According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, up to 78 percent of people experience tension headaches, which start at the back of your head and move forward until the pain affects your entire head, scalp and neck. More severe headaches, such as migraines, can make it difficult to function normally for several days. Although no food can cure or prevent headaches, changing your eating habits to emphasize certain foods and limit others could help minimize your symptoms.
Fresh, Cold-Water Fish
Cold-water fish are top sources of omega-3 fatty acids -- essential fats Americans consume too few of. Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids for a number of functions including building cell membranes in the brain and decreasing inflammation in the body. In a study published in "BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine" in 2012, people who got chronic daily headaches consumed either a diet low in omega-6 fats or a diet both low in omega-6 fats and high in omega-3s for 12 weeks. By the study's end, all participants showed significantly less expression of inflammatory genes associated with chronic headache pain. For potentially similar benefits, replace protein sources high in inflammatory fats, such as red and processed meats, in your diet with cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Avoid smoked fish, which commonly triggers tension headaches.
Flaxseeds are leading plant sources of omega-3 fats and magnesium -- a mineral that may help prevent migraine flare-ups, according to the UMMC. Flaxseeds also provide a useful alternative to nuts, which provide magnesium and other important nutrients but can trigger tension headaches and migraines. Have ground flaxseed on its own or added to other healthy foods, such as whole-grain cereals and smoothies. Unlike the omega-3s in fish, your body must convert the fatty acids in flaxseeds into the most helpful form and doesn't do so very efficiently. If you don't eat fish at least twice per week, incorporate flaxseeds into your diet frequently for maximum benefits. Add a scoop to your breakfast daily, for example.
Dairy products provide valuable amounts of essential nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D. If you're prone to headaches, however, they may trigger or worsen your symptoms. If they don't contribute to your headaches, avoid high-fat varieties, such as whole milk and cheddar cheese, which contain inflammatory fats. Otherwise, choose nondairy equivalents, such as fortified almond or rice, coconut or hemp milk. In place of butter, top potatoes and toast with olive oil. Fortified cereals also provide valuable amounts of calcium and vitamin D -- along with magnesium. Some cereals, such as flax flakes, bring the added benefits of omega-3s.
Foods affect people's headache symptoms differently. To determine your personal triggers, track your diet and headache symptoms in a journal until you notice patterns. Other common headache triggers include chocolate, the food additive monosodium glutamate, chicken livers, peanut butter, onions, cured meats such as ham, fermented and pickled foods, red wine, and caffeine. Meal skipping, stress and sleep loss can also cause flare-ups, so aim to eat balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals, manage stress and maintain a healthy sleep routine. If you have difficulty meeting your nutrient needs through food alone, discuss the potential need for supplements with your doctor.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Tension Headache
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Migraine Headache
- BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Effects of a Low Omega-6 and High Omega-3 Diet on Inflammatory Gene Expression in Patients With Chronic Daily Headaches
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Magnesium
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Seeds, Flaxseeds
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals, Ready-to-Eat, Flax-PLUS Flakes