To Your Health

Can any nutrients help fend off an imminent headache?

Q. I am a guy, age 19. I don't have many headaches, but a few times a year I have a really grim one. I usually have about 15 minutes' warning, so is there anything I can do nutritionally to head it off?

A. Nutrients virtually never act as fast as drugs to relieve discomfort even when nutrition is involved in the problem. Aspirin, for instance, will relieve a headache in a few minutes while no nutrient will do this. It is important to have realistic expectations of the benefits of nutritional intervention.

A realistic expectation is that improvement of nutrition over a period of several weeks (sometimes up to three months) could reduce the number and severity of headaches or even eliminate them entirely. Remember that headaches can be the sign of a serious underlying health problem. See your physician first.

As with any health problem, the first step in correcting it, nutritionally or otherwise, is to find the root of the problem. It is not enough simply to give it a name like "migraine headache," for instance. When food is involved in a headache, there may be a nutritional deficiency (riboflavin is a common deficiency that provokes headaches), an excess of a component in food (aspartame, the artificial sweetener found in Equal, can be a headache trigger for some people), or a food allergy (milk, wheat, chocolate, tomatoes, and shellfish are the top offenders). Each of these appear to contribute to about one-third of America's food-related headaches.

Other than riboflavin, magnesium deficiency is probably the most common deficiency associated with headaches. An estimated 50% of headache sufferers may be deficient in magnesium, although only about 85% of those experienced relief when given magnesium. Deficiencies in niacin, folic acid, and iron have been associated with headaches, though not as frequently as riboflavin or magnesium. Headaches are a classic symptom of vitamin A excess, usually more than 400,000 IU per day, but leaving off vitamin A supplements quickly brings relief.

As processed food makes up more of our menu, the additives these foods contain become more noticeable as the cause of headaches. Once Chinese restaurants were infamous for overuse of MSG, but now MSG-containing foods come home with you in every bag of groceries. Reading labels is only partially helpful, since MSG may be listed simply as "natural flavoring."

Many otherwise wholesome foods contain "amines" of various sorts that may trigger headaches. These substances are ordinarily harmless but may affect the blood vessels of some people to cause a headache. Ripe or smoked cheeses, avocados, bananas, beans, liver, onions, nuts, and many other foods all contain various amines.

If you suspect a food or food component, the process of finding the source of your headache may be more complicated because very often it is a combination of factors, not just one. Start by eliminating the "junk" foods, such as white flour products, soft drinks, etc. A food diary may pinpoint other suspects, even nourishing foods, which need to be checked out.

There are several other triggers for headaches. Dehydration, constipation, hormonal imbalance, eyestrain, fever, pollutants such as perfumes, insufficient sleep, poor vertebral alignment, and muscle tension. Although nutrition may have some affect on problems of this kind, the best course is to get to the root of the problem and correct it with lifestyle changes.

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