On Food and Headaches

I started getting headaches in my mid-20s. I threw out my back at work one day and never did anything to fix it—I relied on my standard “ignore it and it’ll go away” strategy. This caused entrenched muscle imbalances, which led to steadily mounting tension along the length of my spine, which eventually came to rest in my neck and shoulders.

I started getting tension headaches at the back of my head, where my spine connects to my skull. These headaches are a dull throb on one side or the other, sometimes nothing much, sometimes bad enough to make me sweaty and nauseous and shaky. I always knew when one was coming on because it would be preceded by a few hours of mounting tension in my back and shoulders. I always knew when one would be really bad because my neck would start cracking every time I moved my head.

Slouching in comfy chairs and couches tended to trigger them. Hunching forward to stare at a computer screen was about the worst thing I could do. Lying flat, or sitting up straight, and breathing deeply tended to help.

Tension headache meds did nothing. Tylenol could quiet the pain for an hour or two but didn’t address the tension—the headache would come right back the moment the painkiller wore off. Ibuprofen was the only thing that worked, and it worked exceptionally well. Caffeine helped, too—coffee in the mornings would dilate my blood vessels, which increases blood flow to muscle tissues, which helps relax them.

When I stopped working as a theatrical technician in my mid-to-late 20s, I pretty much stopped being physically active. Which meant I gained a lot of weight, fairly quickly (I ballooned from the around 220 lbs. to the mid-260s in just a couple of years). This weight gain made my headaches more frequent and worse.

They still followed the same patterns: mounting tension, neck cracking, a dull throb at the back of my head on one side or the other which would gradually build.

They eventually became so frequent that I was taking Advil every day as a preventative. Over time, my dosage had to increase in order to keep being effective: I reached a point where I was taking 2-3 times the recommended dosage. Every. Single. Day.

I’ve spent the past eight years working hard to lose weight and reduce my muscle tension. I started tracking my diet, my physical activity, my headaches, even my moods, to identify correlations and triggers. Between my weight loss and some general dietary changes, and by substantially increasing my physical activity, I got my headaches largely under control. For the past couple of years, I’ve averaged only one or two a month. I now take Advil so infrequently, and I’ve lost enough weight, that the standard dose is once again effective.

Then, a few weeks ago, something changed. I had a headache come on that was different than I’d ever had before: it struck all at once, with no warning, no mounting tension, and it didn’t build—it was severe from the first moment I felt it. Sweaty, nauseous, shaking. Instead of a dull throb on one side at the back of my head, it was sharp and bilateral.

I kept getting them, every day, for two weeks. They were hair-trigger: sudden, full force, with no warning. Any tiny little thing which caused any tiny amount of muscle tension in my neck would bring one on. Half the movements of my normal daily stretching and relaxation routine now caused my head to pound.

These new headaches were genuinely frightening.

I spoke to my doctor and there was no sign of hemorrhage or hematoma or any dangerous condition. Scary as they were, they didn’t seem to be anything more than just bad headaches.

When I told my wife about them, she immediately noticed that the first one struck on the same day that her pollen allergies kicked in worse than they’d been in a decade or more. I’ve never shown any evidence of having a pollen allergy, but pollen counts were at a historic high and allergens can cause inflammation in the body. I tried taking Benadryl and it seemed to help—but I think that’s because it knocked me into such a deep sleep that quite a lot of my muscle tension relaxed away. As soon as tension started to creep back into my neck and shoulders, the scary headaches came back. Claritin did nothing.

Then my wife made another connection:

A few days before this new kind of sudden severe headache hit me, she had made a big batch of a blue cheese coleslaw. We ate it every day for lunch. It was so delicious that she made a second huge batch as soon as we finished the first, and we kept eating it for lunch every day.

One day, shortly after I told her about these new and different headaches, she was doing some research and came across several lists of foods that are known to trigger headaches.

Blue cheese was on every list. There’s a chemical in it which has been shown to trigger headaches in people who are prone to them.

So I stopped eating the slaw. And the scary different headaches stopped.

I’d never before in my life eaten blue cheese on a daily basis. Getting a dose of it every day was too much for my system and I reacted to it.

But there’s more to this story.

Since the scary sudden headaches ceased, my normal headaches have improved, too. And I think this is because of the bananas.

I’ve eaten a banana with breakfast every day for years, since college. Turns out, bananas have the same headache-causing chemical that blue cheese does. When I stopped eating the slaw, I also stopped eating bananas, just to be sure my system was completely purged of this chemical.

Bananas only have a trace amount of it, so never enough to notice any correlation, and nothing close to enough to render my headaches severe or hair-trigger, but I have to wonder if it hasn’t been a constant low-level irritant in my system this whole time.

I only ate bananas to get the potassium. There are much better sources of potassium than bananas, though, so it’s no great loss to stop eating them.

I really do believe it makes my headaches better.

We all understand that diet and health are connected in a general sense: obesity, cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension. But as a culture, we seem largely oblivious to the idea that specific foods can trigger specific symptoms, cause specific conditions.

There’s mounting evidence that many kids diagnosed as ADHD are actually reacting to various food additives. I personally know several people whose kids’ ADHD was triggered—or substantially exacerbated—by artificial food coloring (Red #40 is the most common culprit).

I’m convinced that quite a lot of our mood disorders are being either caused or worsened by the food we eat. I suspect we’re reacting to some of the additives. (*)

My personal experience with depression bears this out: moderate caffeine intake helps combat depression. But I’ve also noticed that excessive amounts of processed sugar make my depressive episodes worse. When I started keeping a food / activity / headache / mood journal a few years ago, this was one of the first strong correlations I identified. (Too much sugar also makes my headaches worse, although there’s no correlation between my depression and my headaches.) I’ve seen plenty of articles online and in professional journals about the beneficial effects of caffeine for depression but I’ve never once seen anything written about how sugar can make depression worse.

Maybe I’m not reading the right journals.

I listen to people around me discuss their various health issues, and pretty much everyone talks about going on a diet to lose weight, how they need to exercise more, how they need to eat more of some things and less of others to lower their cholesterol. Too many people would rather just swallow a pill so they won’t have to make any substantial lifestyle changes.

But I rarely hear people say anything as focused as, “I think blue cheese might be causing my headaches.” There seems to be little sense among the general populace that specific foods connect to our health that specifically.

I didn’t learn to look at the food I ate for specific triggers until very recently. It’s still a new and novel perspective for me. I spent years suffering from headaches without ever once looking at my diet as a contributing factor (beyond the general sense that my weight made my headaches worse). I knew that I could address them by addressing my muscle tension—but it never occurred to me that some of that tension might be caused by the food I was eating.

We just don’t think about food this way. But I think we need to start.

 

* It’s not my intention to diminish mood disorders or people who suffer from them, nor to imply that such disorders are easily fixed.

My depression isn’t caused by my diet. It’s caused by an inherited imbalance of neurotransmitters in my brain. But diet and exercise can substantially improve, or substantially worsen, my symptoms.

I can’t cure my depression with diet and exercise, but both food and physical activity are powerful tools to help manage it.

In college, diet and exercise weren’t enough and I needed to be on an antidepressant. That might very well be the case again sometime in my future: if ever diet and exercise aren’t enough to manage my depression on their own, I’ll get back on an antidepressant if it’s necessary. There’s no failure or shame in this.

But I do believe that we vastly underestimate the power of food to manage our symptoms. And I do think that food can cause disorders for some people. I think paying better attention to the kind and quality of food we put into our bodies can only help. (**)

 

** Of course, this all completely ignores the vast disparity of access to quality food which divides our society: have and have-nots, cost vs. quality, food deserts, etc. Like everything else in our world, your ability to manage the kind and quality of food you eat is highly dependent on your socio-economic class.

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