Does Your Head Hurt? Check Out The Best And Worst Foods For Headaches

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines are the third most prominent illness in the world. One in 20 adults gets a headache every day. If painkillers don’t assuage your head pain, you may want to switch up your diet.

Your diet could either aggravate, heal, or cause headaches. Some foods can do all three. By avoiding certain sweeteners, swapping your cheeses, or cooking with a specific oil, you could experience far fewer headaches. Here are the best and worst diet choices for head pain.

Head Hurts? Try Cherries Or Cherry Juice

A close-up shows cherries against a red background.
Steve Lupton/Corbis via Getty Images
Steve Lupton/Corbis via Getty Images

Cherries can reduce pain so well that some professional athletes drink cherry juice before exercising. A study in Medicine and Sport Science noted that cherries have an anti-inflammatory effect. In some cases, it can be as effective as over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen.

Although there isn’t much research on cherries and headaches, the current pilot studies seem promising. Participants who drank tart cherry daily juice lowered migraine frequency by up to 78%. Keep some cherry juice on hand and try it if you feel bad.

Coffee Can Help, Worsen, Or Cause A Headache

A woman drinks a cappuccino from a mug.
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Depending on your habits, body, and medication, coffee can either help or worsen your headaches. On the one hand, caffeine is a common ingredient in migraine medication, claims Harvard Health. On the other hand, coffee-drinkers may get headaches from withdrawal, says neurologist Lauren Green.

In the American Journal of Medicine, a study connected headaches to the amount of caffeine people drink. People who don’t regularly drink coffee are more likely to feel better after a cup. However, three or more cups may trigger headaches.

Kiss Pain Goodbye With Olive Oil

A person pours olive oil onto a piece of bread.
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Rosario Scalia/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Olive oil is a natural anti-inflammatory and painkiller. Dr. Paul Breslin, a researcher from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, found a unique enzyme in olive oil called oleocanthal. This enzyme stops the activity of cyclooxygenase, which reduces pain in the same way that ibuprofen does.

This doesn’t mean that a tablespoon of olive oil will cure a headache. Fifty grams of olive oil equals only 10% of ibuprofen’s pain relief. However, researchers believe that olive can reduce pain over time, possibly making headaches less likely.

The Unhealthy Side Of Diet Soda

A diet Coke can appears on the beach.
CorrieMiracle/Pixabay
CorrieMiracle/Pixabay

Although diet soda is healthier than regular soda, it worsens migraines. Dr. Orly Avitzur of Consumer Reports says that diet soda can cause headaches. Why? According to research, it’s because of the artificial sweeteners and caffeine in diet soda.

On the bright side, most people need to drink a lot of soda to get a headache. In 2019, researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that three servings of soda are most likely to prompt a migraine. Limit your soda intake, and you should be fine.

Your Head Will Love The Nutrients In Almonds

Almonds are poured out of a cup.
Pezibear/Pixabay
Pezibear/Pixabay

By eating almonds, you may receive fewer headaches. These nuts are high in magnesium, with one cup of almonds equalling 20% of your daily requirement. During a 2009 study, scientists found that headache-sufferers have lower levels of magnesium than most people.

The American Migraine Foundation recommends taking 400 to 500 mg of magnesium every day to prevent migraines. A cup of almonds offers 80 mg. While this doesn’t seem like a lot, it could be enough for people who suffer from infrequent headaches.

Soy Sauce Is A Recipe For Head Pain

A chef pours soy sauce into a measuring spoon.
Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Soy products are well-known to prompt headaches. In 2018, a neuropsychiatry study stated that people who eat less soy have fewer headaches. As a soy product, soy sauce contains tyramine that can cause pain in your head.

But soy sauce doesn’t just have tyramine. It also contains MSG, a preservative that also triggers migraines. Dr. Noah Rosen, the director of the North Shore–LIJ Headache Institute, says that high salt can also make your head hurt. If you frequently get headaches, soy sauce could be your worst trigger.

Why People Get Headaches After Eating Fish

Raw salmon and hot smoked salmon are both on a plate.
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Some people may get headaches after eating fish and assume that they have an allergy. But the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy does not list headaches as a common fish allergy symptom. Instead, it’s more likely that the type of fish–and preservatives inside of it–triggered head pain.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, smoked and dried salmon contain preservatives that could cause headaches. Tyramine, nitrates and MSG may irritate some people. If you get a migraine after eating fish, check for preservatives in the meal.

Stay Away From Aged Cheese

A man sorts wedges of cheddar cheese.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Can you eat cheese on an anti-headache diet? Yes, depending on the type. Penn State Medicine explains that Swiss, Brie, Cheddar, or Parmesan are the most likely to cause headaches. These are aged cheeses that contain the chemical tyramine.

When tyramine enters the body, it breaks down monoamine oxidase (MAO). People with low levels of MAO are more likely to have frequent migraines. Even for people who don’t have frequent headaches, the National Headache Foundation recommends avoiding high-tyramine foods. Eat younger cheeses if you’re worried.

For Hormonal Headaches, Eat Sesame Seeds

A chef sprinkles sesame seeds onto Teriyaki Noodles.
Evan Cobb for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Evan Cobb for The Washington Post via Getty Images

According to John Hopkins Medicine, hormonal changes commonly cause headaches. This is why women often receive head pain during their period. Others may have hormonal imbalances during illness or medication. If this sounds like you, try eating sesame seeds.

Registered dietitian Erin Palinski says that sesame seeds are high in vitamin E. This nutrient stabilizes estrogen levels and increases blood flow, both of which can assuage headaches. Sesame seeds also contain an anti-inflammatory that can relieve arthritis pain, according to research in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies.

Hydrate With Cucumbers

Cucumber slices lie on a wooden table.
Joern Pollex/Getty Images
Joern Pollex/Getty Images

Cucumbers are one of the best vegetables for headaches because they are 95% water. Nutritionist Cassandra Barns says that hydration is essential for warding off migraines. And most people get at least 20% of their daily water from food.

If you don’t like cucumbers, don’t fret. Eating more vegetables can reduce the frequency of headaches, according to a study by the American Headache Society. Hydrating vegetables like cucumbers are an excellent natural remedy to prevent or alleviate migraines and headaches.

If Your Head Hurts, Don’t Chew Gum

A woman blows a bubble with gum.
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If you have a headache, don’t chew gum! Studies have linked chewing gum to head pain, although the cause is unknown. According to one explanation, chewing stresses the temporomandibular joint, the muscle that connects the jaw to the skull. Other researchers blame the artificial sweetener aspartame.

Whatever the reason, consistent gum chewing is a major cause of headaches among teens. Researchers from Tel Aviv University had students take a break from chewing gum for a period of time. Their headache frequency decreased by 87%. If you suffer from reoccurring head pain, stay away from gum.

Get Healthy And Reduce Headaches By Eating Salads

A variety of vegetables surround a bowl with wooden salad serving spoons.
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As long as your salad features leafy greens, it can guard against headaches. Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology observed that people who eat leafy greens have fewer migraines. You can thank folate acid, a nutrient that appears in most salads.

Dark, leafy greens such as spinach, romaine, and kale have the highest number of folates. “We could observe that folic acid intake … was significantly related to migraine frequency,” said researcher Professor Lynn Griffiths. Plus, healthy eating can never harm your head.

Why Artificial Sweeteners Cause Headaches

Splenda packets are in a container.
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A small number of case studies have linked artificial sweeteners to headaches. Research from the American Headache Society focuses on the artificial sweetener aspartame. Participants who regularly ate aspartame were more likely to get migraines, regardless of their medical history.

Dr. Vincent Martin, who has studied migraines for decades, says that you need to consume a lot of aspartame to get a reaction. Most people won’t get a headache from one artificially sweetened drink. However, people who consume aspartame frequently are more likely to get headaches.

Smelling Onions Could Trigger A Migraine

A close-up shows an onion that has been cut in half.
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At least 50% of migraine sufferers are sensitive to certain smells. Strong scents, such as raw onions, can be a trigger. In 2013, a study in the journal Headache noted some intense reactions to onions. One woman experienced a crushing headache with blurry vision and nausea after smelling raw onions.

Neurologist Dr. Nicholas Silver explains that harsh smells may stimulate the trigeminal nerve. This shrinks blood vessels, raises inflammation, and causes splitting pain. Other pungent scents to avoid include perfumes, air fresheners, cleaning products, and fatty foods.

Avocado Antioxidants Can Lower Pain

Ripe avocados sit in a pile, and one is cute in half.
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Jan Sochor/Getty Images

If you like avocado toast, you may experience fewer headaches. Avocados contain plenty of antioxidants, including B vitamins, folate, and vitamin E. During a 2020 study, researchers asserted that antioxidants could lower the frequency of migraines.

Avocados can also help people lose weight. Because hunger can trigger headaches, any filling food that reduces obesity can help. According to research in Future Neurology, obesity raises the risk of migraines by up to 81%. That said, avocados contain some tyramine, and people who are sensitive to tyramine may not benefit from the fruit.

Switch To Whole Wheat Bread

Whole wheat bread loafs lie on a table.
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

People who have frequent migraines may want to switch to whole grains. Wheat bread is healthy and can manage weight. Research in Obesity Reviews discovered that people with a higher BMI are far more likely to get frequent migraines. According to another study, women are half as likely to gain weight on whole grains than refined grains.

Whole wheat is all-around healthy, which can only improve your headaches. “Including this in your diet just helps keep you healthy and happy and hopefully prevents migraines from occurring,” explains registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo.

The Head-Throbbing Protein In Milk

Milk cartons stand in a line at a supermarket.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Bad news for all the milk-drinkers out there: dairy is a common cause of migraines. According to Intelligent Medicine, 78% of milk’s protein is casein. Casein is a phosphoprotein that causes headaches; some people even go on a non-casein diet to avoid migraines.

Even low-fat and nonfat milk raise your risk of headaches. According to a 2016 study, people with frequent migraines were more likely to drink low-fat or skim milk. If you often get headaches, you may want to consider drinking alternative milk products.

Put Down That Chocolate!

A close-up shows a man eating a chocolate bar.
Illustration by John Pryke/Getty Images
Illustration by John Pryke/Getty Images

According to the International Headache Society, 22% of headache sufferers list chocolate as a trigger. Scientists believe that chocolate’s nitrates, which convert to nitric oxide in the body, cause headaches. Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, found that higher levels of nitrates lead to worse migraines.

That said, the National Headache Foundation claims that some research says the opposite. Scientists from Missouri State University asserted that chocolate could prevent future headaches by lowering inflammation. But if you are sensitive to migraines and headaches, you may want to avoid it.

Beware Of The Preservatives In Processed Meats

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Researchers believe that eating processed meats can cause headaches. Meats are preserved with nitrates, which are well-known to trigger migraines. People who have frequent migraines have a higher amount of nitrates in their bodies, specifically in their mouths and digestive tracts.

In 2016, scientists from the University of Cincinnati connected processed foods to migraines. Chemicals used to preserve meats, including both nitrates and MSG, commonly create head pain. “You eliminate [migraines] by eating fewer processed foods,” says researcher Dr. Vincent Martin.

Some Peppers Create Thunderclap Headaches

Chili peppers are on display in a market.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

In April 2018, a California man was rushed to the hospital after receiving a migraine from a chili-eating contest. Doctors pinpointed the cause: a “Carolina Reaper,” one of the hottest peppers on Earth. But do all peppers cause a “thunderclap headache” as that man had?

Dr. Kulothungan Gunasekaran from Henry Ford Hospital says that it depends on the number of peppers you eat. Most people need to eat a lot of spice before receiving a headache, while others are more prone to the side effect. Currently, there is no research linking peppers to migraines.