Have you noticed that headache and migraine conversations all lead to medications and treatment? Well in the multi-billion dollar pharma industry, there is little money to be made in prevention. Let’s review the ways you can nutritionally resolve (or at least greatly reduce) your headaches and avoid a trip to the doctor’s office.
Don’t put your favorite coffee mug away so fast. According to research from the American Journal of Medicine, for patients who experience episodic migraines, one to two servings of caffeine may limit headache occurrence throughout the day. Once a person reaches three or more servings, there is a positive correlation with headaches.
Inconsistent caffeine intake can trigger withdrawal headaches. Try to limit yourself to 150-200 mg each day (that is about 2.5 to 3 cups of coffee). Your blood vessels become sensitized to caffeine and when you don't get it, a headache may occur.
Like any food or drinks you consume, quality is important to ensure you are not ingesting harmful toxins. Artificially flavored coffees include ingredients without clear labeling, and could themselves be a trigger. Treat yourself and try some of the fine coffee options imported from Jamaica or Costa Rica.
Did you know that the darker the roast, the less caffeine? Caffeine burns off during the roasting process. A lighter roast coffee has the highest natural caffeine content, as well as the smoothest flavor.
Coffee isn’t your jam but you like energy drinks and sodas? Come a little closer so I can slap you a little. This is a blog about your health. Don’t mow the lawn when the house is on fire. Cut out those processed sugar laden (or toxic sugar alternatives) beverages and immediately resolve a zillion health problems.
Food Intolerances & Triggers
One of the best ways to determine food triggers is to keep a food journal. It doesn’t have to be crazy detailed, but just list the types of foods you are eating along with how you feel. After a few headaches you may just be able to look back at your journal and identify the culprit. Try to be patient, sometimes food triggers delay the headache for 1-3 days.
Common culprits: aged cheese, nuts, tomato products, pickled foods, yeast, beans and legumes such as peas and peanuts, onions and garlic, avocados, MSG, canned soups, some fruits, cultured dairy, chocolate, and artificial sweeteners.
Sorry to rain on your party parade, but alcohol is a major headache trigger. Alcohol has long been associated with the development of headache, with about one-third of patients with migraine noting alcohol as a trigger. Try to limit your drinks to keep headaches away and avoid some of the common drink triggers.
Red wine contains tannins that are known to cause headaches. You can find low tannin wines, and organic wine options will reduce the amount of potential toxins from conventional farming practices. Low quality wines often have additives that can cause intolerances themselves. In this case it appears that you get what you pay for.
If your body flushes or breaks out in hives after drinking, you may be deficient in an enzyme needed to break down alcohol.
Like food triggers, the likelihood of a particular type of alcohol triggering a headache is probably different from person to person. So listen to your body when it comes to types of drinks that are most suitable for you, and try not to overdo it.
Some studies suggest that clear alcohols are more easily tolerated by migraine sufferers. Again quality plays a role here. For example if tequila is your jam, always stick to 100% agave. Cheaper brands are a mix of agave and sugar or corn syrup. Yuck.
Hydration isn’t just about water. Of course it starts there, but a truly hydrated body has a proper mix of electrolytes. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium are all electrolytes. You get them from the foods you eat and the fluids you drink.
The body works to balance water and the levels of electrolytes in the blood. For example, when the sodium level becomes too high, thirst develops, leading to an increased intake of fluids.
Electrolytes lost in high concentrations through sweat include sodium and chloride, while electrolytes lost in low concentrations include potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Profuse sweating— (hello summer CrossFit!) which may be caused by vigorous exercise, hot weather, or a high body temperature—can dramatically increase the amount of water lost through evaporation.
Skip the sugary replacement drinks. The sugar content actually slows the rate of rehydration. Instead eat real whole foods. The best source of potassium is whole, unprocessed, plant-based foods like cooked spinach, broccoli, squash, potatoes, avocados, papayas, and bananas. Do you like coconut water? A standard can contains a whopping 1,000 mg of potassium. The best source of salt is natural and unrefined. My personal favorite is Himalayan pink salt. “Aside from differences in taste and texture, table salt is typically heavily processed — which eliminates naturally occurring beneficial minerals. Sea salt has been shown to contain higher amounts of trace minerals than refined table salt, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron.”
Think you can’t have salt? “If you’re diagnosed with high blood pressure and hypertension, you’ll be instructed to eliminate sodium from your diet as much as possible. But this isn’t always great advice. In fact, patients with heart failure who ate a salt-restricted diet were 85 percent more likely to die or be hospitalized than patients who didn’t limit their salt intake.”
Bottom line? Listen to your body. There is such a thing as too much water if it depletes your electrolyte storage. If you are working out in hot weather and sweating buckets, you need more electrolyte replacement than someone who goes for daily strolls with their dog. If you are cooking your own meals and avoiding processed foods you need to add salt to keep levels from dropping.
Exercise Induced Headaches
Do you ever crush a hard workout and then a few hours later feel exhausted, hungry, and feel a headache coming on? Congratulations you have just over trained! It sounds simple: kill workout, eat meal. Build muscles, arg! But there is more to it than that.
If your workout leaves you feeling crappy you need to dial up the nutrition and dial down the intensity. Are you a games athlete or a professional that is being paid to workout for several hours per day? Then you have access to the top coaches in the world and keep crushing those workouts!
Or is your goal to increase your health, decrease pain, and LGN (look great naked)? 95% of us have the same goal. We want to increase our muscle and decrease our body fat. If this is starting to make sense to you, then I’ll remind you of that saying that abs are made in the kitchen. Yes you need exercise, but I see you over there working out seven days a week. It’s too much. Be slightly outside of your comfort zone during your workouts to ensure you are making change. Then get adequate rest and recovery. One to three full rest days (depending on your age, fitness level, and intensity of workout) are ideal.
Bottom line? If hard workouts leave you feeling drained, you are not doing yourself any favors.
Food and lifestyle changes can be great for preventing headaches. If you are still struggling, see a medical professional. I would be happy to refer you to my network of medical magicians.
Breanna Barton Certified Nutrition Coach and CrossFit Trainer with over 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org