The Link Between Food and Headaches: What Clinical Evidence Tells Us

"Research scientists have been able to identify foods with specific attributes that can set off a headache."

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Many things can trigger a headache, and trying to identify the exact cause can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Stress, disease, and hormones have all been identified as common causes. And everyone knows that drinking too much alcohol can give you a next-day headache that will make you swear off drinking for life — at least until next time!

For some people, certain types of foods and beverages are also headache triggers. In many cases, it is not the food itself, but rather additives to enhance flavor or retard spoilage that render an otherwise harmless food toxic. Residual chemical pesticides and fertilizers may also be to blame. But sometimes even certain foods in their pure organic state can trigger a headache.

Foods Commonly Thought to Produce Migraine Headaches

There are several foods that have been earmarked as potential headache producers for patients who suffer migraines. Among the most common are:

  • Chocolate
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Dairy
  • Aspartame
  • Nitrates and nitrites
  • Monosodium glutamate

Subcategories of Headache-Inducing Foods

Research scientists have been able to identify foods with specific attributes that can set off a headache. In particular, two subcategories emerge: Glutamates and opiates.

Glutamates: Foods containing glutamates are often used in cooking for their flavorful attributes. For example, monosodium glutamate, often used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese cuisine, is sodium derived from glutamic acid, a natural and abundant non-essential amino acid.

Popular foods containing high levels of glutamate (per 100 g) include:

  • Parmesan and other ripened cheeses (1680 mg)
  • Ripe tomatoes (264 mg)
  • Mushrooms (180 mg)
  • Corn (106 mg)
  • Scallops (159 mg)
  • Shrimp (43 mg)
  • Chicken (22mg)
  • Beef (10 mg)

Opiates: Humans are hard-wired with an affinity for opiates, substances with narcotic properties that bind to opiate receptors throughout your nervous system. Your first exposure to opiates is via human milk, which actually contains morphine, and plays an important role in infant-mother bonding.

Other popular foods containing high levels of opiates include:

  • Coffee
  • Chocolate
  • Spinach
  • Rice protein
  • Meat and fish protein
  • Sugar
  • Grains
  • Cow’s milk

The addictive properties of opiate foods are often exploited by food manufacturers who want to ensure a steady stream of repeat customers.

Evidence for Headache-Inducing Properties of Foods

Clearly, not everyone who consumes the popular foods listed above acquires a headache. But for migraine sufferers, identifying and avoiding headache-inducing foods can be a game changer.

In a recent review, Zaeem et al. (2016) sought to find evidence and prevalence of dietary triggers linked to headaches in population-based studies. They found that the impact of diet on headaches varied widely among study participants, and that it was difficult to quantify the frequency of food-triggered headaches.

Nevertheless, the research team acknowledged that dietary triggers play a role in inducing headaches in some migraine sufferers. They suggest that keeping a food diary  can be helpful in identifying trigger foods, and that an elimination diet may help relieve migraine headache pain in food-sensitive patients.

Holistic Help for Headache Relief

Many things can trigger frequent headaches, including diet, myofascial trigger points, poor neck alignment and a variety of motor imbalances and deficits. Taking drugs may relieve headache pain temporarily, but drugs only mask the symptoms, without getting at the source. Conservative treatment offered by chiropractors and physical therapists can be effective in identifying and resolving headache-inducing triggers, offering hope for migraine sufferers everywhere.


Zaeem, Zoya, Lily Zhou, and Esma Dilli. “Headaches: a review of the role of dietary factors.” Current neurology and neuroscience reports 16.11 (2016): 101.

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