been associated with headaches and migraines. The National Pain Foundation says studies show that magnesium supplements can be helpful in headache and migraine prevention in some people. Check with your doctor before using supplements.

Proper treatment of headaches involves diagnosis to locate the disorder. It is important to keep track of headaches so your doctor can properly diagnosis your pain, type and causes.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a master of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to ChuckRD at: MHA

LosBanos@SutterHealth.org or on his website

MySmartRD.com.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a master of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to ChuckRD at: MHA Lo

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