Nearly everyone has a headache now and then. So, could frequent headaches be a sign of too little protein in your diet?
Headache is an extremely common complaint. A January 2018 review in the American Journal of Medicine explains that migraine, tension and cluster headaches are considered "primary" headaches, while many other headaches are "secondary" in nature — the result of infection, injury or a mental health condition, for example.
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An accurate diagnosis of your headache relies on a thorough history and examination, according to the review article. And that includes an assessment of your diet and other lifestyle factors.
Protein and Headaches: What’s the Connection?
"Protein is important in brain function and brain energy," says Adelene Jann, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of neurology's headache division at NYU Langone Health in New York City. "Low-protein diets may lead to headaches."
Low-protein diets can have a variety of other effects on the body. Losing muscle mass is a hallmark sign that you're not getting enough protein, according to the Merck Manual. Swelling, mood changes, weakness and fatigue are also symptoms, it says. In extreme circumstances, a person's hair may become dry and fall out and their skin will thin out and become inelastic. Note: Severe protein deficiencies are considered uncommon in developed countries, including the U.S., according to Harvard Health.
Additionally, just as low-protein diets can cause headaches, high-protein diets can do the same: A March 2016 review of dietary protein intake and human health in the journal Food & Function cites headache as a symptom of both protein deficiency and high protein intake.
Read more: No-Carb Headache
Different types of headaches have been linked to anemia, which is when you have a shortage of healthy red blood cells needed to carry oxygen throughout your body. Anemia can be related to an iron deficiency as well as to a vitamin B-12 deficiency; both can be linked to not enough protein intake because protein, like lean beef and chicken, are sources of both nutrients, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Having anemia can make you tired, weak and dizzy as well as give you headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. See your doctor for a blood test to check for anemia if you're having these signs.
What's more, a December 2016 study published in the Central European Journal of Medicine found that people who are iron-deficient have a high frequency of migraines. "A migraine is a different type of headache disorder that is common — 37 million people in the U.S. have it — and typically runs in the family," says Dr. Jann, describing a migraine as "throbbing, one-sided head pain that is severe, and often has light and noise sensitivity and nausea or vomiting associated with it."
Interestingly, some protein foods are actually linked to migraines. According to the National Headache Foundation, foods that contain tyramine, a natural by-product of protein breakdown, can be migraine triggers. Common high-tyramine foods are aged cheese, chicken livers and nuts. If you get migraines, you may want to try avoiding these foods to see if they're triggers for your headaches. Also, you may be at greater risk for tyramine-triggered headaches if you're taking a type of antidepressant called an MAOI drug, the foundation points out.
How Much Protein Do I Need a Day?
Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are the three big macronutrients you need in your diet, explains Kaiser Permanente. Proteins in particular are both the building blocks of muscle, bone and skin and a source of fuel for your body, says the National Library of Medicine.
Protein should be at least 10 percent of your daily intake, but can go up to 35 percent, according to Harvard Health. The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which amounts to 0.36 grams per pound. However, that's for the average sedentary person. If you do minimal, moderate or intensive exercise, you're more likely to need 1, 1.3 and 1.6 grams per kilo respectively every day, according to the Food & Function study .
Many people over age 50 may not be getting enough, according to an April 2019 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging. Another, published in Nutrients in March 2018, found that it might make sense to start increasing protein intake as early as age 40 to stave off the natural decline in muscle mass that starts about then. It may also be harder to get enough if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Read more: Why Did My Vitamins Cause a Headache?
Do I Need Special Medicine for a Protein Headache?
Over-the-counter pain relievers are usually the first line of defense to ease headache pain. Drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen can help, but Mayo Clinic cautions not to overuse pain relievers because you can get so-called rebound, or medication overuse, headaches.
"It is important to not use the pain medication more than three days per week to prevent a type of headache called medication overuse headache — when the headaches return once the medication wears off and leads to chronic daily headaches," explains Dr. Jann.
As always, prevention is the best remedy. If you're not sure that you're getting enough daily protein, advance planning will help you eat more well-rounded meals and build in snacks high in protein to help prevent these headaches.
- Food & Function: “Dietary Protein Intake and Human Health”
- The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging: “Low Dietary Protein Intakes and Associated Dietary Patterns and Functional Limitations in an Aging Population: A NHANES Analysis”
- Nutrients: “Protein for Life: Review of Optimal Protein Intake, Sustainable Dietary Sources and the Effect on Appetite in Ageing Adults
- The Central European Journal of Medicine (Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift): “Is Iron-deficiency Anemia Associated with Migraine? Is There a Role for Anxiety and Depression?"
- Harvard Health: “Do You Eat Enough Protein?”
- National Headache Foundation: “Tyramine”
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “Your Guide to Anemia”
- Mayo Clinic: “Anemia”
- American Journal of Medicine: "Headache"
- Merck Manual: "Undernutrition"
- Mayo Clinic: "Medication Overuse Headaches"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.