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Volume III
December 21, 2012

Weekly Home / Cook'n & Eat'n

Do You Know What's Causing Your Headaches?

By Alice Osborne

I've talked to lots of insulin resistant folks who also deal with chronic headaches, including migraines. Scientists aren't sure of the link between the two maladies, but I wanted to share the research on chronic headaches in case you struggle with this issue as well. Maybe there's a helpful hint here:

For some people, environmental elements, such as cigarette smoke or heavy perfume, bring on headaches. I noticed that once I quit wearing perfume, my own headaches subsided a bit. For others, excessive stress or lack of sleep is enough to cause an attack. But the research says that up to 30 percent of headache sufferers are affected by the foods they eat. HAH! That's my topic - read on to discover what kinds of foods cause headaches, and why.

Look to cheese. There's no conclusive empirical evidence to prove which foods cause headaches, but there's enough anecdotal evidence to convict an all-time favorite food - CHEESE. One of the biggest triggers is the aged varieties of cheese. It is high in the enzyme, tyramine, an amino acid known to raise blood pressure, which can contribute to headaches. Tyramine forms from the breakdown of protein in foods, so the longer a food has aged, the greater the amount of tyramine present. Blue or moldy cheeses, Brie, Muenster, Parmesan, and cheddar tend to be the worst offenders. So cheese lovers be aware and beware!

But there are many other foods besides cheese that contain tyramine. If you're headache-prone, you might want to minimize all processed and aged meat products (salami, pepperoni, and hot dogs), pickles, fava beans, avocados, and most nuts. Tyramine's most severe effects happen to people taking monoamine oxidase inhibitor medications, but it has the potential to affect anyone.

Then there's red wine. Red wine negatively affects so many people that "red wine headache" is sometimes considered its own syndrome. Having a sensitivity to red wine isn't the same as developing a pounding headache after drinking a bottle or two (that's called a hangover, of course); true red wine headaches usually develop within just a few minutes after someone drinks the wine. People used to blame the headaches on sulfites, the compounds added to wine to halt fermentation or act as preservatives.

On one of my favorite websites, Care2, I learned that in the early 1980s, the FDA began to require wine producers to state on their bottles whether their wines contained sulfites, since a small portion of the population is allergic to them, so many people assumed that sulfite allergies were what caused the infamous red wine headaches. In fact, sulfite allergies are much more likely to trigger breathing problems than headaches and are far less common than people think. Also, white wine usually contains more sulfites than red wine, yet few people complain of white wine headaches.

No one is sure, but some people think that it's actually the mouth-puckering tannins that cause the reaction, since experiments have shown that tannins cause the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has been linked to headaches. Other scientists reject the tannin theory and blame histamines, which are present in red wine in levels twenty to two hundred times those of white wine. Some believe that the histamines trigger an immune response and inflammation, which can result in a headache.

And of course, there's the chemical connection. Food additives are known to trigger headaches in sensitive individuals. And while scientists don't know exactly what it is about nitrates, artificial sweeteners, MSG, and food colorings that causes headaches, they do know that these substances increase blood flow to the brain which can trigger a headache.

Headaches caused by additives tend to be slightly different than regular headaches. Those caused by MSG come with a pressure or a burning sensation in the face, neck, and chest, dizziness, and abdominal discomfort. Highly processed foods of any kind, such as Velveeta Cheese or frozen TV dinners, also cause the same symptoms. Unlike migraines, which are usually felt on only one side of the head, headaches caused by food additives tend to occur on both sides.

The list of foods that seem to trigger headaches is so long, it's nearly impossible to avoid everything. If you struggle with chronic headaches, doctors recommend keeping a food journal to monitor your diet and see how it correlates with your headaches. It's a lengthy trial-and-error process, but it's worth the effort. Once you find out exactly which foods seem to trigger your headaches, it's easier to avoid the specific offenders.

The worst-case scenario is that the food causing your headaches is a food you love. So if you just can't live without indulging in your favorite cheese, or MSG-laden Chinese food, and you know a headache is sure to follow, turn to a preemptive dose of pain reliever. But don't say you weren't warned.


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