Headaches might just be the most oppressive common malady there is. About 40 percent of us routinely suffer ordinary tension-type headaches, which range from the sensation of a tightening band to outright pounding around the head. Ninety-three percent have these headaches at least once or twice a year.
It gets worse for the additional 50 million Americans who endure migraines, which pulse and throb relentlessly on one side of the brain. Accompanied by nausea, dizziness, numbness, neck pain and a host of other physical symptoms — even hallucinations — migraines can be mild or can grind life to a halt for hours or days at a time. The most severe migraines keep people home, in darkened bedrooms, and unable to drive, withstand the light of day, work or care for their kids. About 6 million people suffer migraines every day of their lives.
A perfect cure for headaches may not be within our grasp anytime soon. But by embracing the wide range of treatments available now — from avoiding triggers and taking supplements to trying medical interventions when warranted — all but the most intractable headaches can be controlled.
Dietary Triggers: Top 10 List
David Buchholz, MD, of Johns Hopkins University, points to the top 10 migraine triggers found in food:
Caffeine. Found in coffee, tea, colas and certain other sodas. Going off caffeine suddenly can also trigger headaches.
Chocolate. Anything with cocoa. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, which may cause blood vessels to expand and contract.
Nuts. From almonds to pistachios, they can all be culprits, as can nut butters.
Monosodium glutamate. Famously found in Chinese food, but also in seasoned salt, salty snacks, prepared soups, many low-fat and low-cal foods, and even veggie burgers. Steer clear of hydrolyzed vegetable, soy or plant proteins, which can contain similar compounds.
Deli meats and fish. If it has been aged, canned, cured, fermented, marinated, smoked or tenderized, it may trigger headaches, says Buchholz. Preservation with nitrites or nitrates is a no-no. Avoid beef livers and chicken livers, as well.
Dairy products, especially cheese. This includes all kinds of hard cheeses and foods prepared with cheese. The more aged the cheese, the worse the trigger. White cheeses, including cottage cheese, ricotta and cream cheese, have not been implicated, but yogurt has.
Red wine. Too much red wine or any dark alcohol can stack the decks against you. Of all drinking alcohols, vodka is tolerated best. Also avoid vinegar; balsamic is the most problematic, but white should be OK.
Certain fruits and vegetables. In his book Heal Your Headache, Buchholz lists the fruits and vegetables most implicated in triggering headaches. Among the problematic fruits: citrus fruits and fruit juices, bananas, raisins and other dried fruits preserved with sulfites, raspberries, red plums, papayas, passion fruit, figs, dates, and avocados. Vegetable culprits include sauerkraut, pea pods and beans (from fava to navy to lentils). The worst vegetable offender may be onions, though baby onions are OK.
Freshly baked breads risen with yeast. Especially problematic is sourdough. Also look out for bagels, doughnuts, pizza dough and soft pretzels less than 24 hours out of the oven.
Aspartame. Found in many diet soft drinks and artificial sweeteners, aspartame contains excitotoxins known to affect nerve cells.
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