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FOOD TODAY 06/2001

Diet and Headache - A Load Off Your Mind

Food TodayMany migraine sufferers claim that their attacks are triggered by certain foods. The body's failure to inactivate the natural amines present in the food may explain why some people are affected more than others.

Migraine headaches are clinically recognisable conditions, affecting between 8 to 20 per cent of the population. They can cause chronic, severe pain, resulting in lost workdays and a disrupted family life. Many factors are known to be involved, including a family history of migraines, stress and hormonal changes. More women than men are affected. Changes in sleep patterns or sleep deprivation, as well as skipping meals or fasting, are also among the wide variety of factors that can trigger headaches in susceptible people.

In most cases, migraine headaches are due to behavioural factors and there are no accurate estimates of the percentage of headaches that are diet related. However, various foods have been implicated in dietary migraines, including well-matured cheeses, alcoholic drinks (especially red wine), pickled, preserved or marinated foods including fish products and sauerkraut, and fruits such as avocados, raspberries and bananas. Unfortunately, avoiding specific foods seldom cures migraines, which are often the result of a complex combination of risk factors.

Migraine attacks have been linked to the presence of certain naturally occurring amines in foods. These nitrogen containing substances occur universally in animals, plants and bacteria, and many contribute to the characteristic flavours and aromas of foods. The amines in foods that are known to have significant effects are tyramine, phenylethylamine and histamine. It seems that migraine sufferers may not be able to metabolise these substances quickly enough, so they remain in the body longer, thus causing headaches.

The connection between amines and headaches was first identified in patients taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibiting drugs to treat tuberculosis and to alleviate depression. The function of these MAO enzymes is to metabolise potentially harmful amines before they reach the bloodstream. The use of MAO-inhibiting drugs removes this natural detoxification mechanism, leading to increased blood amine levels. Patients receiving the drugs reported severe, throbbing headaches after eating certain foods.

It is possible that migraines have a hereditary component. Some people may have a genetic MAO enzyme deficiency that could account for their headaches. For those who want to ward off migraine pain, it is useful to keep a headache diary over several months. This can help identify a pattern of activities, feelings, situations or foods that seem to be related to the onset of headaches. Managing stress by identifying and eliminating its causes, regular exercise, relaxation and a well -balanced, healthy diet can take a load off your mind.


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  • Harrington, E. (1980) Diet and migraine. Journal of Human Nutrition 34 175-180
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  • Rose, F. C. (1991) The pathogenesis of migraine. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 519-521
  • Scharff, L. and Marcus, D. A. (1999) Chocolate and headache: is there a relationship? In Chocolate and Cocoa. Health and Nutrition. Ed. Knight, I. Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford, pp. 229-239
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The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is a non-profit organisation which communicates science-based information on nutrition and health, food safety and quality, to help consumers to be better informed when choosing a well-balanced, safe and healthful diet.

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