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Stop the food-headache cycle

You are what you eat. It's not just an old saying -- science has proven that foods make a huge impact on your health and well-being. And if you suffer from chronic headaches, what you are eating could be the cause of your pain. Here are some of the most common headache triggers.

Food additives. Substances added to processed foods to preserve them and add flavor may add more than you bargained for.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that you can add to foods or drinks yourself or buy already in low-calorie foods and diet drinks. Nutrasweet and Equal are two of the brand names. Some studies link aspartame with migraine headaches, and others do not.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer often reported by migraine sufferers as a headache trigger. Although once it was associated mainly with Chinese food, it is also used in Accent, meat tenderizers, canned meat and fish, and packaged and prepared foods. The FDA requires MSG to be listed as an ingredient on food labels.

Sodium nitrite is used in processed meats like hot dogs, turkey, ham, and sausage and can cause headaches in some people.

Alcohol. Why does alcohol give you a headache ? Because of chemicals called congeners and histamines. Congeners give a special aroma and flavor to each type of alcohol. Red wine and beer contain the highest amounts, and since these drinks are most often associated with headaches, researchers believe there is some connection.

Histamines are found naturally in your body and in certain foods. But if you are histamine intolerant, your system can't break down these substances properly. One result may be that blood vessels in your brain expand, causing headache pain.

Histamines are found in all types of wine, but red can have up to 200 times more than white. They are also in beer, sardines, anchovies, ripened cheeses, hard-cured sausages like pepperoni and salami, and pickled vegetables. If you think you are histamine intolerant, talk to your doctor about going on a histamine-free diet.

Cold foods. A dish of ice cream on a hot summer day looks pretty inviting. But after a few bites, a sudden sharp pain strikes in the middle of your forehead. It's the attack of an ice cream headache.

Eating or drinking very cold foods and beverages can cause stabbing head pain, but according to a report in the British Medical Journal, ice cream is the most common cause. The pain is usually brief, but intense - peaking in 30 to 60 seconds and fading quickly, although in some cases it can last up to five minutes.

You don't have to give up ice cream to avoid a "brain freeze." Just eat slowly, and cry not to let the frozen treat touch the back of the roof of your mouth.

Tyramine. This substance can expand blood vessels in the brain, causing headache pain. It's found in lima beans, fava beans, snow peas, freshly-baked yeast breads or cakes, wine, beer, liver, including pate, and most cheeses.

If you take an MAO inhibitor for depression, you may get a severe headache when you eat certain tyramine-rich foods, like cheese. If you're on this type of medication, see if avoiding these foods makes a difference in how often you get headaches.

Caffeine. If you don't get your morning cup of coffee, your head may begin to pound. That's the first sign of caffeine withdrawal. Many people forget that caffeine is a drug. The more you drink, the more your body comes to depend on it. When you finally get that first can of cola, cup of tea, or mug of coffee, your withdrawal symptoms go away. No more headache. That is, until tomorrow.

If you don't like being dependent on caffeine, try limiting yourself to only eight ounces a day -- the amount recommended by the National Headache Foundation. If you drink more than that now, it's best to cut back gradually to avoid headaches.

Caffeine can be helpful in some instances though. Some of the most effective headache medications contain caffeine as an ingredient. And some migraine sufferers swear by a cup or two of strong tea or coffee at the onset of a headache to prevent or ease the pain.

Reactions to different foods can vary from one person to another. Even such common foods as sour cream, peanut butter, sour-dough bread, pizza, bananas, and raisins can give some people a headache. Keep a diary of what you eat and when your head hurts, and you should be able to pinpoint your own triggers.


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