Smart Eating: Migraines & headaches

By Polly Rea

Smart Eating: Migraines & headaches
Tension headaches and migraines plague many people, with the causes often unknown. Find out why what you eat could help ease – or aggravate – these complaints.

Headaches are a common complaint for many people. They range from the dull and throbbing to the sharp and debilitating, affecting men and women, young and old, those who are active and those who are sedentary. For many, the cause of their headache is unknown, yet there are several different factors suggested as triggers to this disturbing pain.

Although the brain is perceived as being the site of pain, this is incorrect as the brain itself has no pain receptors. The pain comes from outside the brain, for example from scalp muscles when stretched or tensed.

The two most commonly recognised types of headaches are the Tension Headache and the Migraine Headache. The Tension Headache (TH) is caused by tightened muscles of the face, neck, jaw or scalp. This type of headache is often the result of stress or poor posture, with tightened muscles pinching nerves or their blood supply, causing pain and pressure. Relaxation of those muscles usually brings relief. A TH feels like a steady, constant dull pain, which starts at the base of the skull or in the forehead and may spread over the entire head.

The Migraine Headache (MH) presents as a throbbing or pounding sharp pain and is the result of excessive dilation of the blood vessels in the head. It is a severe form of headache, which can last from four to 72 hours. Women are three times more likely to experience this type of headache than men.

While a MH may come on without warning, it is common to experience a group of symptoms just prior to the onset of pain, known as an aura. These symptoms include blurring or bright spots of vision, anxiety, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea, disturbed thinking, unilateral peripheral numbness or tingling and even gastrointestinal upset.

MHs appear to be influenced by serotonin levels, with those who suffer from them showing low levels of this brain chemical. Increasing the production of serotonin is thought to be beneficial in the management of a MH.

Oestrogen is also believed to play a role in the onset of MHs, with pregnancy a natural antidote for some women. Menstruation and menopause often change a woman’s pattern of migraine headaches.

Food allergies and intolerances play a role in many cases. Foods such as chocolate, cheese, beer and wine contain histamine or other similar amines, which cause the blood vessel dilation seen in a MH. Red wine is more problematic than white due to its significantly higher levels of histamine – 20 to 200 per cent more, in fact. For histamine-induced migraines, it’s recommended to avoid foods high in histamine and eat plenty of foods containing vitamin B6, such as whole grains. Tyramine can also be a migraine trigger for some people. This amine is high in aged cheese, smoked fish and cured meats.

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is also linked to MH. A regular intake of protein and good fats such as avocados or nuts and seeds throughout the day will help to reduce any sudden drop in blood sugar levels.

The integrity of the digestive system may also play a role. The metabolic waste produced by pathogenic organisms such as parasites and bacteria may provoke a MH. By keeping favourable bacteria at an optimal level, these headache-causing metabolites can be kept to a minimum.

Low levels of magnesium are found in many MH sufferers. Increasing levels of this electrolyte through the diet will help to maintain the tone and integrity of blood vessels, preventing the over-excitability that causes their dilation.

Increasing your intake of dietary omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish while reducing your intake of arachidonic acid found in animal fats may be useful, reducing the inflammatory pathway and therefore pain response.

Feverfew is a herb that can be consumed as a tea or by eating the leaves. It has been shown to reduce the onset and duration of MH and is thought to work in different ways, having implications on several triggering factors. Its influence on serotonin release, inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis and impact on histamine release all provide good reason to drink this herbal tea in the management of MH.

Magnesium and migraines

A number of nutrients have been linked to a reduction in headaches and migraines – among them magnesium.

Magnesium plays many essential roles in your body, one of which is involved in maintaining healthy nerve and muscle function. There are a large number of nerves and muscles surrounding your scalp and brain and a headache or migraine can occur if they’re not functioning properly.

Studies also show people suffering from migraine attacks commonly have depleted magnesium stores, with one trial finding a significant reduction in migraine occurrence after magnesium intake.

Although available as a supplement, it is better to obtain magnesium from a range of wholefoods including leafy green vegetables, fruits (specifically avocados and bananas) and legumes. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of magnesium.

Try sprinkling pumpkin seeds over muesli, or pan-fry and add to a salad.

Foods to help aid peace of mind:


One of the best food sources of vitamin B6, wheatgerm will help regulate histamine release and therefore decrease the likelihood of histamine-related migraines. Add to a smoothie or sprinkle over fruit and yoghurt.

Mackerel & Salmon

These oily fish are full of essential fatty acids, which can help modulate the inflammatory pathways and therefore pain response associated with migraines. Fatty acids also help to increase serotonin production.

Leafy Greens

Leafy greens’ high magnesium content helps keep blood vessel walls toned and less susceptible to the dilation seen in migraines. Leafy greens also promote oestrogen clearance, keeping hormone levels balanced.

Garlic & Onion

Adding garlic and onion to your diet will help keep the liver clean, allowing for efficient processing of toxins and reducing their systemic impact, such as the onset of migraines.


Low-energy production has been implicated in the onset of migraines. To boost energy levels, include spinach in your diet, it’s a good source of vitamin B2, which is involved in energy metabolism.


Oats display a restorative action to the nervous system. As most migraines are precipitated by emotional stresses, eating oats will help to keep nerves intact, reducing the onset of many migraines.



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