20 Best and Worst Foods for Headaches
“Do you have any Advil?” my friend Megan asked me. “I can feel a headache coming on.” We had just finished eating dinner at Chipotle and her pain seemed to have come out of left field.
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” I said. “But I do have some pumpkin seeds in my bag if you want to nibble on those.”
She looked at me blankly. It was in that moment that I realized most people didn’t know much about Mother Nature’s headache remedies. And even fewer folks know that certain foods can even prevent headaches from coming on—and that the wrong ones can make the throbbing worse. Here, we take a look at foods that fall into each of these categories. After you’ve skimmed through this list, bookmark this page so that you’ll be armed with the information you need if you’re stuck with a debilitating headache.
Another tip if you’re regularly plagued with pain: Keep a headache journal. Although there are a few classic foods that trigger and soothe headaches, everybody responds differently to diet-based remedies. If you write down what you’ve eaten both before and after your headache comes on, it can help you understand what could be triggering them and which remedies work best for you. For even more health hacks, check out these 60-second health tips!
FIRST, THE BEST FOODS…
Kick pain to the curb with these healthy noms that fight and prevent headaches.
Strange, but true: Dry mouth = a debilitating headache. Yes, that’s right, one of the primary causes of headaches is dehydration. And oftentimes, when your body is in need of water, it’s also in need of electrolytes like potassium. Once you feed your body the nutrients it needs, the pain will likely subside. So next time you feel a headache coming on, bake a russet potato and enjoy it skin and all! One large tater packs more than three times the amount of potassium as a banana (which is often thought of as the most potent source). And since a potato is about 75 percent water, so it’s uber hydrating, too!
Made up of 97 percent water, the mighty cucumber is another vegetable that can help you stay hydrated and headache-free. Slice some up and enjoy it with hummus or combine the veggie with some tomatoes, red onion, olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, and black pepper for a simple summer salad. For more summer salad recipes you’re sure to love, check out these salad recipes for weight loss.
If you’re prone to getting headaches at a certain time of day or after a certain activity (like excessive computer use), ward off the pain by nibbling on some cherries. Not only does the red, vibrant fruit provide your bod with some H2O to keep dehydration-related pain away, they also contain compounds that convert to nitric oxide in the blood, a naturally occurring gas that may help protect against tension headaches and migraines. Beetroot and beetroot juice will also have the same effect.
Fortified Whole Grain Cereal
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, consuming adequate amounts of riboflavin (AKA vitamin B2) can help keep migraines at bay. Thankfully most cereals are fortified with the nutrient, so it’s super easy to sneak it into your daily diet. Wheaties, Fiber One, and All Bran are all Eat This-approved and overflowing with the soothing nutrient. Curious which cereals to steer clear of? Check out our special report about the unhealthiest breakfast cereals!
If your headaches tend to sideline you for hours, you might want to consider noshing on some spicy bites to speed up the recovery process—if the pain is stemming from congestion, at least. If a headache is due to sinus congestion, spicy foods may help to decrease the pressure and open the airways, which helps decrease the pain, explains registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT. Interested in giving it a go? Add some hot salsa or chili peppers to an omelet or homemade burrito bowl, or give one of these creative ways to eat hot sauce a try.
Magnesium, which is found in abundance in pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, and almonds, may ward off head pain by relaxing blood vessels. (Just a half cup of pumpkin seeds provides nearly 100 percent of your daily magnesium needs.) More fun facts on the essential nutrient: Magnesium is responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including brain and muscle function. Ignore your body’s need for it and you won’t just wind up with headaches. Muscle aches and overall fatigue are also common indicators that you’re not getting enough of the nutrient in your life.
Oatmeal & Brown Rice
While getting headaches from time to time is normal, having them every day after embarking on a low-carb weight loss plan is a sign you may have taken things too far. “Carbs don’t require any additional processing to make glucose, so they keep blood sugar levels steady quite effectively,” says registered dietitian Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN. “However, when you don’t eat enough carbs, blood sugar levels can dip and cause headaches.” Incorporate some carb- and water-rich produce like apples, pears, and carrots to keep the pounds coming off while keeping the head-pounding pain at bay. Healthy carbs like oatmeal and brown rice are also smart picks, as they soak up water during the cooking process.
Small Coffee or Tea
If you couldn’t imagine going a day without stopping at Starbucks, your headaches are, more often than not, a result of caffeine withdrawal. When you regularly consume the stimulant, it leads to physical dependence. The result: You’ll likely experience a throbbing headache if you miss a dose. While the reason for this is not yet fully understood, some medical experts say that caffeine relaxes blood vessels—so when it’s been a while since your last cup, the vessels constrict and cause pain. To counteract the pain, get yourself a small cup of coffee or tea—emphasis on the word small. If you guzzle down too much, and you’ll likely just get another headache when you come down off your caffeine high.
If you’re only eating sesame seeds when you order an everything bagel or some sesame chicken, you’re missing out of one of the best migraine-busting foods around. The tiny seed is filled with vitamin E, a nutrient that stabilizes estrogen levels, warding off period-related migraines. It’s also rich in L-arginine, a precursor of nitric oxide, the same naturally occurring gas found in cherries, that may help protect against tension headaches and migraines in both men and women. Sprinkle them on your oatmeal or on top of soups and stir-fries to reap the benefits.
NOW, THE WORST FOODS…
Avoid these bites to keep head pain at bay.
Diet Drinks & Snacks
While the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recently gave the go-ahead to enjoy aspartame in moderation, over the past 30 years, the FDA has received thousands of consumer complaints about the sweetener due mostly to neurological symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and memory loss. While not everyone will experience pain after sipping, ditching diet soda and other artificially-sweetened treats to the curb can only benefit your health.
Bad news, barflies: Sulfites, which naturally occur in all wines and are added to some other alcoholic beverages to keep them fresh, have been linked to migraine headaches. And even if you don’t sip something that’s been doused in sulfites, the dehydrating effects from alcohol can leave your head pounding. Booze inhibits the antidiuretic hormone that normally sends fluids back into the body, and instead directs them to your bladder. And since alcohol impairs your ability to sense thirst it’s many people continue to sip well past their dehydration point.
Have you ever noticed that cured meats like hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meats seem to stay fresh forever? It’s because food makers use nitrates and nitrites to preserve their products. These naturally occurring chemical compounds dilate blood vessels and, in turn, may trigger headaches. Pair that with the fact that these meats are often heavily salted (which can lead to dehydration) and you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to headache-ville.
Next time you go out for sushi, go easy on the soy sauce. Not only is it often filled with MSG (an ingredient known to trigger headaches), soy sauce is also extremely high in sodium, which can lead to mild dehydration, another possible headache trigger.
Foods with MSG
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a commonly used flavor enhancer, is plant protein that has been chemically broken down into amino acids. One of these acids, glutamic acid, can release free glutamate. When this glutamate joins with free sodium in your body, they form monosodium glutamate (MSG), an additive known to cause adverse reactions like headaches and nausea in sensitive individuals. When MSG is added to products directly, the FDA requires manufacturers to disclose its inclusion on the ingredient statement. But when it occurs as a byproduct of hydrolyzed protein, the FDA allows it to go unrecognized. It’s found in Funyuns and spice and flavoring packages like Knorr Noodle Sides.
Avocados & Bananas
If you’re a guac addict who tends to get migraines, your Chipotle habit may be to blame. The creamy green fruit is a potent source of tyramine, a naturally occurring compound that forces blood vessels to constrict and then expand, bringing on a nasty headache. While it’s a healthy fruit we love, bananas are also a source of the compound, so if you notice head pain after downing some guac, you should steer clear of the yellow fruit, too.
Aged cheese contains tyramine, too, with cheddar, stilton, camembert and Swiss carrying the most potent punch.
If you chomp gum on the reg, your habit may be to blame for your headaches, suggests a 2014 study from Tel Aviv University. “Prolonged intense muscular contraction in the head or neck [can] provoke a headache,” explains Elizabeth Loder, MD, chief of the headache and pain division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.