It's been estimated that perhaps 10 to 30 percent of headaches are related to food sensitivities. The dietary triggers seem to vary considerably among individuals, however, making it difficult to create a trigger-free diet that would work for all. Indeed, the reported food suspects range so widely that if they were all prohibited, you might end up with little or nothing to choose from -- not a good thing, since fasting itself is a headache trigger. Still, there do seem to be some foods or ingredients that cause trouble for a number of headache sufferers, and these home remedies are listed below.
To determine if a food sensitivity might be triggering your headaches, begin by recording the foods you eat, along with other environmental factors (it's possible an interplay of food and another trigger, such as a hormonal change, is necessary to trigger your headaches), in your headache diary. Look for patterns in the foods you've eaten within the 24 hours prior to getting each headache. If a food or ingredient consistently shows up in your diet just prior to a headache, try cutting out that food or ingredient for two or three weeks. Then add it back for two to three weeks. If your headaches fade and resume with the removal and return of the food, then you've discovered a food trigger that you should try to avoid. (If this experimenting seems to indicate that you're sensitive to a large number of foods or an entire food group, discuss it with your doctor or a registered dietitian to ensure your adjusted diet will provide all the nutrients you need for health.)
Tyramine and other amines. Tyramine is an amino acid known to promote headaches, nausea, and high blood pressure in certain individuals. (People who take antidepressant drugs called monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors are especially prone to accumulating high amounts of tyramine.) Tyramine is found in a wide variety of foods, including aged cheeses, processed meats, peanuts, broad beans, lentils, avocados, bananas, fresh baked bread, red wine and other alcoholic beverages, and pickled foods. A related amine that can be troublesome for some headache sufferers is phenylalanine, which is found in chocolate, among other foods. Even citrus fruits contain an amine that can serve as a headache trigger for some folks.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG). This purported flavor enhancer is also found in a wide variety of foods, although it is not always clearly identified on food labels. It is most commonly found in Chinese foods, canned foods, soy sauce, seasonings and tenderizers, and processed foods.
Nitrates and nitrites. These preservatives are often added to luncheon and other processed meats, such as bologna, salami, hot dogs, bacon, and ham, as well as smoked fish.
When a headache strikes, check your kitchen for these helpful home remedies.
Home Remedies from the Freezer
Ice. A washcloth dipped in ice-cold water and placed over the pain site is an easy way to relieve a headache. An ice compress works well, too. Place a handful of crushed ice cubes into a zipper-type plastic bag and cover it with a dry washcloth. (A bag of frozen vegetables is a good substitute.) Apply where needed. Whatever method you use, try to apply the cold compress as soon as possible after the headache develops. Relief typically starts within 20 minutes of use.
Home Remedies from the Refrigerator
Peach juice. Drinking peach juice or apricot nectar can help alleviate the nausea that sometimes accompanies a bad headache.
Home Remedies from the Sink
Hot water. If snow is falling and the last thing you want on your head is an ice pack, turn to heat for soothing relief. Dip a washcloth into hot but not scalding water. Squeeze out and apply over your eyes or on the pain site. Leave the compress on for 30 minutes, rewarming as necessary.
Home Remedies from the Spice Rack
Peppermint. A dab of peppermint oil rubbed on the temples can ease a tension headache. Don't try this with children or if you have sensitive skin as the oil can have a burning effect.
Cloves and other spices. Here's a remedy that includes the whole kitchen sink...or should we say the whole spice rack? A blend of scented herbs eases away tension headaches. Look into your spice rack. Do you have dried marjoram, rosemary, and mint? They work well together. And if you have dried lavender and rose petals, they make wonderful additions to the mix. Put 4 tablespoons of each (or whichever you have) into a cloth sachet bag. Add 1 tablespoon cloves. Close up the sachet bag, and whenever you have a headache or feel one coming on, hold the bag to your nose and inhale deeply until you feel it subsiding. (If you don't have a sachet bag, a clean handkerchief works fine.) You can also apply this bundle of herbs to your head when you rest.
Rosemary. Rosemary is a well-recognized folk cure for easing pain in the United States, China, and Europe. One of its constituents, rosmarinic acid, is an anti-inflammatory similar to aspirin and ibuprofen. Since rosmarinic acid is also an important constituent in sage, the two herbs are often combined to make a pain-relieving tea. Place 1 teaspoon crushed rosemary leaves and 1 teaspoon crushed sage leaves in a cup. Fill with boiling water. Cover to prevent the volatile oils from escaping, and steep until the tea reaches room temperature. Take 1/2-cup doses two to three times a day. You don't have to mix the two herbs to benefit from rosmarinic acid, however. If you only have one, make a tea of it alone.
Remember, severe and frequent headaches warrant a trip to the doctor's office. But for occasional headaches, remember these home remedies to find fast relief.
To learn more about headaches and their many causes, visit these links:
- To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
- Headaches, whether a dull or pain or full-blown migraine, can be treated with some simple herbal preparations. Herbal Remedies for Headaches can show you how.
- Sinusitis, an infection of the sinus cavities, can cause heacaches and other uncomfortable symptoms. Learn more in Home Remedies for Sinusitis.
- In Home Remedies for Hangovers, learn how to bounce back when an excess of alcohol strikes you down.
- Learn about the science behind that throbbing head pain in Headaches Explained.
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.