Headaches: the role your diet plays
By Dr. Jill Mckinnon
Migraines are one of the top disabilities in young adults across the globe. 14 percent of the population suffers from migraines and like most aches and pains, we often tend to reach for quick fixes. Although things like pain meds, peppermint oil and manual therapies may help in the moment, it’s always better to tackle the source of the problem instead of just treating the symptoms. Rather than asking how you can get rid of pain, try asking why you’re experiencing it instead.
Growing up, I believed headaches were normal as myself and everyone in my immediate family experienced them regularly. Now, as a chiropractor, I’ve realized that while some of us identify as “headache people,” there are many lucky enough to rarely, if ever, experience headaches. The best explanation I’ve heard around this has been coined the “bucket theory.” Imagine that within our brain we all have a bucket. When your bucket overflows, you experience a migraine and “headache people” tend to have particularly small buckets. So, what makes the bucket overflow? Can I increase the size of my bucket? First off, stimulus and inflammation contribute to “bucket overflow,” and therefore, a migraine. Overstimulation can be caused by weather, pressure changes, stress, food or environmental intolerances, bright lights and noise, hormonal imbalances and musculoskeletal stressors. While we may not have control over things like the weather, or how bright the fluorescents in our workplace are, there are some things we can control. What many of us fail to realize is just how much of an influence the things we put into our bodies has on our wellbeing. When I ask a headache sufferer what their diet is like, the reaction I get is often shock for being asked that by their chiropractor. This is always one of the questions I ask because the food we eat influences our hormones, our pH, our mood, our energy and yes, our “buckets.”
To begin, we need to identify potential foods or environmental factors that could be overflowing your “bucket.” By identifying and eliminating potential contributors, you can free up space in your “bucket,” meaning you will be less sensitive to stimuli that can bring on a headache. The easiest way to do this is by tracking both your food and your headaches. Yes, this may be a tedious task, but it can be extremely helpful in identifying habits that you may not be aware of. I’ve had multiple patients identify their headache triggers with this step alone. When considering environmental factors, try noting down where you are when you begin to experience your headache symptoms. Remember to note details such as recently used cleaning and beauty products, chemical sprays and lighting at your workplace. When I was a teenager, I remember trying out a new shampoo with a distinct smell. I noticed I was experiencing nausea and headaches following showers. It was tracking this pattern that allowed me to identify that the shampoo was the culprit.
When it comes to diet, most of us are creatures of habit and tend to eat similarly most days of the week. However, if you’re experiencing consistent headaches and you’ve not noticed any patterns with environment tracking, it’s a good idea to track food next. I typically suggest seven straight days of tracking all food and beverages along with headache symptoms. If you are a female suffering from headaches, be sure to also track your menstrual cycle. For many women, headaches coincide with menstruation due to low levels of progesterone and estrogen.
Once you have tracked a full seven days of food and symptoms, it is time to start identifying patterns. For many migraine sufferers, the most common dietary culprits are amines, additives and chemicals. Dietary amines are a result of the breakdown of proteins in food and are found in many processed meats, aged cheeses, fermented foods and beverages like beer and wine and dried or very ripe fruits. It is thought that “headache people” lack the enzymes required to properly break down specific amines, so eliminating these foods for four weeks is often recommended. Now for some light at the end of the tunnel—the word amine is a category involving histamine, tyramine and a few others. That said, when you reach the reintroducing phase (after four weeks of elimination), I suggest researching which specific amines are present in the foods you find yourself reacting to and this will help you determine a more specific grouping to avoid instead of avoiding all amines.
When it comes to chemicals and additives in food, we tend to be more familiar with these offenders because they’ve already been given a bad reputation. It’s not a coincidence that many headache sufferers also experience digestive issues, irritable bowels and skin irritations or rashes. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, high sodium and nitrites are some of the more prominent triggers that would be good to avoid if you experience any of the above symptoms. MSG is not only found in restaurants and fast-food joints, but is a common additive to many sauces, canned veggies and soups you likely have in your fridge or pantry. Aspartame in diet soda is another common trigger I see. Nitrites are most commonly found in processed meats like bacon and deli items.
Now that you have an idea of the common headache triggers, it’s time to begin tracking your food, identifying your problem ingredients and eliminating your triggers. Stay tuned for next month’s blog, “Five steps to identify and eliminate headache triggers.”