8 Things You Need to Know About Nutrition & Your Aching Head

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If this month's National Headache Week, June 1-7, makes you think of nothing except reaching for the aspirin, think again. According to researchers at the National Headache Foundation, which sponsors the annual awareness week, there's plenty you can do to combat chronic headache pain. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the number-one tip on the foundation's list of "Seven Healthy Habits of Headache Sufferers" (see box) is all about diet. What you eat and drink can make a difference in your headache risk.

"These tips can provide important stepping stones to reduce headache frequency and severity," says Seymour Diamond, MD, executive chairman of the National Headache Foundation, adding, "It is also critical for frequent headache sufferers to talk with their healthcare provider about how best to manage their headaches."

You probably already know that certain foods can trigger migraine headaches, and of course that overindulgence in alcohol can leave you with a headache the next morning. But other foods, along with certain vitamins, are being studied for possible beneficial effects for headache sufferers. Here are eight things you need to know about diet, nutrition and headaches:

1 Foods high in tyramine can trigger migraines. An organic compound that occurs naturally in plants and animals — especially during fermentation or decay — tyramine may cause migraines in certain individuals. Not all foods high in tyramine trigger migraines in all sufferers, however, so it's smart to keep your own food diary to track what does and doesn't cause problems for you.

Foods high in tyramine include ripened cheeses, chocolate, nuts and nut butters, sourdough bread, lima and fava beans, snow peas, pizza, processed meats such as salami and pepperoni, chicken livers, olives, pickles, sauerkraut and avocados. Certain fruits — figs, raisins, papayas, red plums, bananas — might need to be limited to no more than a half-cup (or half a banana) daily. Also be cautious about yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk — no more than a half-cup daily.

For a complete guide to a low-tyramine diet, see .

2 Aspartame has not been proven to trigger migraines. Some patients report problems with this popular sugar substitute, sold as Equal and NutraSweet. But according to the National Headache Foundation, aspartame "has not been demonstrated to be a significant trigger for migraine." Obviously, if you think it causes you problems, avoid aspartame anyway and see if you tolerate other sweeteners better.
3 Alcohol can cause headaches in several ways. It's not just "hangover headache" that can hit you from alcohol intake. For some people, alcohol's vasodilating effect, which leads to a decrease in blood pressure, directly causes a headache. Alcohol also acts as a diuretic, causing the body to excrete salt and minerals; so too much alcohol can lead to dehydration and chemical imbalances in the body. You can also get headaches from the other chemicals — called "congeners" — that give alcoholic beverages (except for pure ethanol) their unique flavors.
4 Caffeine cuts both ways. Unlike alcohol, caffeinated beverages can actually help relieve occasional headache pain; some headache medications even include caffeine, which constricts the blood vessels and is a stimulant. Frequent headache sufferers, however, should restrict or avoid caffeine because of a paradoxical "rebound" effect that triggers new headaches. Most headache sufferers can safely consume up to 200 milligrams daily — about two to three cups of coffee.
5 Fish oil may fight migraines. A small study at the University of Cincinnati found that fish-oil capsules reduced frequency and severity of migraines compared to a placebo. While preliminary, these findings add to the mounting evidence of benefits from the omega-3 fatty acids in fish. Eating about two ounces of fatty fish daily would supply the amount of omega-3s used in the study.
6 The jury's out on ginger. Researchers are looking at whether ginger — which has mild antihistamine, anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory effects — could help against migraines. Until more studies are done comparing ginger versus a placebo, however, don't depend on ginger to fight your headaches.
7 Vitamin B2 may help prevent migraines. A European study found that high doses of vitamin B2 (riboflavin), over time, reduced the frequency of migraines. But Dr. Diamond of the headache foundation cautions, "We need longer and larger studies before we can recommend the use of vitamin B2 in this dosage."
8 Be wary of other vitamin concoctions. Ignore those ads promising headache relief from various supplements. Not only are their benefits unproven, but overdoses of some vitamins can cause serious side effects. And too much niacin may actually cause headaches.
TO LEARN MORE: National Headache Foundation, 820 N. Orleans, Suite 217, Chicago, IL 60610, toll-free (888) NHF-5552, info@headaches.org, .

7 Healthy Habits of Headache Sufferers
Eat regular meals, avoiding foods and drinks known to trigger headache attacks.
Maintain a regular sleeping schedule, including weekends and vacations.
Implement stress-reduction techniques in your daily life.
Keep a headache diary of when your headaches occur, along with any triggers, and share the information with your healthcare provider.
See your healthcare provider.
Be informed, be a participant in your treatment and be an advocate for your headache care.
Stay apprised of the latest headache news and treatment options.

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