Headaches and the Food Connection -- with Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript
Event Date: Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Tension headaches and migraines account for 90% of all headaches. Now, instead of running for the aspirin bottle, WebMD nutrition expert Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, offers advice about what foods you can eat to help prevent and reduce headache symptoms. Elaine joined us on March 29, 2005 to talk about the relationship between headaches and food.

If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR:
Welcome back to WebMD Live, Elaine. Thank you for joining us today.

MAGEE:
It's always my pleasure to chat on WebMD Live.

MODERATOR:
How did you come across the connection between food and headaches?

MAGEE:
The publisher asked me to write a book for the Tell Me What to Eat series on this topic and I couldn't really say yes until I looked into the research and what was out there on it. To my surprise, there was a lot of great information and progress on this subject.

Through writing this book, I met up with a wonderful headache expert from the Diamond Headache Clinic, Frederick Freitag, DO, who helped me fill in the blanks that I found in the literature and reviewed my work on the book and was so excited, offered to write the forward.

MODERATOR:
How many people suffer from headaches and migraines?

MAGEE:
We are talking about more than 45 million Americans seeking medical attention for severe or chronic headaches. Within this group is a subgroup of people who specifically suffer from migraine headaches. This is around 18 million people, some say 23 million. And it's a primarily female condition, migraines. Mostly women suffer from them.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What foods are linked to migraines? Is it an allergy?

MAGEE:
We really don't know exactly how these different foods are triggering migraines. Some researchers suggest an allergic type of reaction; others suggest a relationship to the change in blood flow to the brain. So given all that, these are the types of possible food migraine triggers:

  • fasting or skipping meals
  • excessive caffeine consumption or caffeine withdrawal
  • alcohol, such as red wine and port
  • aspartame (NutraSweet) found in some sugar free products
  • MSG, found in all sorts of packaged pre-made food products, snack foods and Chinese food
  • nitrates/nitrites
  • tyramine, an amino acid
  • certain foods like chocolate, citrus foods and others
  • a high-fat diet has actually been connected to migraines

MEMBER QUESTION:
What about sulfites in wines? They are really a pain.

MAGEE:
The research didn't differentiate between the sulfites and the effect of alcohol as the trigger. Some people name all types of alcohol. Some list reactions to specific types of alcohol: red wine, whiskey, and some say beer. Some newer research is now suggesting the phytochemicals called phenols found in red wine may be the real headache triggers.

MODERATOR:
You mention aspartame; were any other artificial sweeteners implicated as headache triggers?

MAGEE:
Not that I saw in the research. And only some people mention NutraSweet as a trigger, not a large amount. Keep in mind that stress is the number one migraine trigger. So one of the best things you can do is to work on the stress in your life and how you manage that stress. And eating a healthy diet and not skipping meals helps a lot of people sort of de-stress their diet. Our tendency when we're stressed is to eat junk food, and that's exactly the wrong thing to do, in terms of migraines.

MODERATOR:
In what foods is tyramine present?

MAGEE:
Food sources are all over the map. There isn't a lot of concrete data on tyramine content in foods. Basically researchers have found larger amounts in aged cheeses, red wine, alcoholic beverages, such as beer, some processed meats, avocados, overripe bananas (some experts say it's the peel that causes the problem and as long as you shave the outside of the banana to make sure no inside peel is being eaten, you won't have a problem), chocolate, nuts, seeds, pork, venison, and soy-based foods.

MEMBER QUESTION:
How much do wheat and gluten, as well as dairy products, play a part in contributing to migraines?

MAGEE:
Not the wheat gluten, to my knowledge, unless it happens to be one of the symptoms of the wheat allergy. But it did not come up in the common types of headaches that I researched for the book.

In terms of dairy, there is a connection between the fat, and I'm listing a specific fat, trans oleic acid. This type of fat is found mainly in meat, butter, milk and cheese. Some new research has shown that people who take in higher amounts of this type of fat were almost three times more likely to have hay fever, compared to people who ate the least. The cheese could be linked to the hay fever type of headaches.



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