Can Headaches Be Caused by a Nutritional Deficiency?

Close up of woman rubbing temples
A headache could be caused by a nutritional deficiency. (Image: Todd Wright/Blend Images/Getty Images)

Whether a dull ache or a splitting pain, frequent headaches can put a damper on your day-to-day activities. When you've tried all the normal remedies -- extra sleep, pain relievers, another cup of coffee -- to no avail, look at your diet. Your headache could be the result of a nutritional deficiency.

Potential Deficiencies

Headaches can result from a deficiency in two nutrients: magnesium and folate, or vitamin B-9. If you don't get the recommended amount of 320 to 420 milligrams of magnesium a day, depending on your gender and age, you might experience migraine headaches. This is due to magnesium's effect on neurotransmitter release and vasoconstriction. You can boost your magnesium consumption by eating more green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Headaches can be symptoms of megaloblastic anemia, as well. This can be caused by a deficiency in folate, though a deficiency in this nutrient is rare, says the National Institutes of Health. Adults should aim for 400 micrograms a day unless you're pregnant or nursing, which requires 600 micrograms and 500 micrograms, respectively. Dietary sources of folate include vegetables, fruits and their juices, nuts, beans, peas, dairy, poultry, meat, eggs, seafood and grains.

Going Low-Carb?

A low-carb diet might be an efficient way to lose weight, but if you cut the carbs too much, you might experience headaches. According to a review published in 2007 in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," side effects of a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet -- in which you consume less than 20 grams to 50 grams of carbohydrates a day -- include headaches, along with constipation, muscle cramps, diarrhea, weakness and skin rash. To avoid experiencing this, keep your carbohydrate consumption above 50 grams a day.

Sign of Toxicity

In some cases, headaches might be the cause of taking in too much of a certain nutrient rather than not having enough of it. Headaches are a symptom of toxicity of vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin, and the mineral zinc. The upper level for vitamin A is 10,000 international units per day, and it's typically hit when you consume too much in the form of supplements or therapeutic retinoids. The upper level for zinc is 40 milligrams a day for adults.

Other Causes of Headaches

Although headaches can be attributed to a nutritional deficiency, it's not one of the most common causes. According to Dr. Elizabeth Loder, chief of the Division of Headache and Pain in the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, common reasons for headaches include hangovers and dehydration, mild tension headaches, overtired headaches when you don't get enough sleep and even exercise-induced headaches. Headaches can also be a symptom of more-serious conditions. Talk to your health care provider if you're experiencing regular headaches rather than trying to diagnose the problem yourself.

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