The Foods That Could Be Giving You A Headache

The Foods That Could Be Giving You A Headache

While more commonly associated with hangovers, hormones and excessive screen time, increasing studies show what’s on your plate could also be behind headaches and migraines. So before you take more painkillers, it might be worth considering whether one of these foods is a trigger.

A Lack Of Electrolytes

“Dehydration not only from water but also electrolyte imbalance – think magnesium, potassium, sodium and calcium – is probably the most common cause of headaches and should be the first area you address when it comes to relieving a sore head,” says nutritionist Libby Limon. “Dehydration can be the result of too much salt, too, but also not enough electrolytes, which can be triggered by a sweaty workout or a hangover.” If you feel this is the source of your headache, consider drinking some coconut water, Libby’s top tip? “Use low-sugar coconut water, and aim for around 300-500ml per day if you are suffering. This is such a simple thing to do and can make such a huge difference.”

Sugary Snacks

“High sugar levels are one of the primary headache triggers,” explains Shabir Daya, co-founder of Victoria Health. “More than any other organ, fluctuations in sugar levels affect the brain, causing hormonal changes that affect blood vessel behaviour. Additionally, high sugar can cause swelling in and around the blood vessels and the surrounding brain tissue, which can cause headaches,” he says. Shabir also says fasting and skipping meals are common headache triggers due to hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar. “This also applies to people who consume lots of sugary foods, as this leads to an increase in insulin production, which eventually causes a crash and low blood sugar, causing a headache as there is insufficient sugar for brain function.”

Ham & Bacon

Your Saturday morning bacon sandwich could be giving you a mid-afternoon headache, says Libby. The high levels of additives such as nitrates added to the likes of bacon and ham can increase blood flow to the brain, resulting in a headache that causes pain on both sides of the head. “Nitrates are also naturally found in some vegetables, although these tend to be in stable forms so they don’t cause the same issue. Research also shows it could be our own bacteria flora in our mouth that makes this a trigger for some and not others,” Libby says. If you can’t be without your weekly bacon fix, consider looking for a nitrate-free version, several of which are now available. 

Bread & Pasta

Gluten in foods like pasta, bread and cakes may cause digestion woes for some, but headaches can also be a symptom of gluten sensitivity, explains Georgine Leung, nutritionist at Kurami. “Allergy UK actually identifies headaches as a symptom linked to gluten sensitivity. Aside from symptoms related to the gastrointestinal tract, gluten sensitivity also appears to trigger neurological pathways, which may also have an impact on the onset of headaches and migraines,” she says. 

Too Much Salt

“Although we need to consume some dietary salt, processed and packaged foods tend to contain unnecessarily high amounts, known as sodium. There are a few really interesting studies that compare the effects of a low sodium daily intake to the effects of high sodium daily intake, with those in the latter group reporting much higher rates of tension-like headaches. This is likely related to the effect of sodium on blood volume, which increases with sodium intake and results in the blood taking up more space in the blood vessels,” explains nutritional therapist Ellie Woodhouse Clarke. In fact, according to a recent study, people who eat more sodium (up to 8g per day) have up to 33% more headaches than those who eat 4g per day. If you are prone to headaches, Ellie says it’s important to be aware of your salt intake, bearing in mind even foods marketed as healthy can contain excessive amounts.

High sugar levels are one of the primary headache triggers. More than any other organ, fluctuations in sugar levels affect the brain, causing hormonal changes that affect blood vessel behaviour.
Shabir Daya


No surprises here – the reason your hangover is often paired with a splitting headache is due to the fact alcohol is a diuretic, meaning you go to the bathroom more, therefore dehydrating the body. “Alcohol also relaxes blood vessels, causing increased blood flow to the brain, which can be triggering for those who experience migraines,” says Ellie. “Red wine in particular can trigger migraines in those sensitive to histamine (red wine contains significantly higher levels of histamine than white wine) or to fluctuations in serotonin levels (red wine can result in rising serotonin levels). On the other hand, white wine contains higher levels of sulphites, which may act as a trigger for some.”


If you experience headaches after eating fermented foods, dried fruit, aubergine, processed or smoked meats, tomatoes or canned fish, it could be a result of histamine. As Ellie explains, “Histamine is a chemical released by the body when the immune system feels it’s under attack – it’s a natural response in a healthy immune system. That said, for some people high levels of histamine that hasn’t been broken down can cause histamine intolerance, and in turn, headaches and migraines.” If you suspect histamine sensitivity may be causing headaches, Ellie recommends looking at this food list, ideally working with a nutritional therapist before eliminating food groups. 

A Chinese Takeaway

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common flavour enhancer that could be behind your headaches. As Libby explains, “MSG is probably one most people have heard of when it comes to adverse food reaction headaches. It’s used to boost flavour and is found in everything from sauces to crisps and Asian food.” Studies suggest MSG can affect cranial blood vessels, causing headaches and migraines. 

Foods Containing Tyramine

What do charcuterie, aged cheeses and red wine all have in common? They all contain tyramine, an amino acid known for triggering migraines. As Shabir explains, tyramine is an amino acid that most people can digest without any issues. However, if you have a deficiency of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO), this can interfere with the breakdown process, resulting in headaches. Interestingly, very ripe bananas and ripe avocados also contain high amounts of tyramine. 

Finally, Don’t Forget About External Factors

While the source of your sore head may well be in your kitchen, Ellie also says it’s worth thinking about environmental chemicals and pollutants, some of which may be in your home. “While it can be tempting to reach for painkillers for a quick fix, in the long-run it’s more beneficial to address the factors triggering your headache in the first place, and chemicals in your home may well be the culprit. Sensitivity to strong smells from essential oils, incense and candles, as well as stress, can all cause headaches. If you are looking to get to the bottom of your headaches, consider working with a holistic practitioner – whether it’s to identify food triggers or address lifestyle factors, they can be hugely beneficial. Acupuncture, reflexology, magnesium supplementation and improving sleep can all help with headaches, too.”


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