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I get severe headaches. What foods ease and trigger the pain? Add to ...

The question: I get very bad headaches. Are there foods or supplements that can ease the pain?

The answer: Depending on what type of headache you get, it may be possible to manage with diet and supplements. Most studies on nutrition and headaches have involved people who experience migraines, headaches typically described as a severe pulsing or throbbing pain felt on one side of the head, although some migraines occur on both sides. Migraines are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.

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If you do suffer from migraines, avoiding certain foods may help ease the pain. That’s because some foods act as triggers. The most common foods that can provoke a migraine include chocolate, cheese, citrus fruit, and alcohol, especially red wine. Non-food triggers include stress, lack of sleep, weather, seeing bright lights, and female hormones. Keep in mind, though, it’s usually the combination of a few triggers that set off a headache.

Foods rich in tyramine, a natural chemical found in pickled and fermented foods, have also been linked to migraines. These include aged cheese, sour cream, yogurt, smoked or cured meat and fish, red wine, beer, yeast, teriyaki sauce, soy sauce, miso and tempeh. Brazil nuts, peanuts, avocados, bananas, raspberries and raisins also contain tyramine. Some people also report that monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame, an artificial sweetener, cause migraines.

It’s important to eat at regular intervals during the day to help prevent headaches. Skipping meals or going for a prolonged period of time between meals can cause a migraine attack. Low blood sugar caused by not eating regularly can also lead to mild but dull, throbbing headaches. Keep your blood sugar stable during the day by eating three balanced meals and one or two midday snacks.

Consider your caffeine intake too since high doses can cause headaches. Limit your caffeine to no more than 200 milligrams a day – the amount in about 12 ounces of regular coffee. That said, if you consume caffeine regularlys, don’t go cold turkey. Abruptly stopping caffeine can cause withdrawal headaches. Instead, gradually cut back over a period of two to three weeks.

When it comes to supplements, riboflavin (a B vitamin), magnesium, coenzyme Q10 and feverfew (an herbal supplement) have been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines, and in some cases, cluster headaches. As always, I recommend that you consult your health care provider to determine which supplement is best for you, and how to take it safely.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel’sDirect (www.lesliebeck.com).

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail’s Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Follow on Twitter: @lesliebeckrd

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