Migraines are the tsunamis of headaches. Commonly described as “the worst headaches ever,” migraines can be managed, to a degree, with nutrition, but their cause is still being studied.
Fat-laden diets, medications, skipped meals, extremes in food temperatures and consuming large quantities of headache-risky foods have all been known to trigger migraines. Unfortunately, so have bright lights, weather, smoke, stress, menstruation, estrogen levels and physical activity.
Migraines are a painful puzzle three times more likely to affect women, and they run in families. If you know you’re susceptible, you may have learned that trigger foods can be more dangerous when combined with other triggers, and a headache can result hours or even days after a trigger food is ingested. You might do well to keep a food diary for a month, and look for your own patterns.
In the meantime, let’s look at what foods lessen the likelihood of an onset of a migraine, as well as what to ingest should you fall prey. Most experts agree on the triggers, so you’ve got a good starting point for migraine management. Picture migraines as the bull, intent on hurting you. A few specific foods can act as red capes, egging him to roar toward you with mal intent.
The first suspect is chocolate. Chocolate contains the nonessential amino acid tyramine, which also makes the list. Tyramine is thought to trigger headaches because it reduces serotonin levels in the brain, which affects blood vessel dilation. Because women crave chocolate during menstruation and hormonal changes, it is doubly suspect.
Chocolate is also intimately connected to stress, another trigger. Property values, visiting relatives, work deadlines and teens with attitudes can have us all reaching for a big slab of Hershey’s finest. Rethink this if you suffer from migraines, at least on a three-month trial basis.
Tyramine is produced when the amino acid tyrosine breaks down. Aging, fermenting or storing foods increases their tyramine levels. So aged cheese, cured meats, sauerkraut, fermented soy products and yeast all contain tyramine.
What you might never guess is where tyramine also hides: in fava beans, lentils, avocados, citrus, overripe bananas, nuts, peanut butter, seeds, pork and venison, bouillon cubes, canned soups and meat tenderizers.
Scientists thought that red wine was a trigger because of its tyramine levels, but now they suspect phytochemicals called phenols act as the trigger in vino rosso. Because alcoholic beverages of all kinds can trigger an attack, they add fuel to the serotonin-depletion argument.
Remembering that serotonin is called the happy hormone may inspire you to avoid things which deplete it, or at least consider doing them in moderation. Consuming large quantities of trigger foods or beverages is risky for sufferers, whereas they might “get away” with small indulgences.
Ingesting too much caffeine is another suspect trigger, but to underscore how confusing migraines are to scientists, some claim that too little caffeine can also cause problems. With the abundance of tasty decaffeinated drinks on the market, eliminating caffeine is logistically easy, if not physically. A registered dietitian can help you find supplements that will increase your energy levels and make up for that jolt upon which you’ve relied.
Lastly, food additives such as nitrites, nitrates and MSG (monosodium glutamate), are considered common migraine triggers, by increasing blood flow to the brain.
I hope, of course, that this column finds you pain-free and fully enjoying the southwest Florida lifestyle.
— Elaine Hastings is a registered dietitian and owner of Associates in Nutrition in Florida. Hastings can be contacted at info@ElaineHastings.com or by visiting AssociatesinNutrition.com. Follow @ElaineHastings on Twitter for daily nutrition tips.