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Food For Thought: Exploring the Relationship Between Diet and Headaches

Severe headaches can be debilitating. They can affect one’s ability to work, eat, sleep, exercise, perform daily tasks, and engage in social interaction. Headaches are one of the most common health conditions in Australia and migraines, a particularly painful type of headache, affect around 5 million Australians. There are many different causes and treatment options for headaches but in some cases, diet can play an important role.

Dietitian Tips for Managing Headaches

What are headaches and migraines?

Most of us have experienced a headache at one time or another, but what is the difference between a headache and a migraine?

What is a headache?

A headache is when pain results from one or more structures of your head being inflamed or irritated and causes a painful, aching sensation that can be felt around any part of the head or face area. There are different types and causes of headaches, and most often headaches have more than one contributing factor.

Headaches can be classified by two categories, primary and secondary. A primary headache could be a cluster or a tension headache, whereas a secondary headache is a side effect of another issue such as infection or injury.

What is a migraine?

Migraines are a particularly painful type of headache which also cause other symptoms such as sensitivity to light, noise, or smells, nausea and/or vomiting, and in some cases, weakness, dizziness, and problems with vision. The pain from a migraine is severe, a painful throbbing sensation is usually experienced on one side of the head, and is caused by a spasm of the blood vessels that lead to the brain.

Migraines can be experienced from as little as once or twice a year, to as often as two or three times a week. They can last from a few hours to days at a time.

Migraines affect women at a much higher rate, impacting around 15% of Australian women, compared to around 5% of Australian men. The exact cause of migraines is still unknown, but the condition is thought to be an inherited neurological disorder of sensory processing, meaning that the brain of a migraine sufferer processes sensory stimuli differently to someone who does not suffer from migraines.

What is the relationship between nutrition and headaches?

Whist not all headaches or migraines are related to diet, in some cases it can be a contributing factor. Studies have shown that what and when we eat can play a role in causing and managing headaches.

Different potential causes of diet-related headaches include:

  • Caffeine withdrawal – Most commonly experienced by those who regularly consume larger amounts of caffeine. Th withdrawal may occur when they then go an even short period of time without additional caffeine input.

  • Fluctuations in blood sugar levels – Which is believed to, in some cases, lead to spasm of the arteries in the head.

  • Food sensitivities and intolerances – People who have food sensitivities or intolerances can find that consuming the foods they are sensitive too can cause a painful headache reaction.

  • Too little energy intake – not consuming enough food to be able to fuel and energise your body can lead to fatigue and headaches.

  • Dehydration – not getting in enough water to keep your body well hydrated can also lead to headaches.

  • Nutritional deficiencies – in some cases being deficient in a type of vitamin and/or mineral can lead to headaches.

For migraines specifically, around 10-20% of sufferers find they have food related triggers. The foods migraine sufferers are sensitive to varies person to person, though studies have found some of the most common causes to be cheese, chocolate, and alcohol (especially red wine).

Other causes for headaches can be lack of sleep, high levels of stress, exposure to extreme temperatures, and menstruation. If you find you are experiencing regular or long-lasting headaches, speak to your health care professional about your symptoms.

Dietary Problems Associated with Headaches

In some cases, the relationship can go the other way and headaches can lead to nutritional problems. A common risk factor is people cutting out foods because they think that food category may be causing their migraines. The issue is when this is done without the guidance of a trained health professional. Cutting out a whole group of foods increases the risk of nutritional deficiencies as you are missing out on the nutrients that group of food used to provided. In turn, nutritional deficiencies can cause headaches, so cutting out foods unnecessarily may exacerbate the problem.

A similar issue arises when headaches/migraines leave you feeling too unwell to eat. Or if it causes nausea or vomiting, you may reduce the amount of food and fluids you consume. This can lead to undereating and dehydration, and just as with cutting out food groups, this can exacerbate symptoms of headaches.

This is why it is very important to work with your Doctor and Dietitian when you are experiencing symptoms that impact your food intake, or if you think you might have a food intolerance.

Dietitian Tips for Managing Headaches

Here are some quick tips from a dietitian for managing headaches:

  • Incorporate stress-reducing activities into your regular routine such as yoga, meditation, colouring, walking, etc. to reduce stress and tension in the body.

  • Aim for at least 2L (or 8 glasses) of water every day to maintain adequate hydration.

  • Include a variety of foods from each of the 5 food groups every day.

  • Eat regularly throughout the day. If fitting in three main meals is a challenge, aim for smaller more frequent meals every 2-3 hours. This provides your body with ongoing energy and smaller meals/snacks take less time to prepare and eat.

  • Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.

  • Seek assistance from your Doctor or a Neurologist if symptoms are ongoing or severe.

What to know more?

Our Dietitians provide individualised support on dietary management for headaches, as well as advice for food intolerances and nutritional deficiencies and so much more.


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