The nutrients in these healthy foods and drinks can help you manage painful headaches.
Whether it’s a dull ache or sharp pain, headaches are the worst. They can throw your entire day for a loop, making it difficult to work, drive, and everything in between. Understandably, it can be tempting to reach for ibuprofen for some quick, sweet headache relief—but you might actually have other headache remedies within reach—even right in your kitchen. As it turns out, there are certain foods (and drinks) that can help with headache symptoms, depending on the underlying cause.
Different Types of Headaches
All headaches are a pain, but no two headaches are quite alike. There are many possible causes of headaches, and therefore, different types. Headaches can be related to overactivity or issues within certain head structures (i.e. primary headaches), or they can be caused by an underlying condition (i.e. secondary headaches). Headaches can also be acute (temporary) or chronic, meaning they happen 15 or more times every month for at least three months.
The most common type is a tension headache, which affects 2 billion people around the world. Migraines are also common, affecting 12 percent of people worldwide. In fact, migraines are the second leading cause of disability, according to The Journal of Headache and Pain. There are also cluster headaches—more severe headaches that typically recur within a specific span of a few weeks—which are quite rare, affecting only 0.1 percent of the population.
Common Causes of Headaches
To make things even more complicated, there are many different headache triggers. These are situations or factors that trigger headaches, or of which headaches are a result or symptom, depending on the person. Common headache triggers include:
Sleep problems or lack of sleep
Pain in your neck or head
Certain foods or ingredients (e.g. an allergy or insensitivity)
Some Foods That Can Cause Headaches
As you can see, food is just one piece of the headache puzzle, so it’s difficult to prove that one single food or nutrient can alleviate headache symptoms, as noted by registered dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN.
In fact, headache management typically involves an opposite approach: avoiding foods or ingredients that trigger your headache symptoms. These can vary from person to person, but common food-related triggers include chocolate, cheese, alcohol, fermented foods, and caffeine; a doctor or dietitian can help pinpoint which ones, if any, may be causing your headaches.
Do Any Foods Help With Headaches?
Identifying foods that relieve headaches is less straightforward. However, there are some options that contain nutrients which play a role in easing common underlying factors, such as hunger and dehydration. The following foods may help with managing headaches.
If you’re dealing with a hunger headache, eating something—anything!—will reduce your symptoms. Try reaching for bananas, which are packed with hunger-busting fiber. According to Pasquariello, fiber slows down digestion, increasing satiety and keeping you full for longer. She also notes that fiber “regulates the gastrointestinal system, contributing to the health of gut-brain axis and possibly reducing the risk of certain disorders of the central nervous system,” including migraines. Luckily, bananas are inexpensive and easy to pack, making it easy to curb hanger between meals. (It's a extra bonus if you can sneak in a protein source, too, like nuts or nut butter.)
It’s no secret that staying hydrated is essential for good health. But on the days where you don’t drink enough water or properly rehydrate after exercise (it happens!), you might develop a headache. This is a typical sign of dehydration, along with a dry mouth, and thirst, so you’ll want to drink water to rehydrate your body.
But why stop there? Peppermint tea is not only a delicious source of fluids, but has a rejuvenating scent that can provide some relief. Granted, this benefit is mainly anecdotal, and the studies available involve topical application of peppermint oil. This is thought to be due to menthol, the main compound in peppermint with analgesic (pain-relieving) properties, Pasquariello says. More studies are needed to understand how peppermint tea affects headaches specifically, but if you’re looking for a refreshing drink, it may be worth adding it to your roster of headache relief foods.
Caffeinated Foods and Drinks
Although caffeine can cause headaches in some people, it may relieve headaches in others—but only if their headache is caused by caffeine withdrawal. Here’s why: Caffeine narrows the blood vessels in the brain. If you regularly consume caffeine and then abruptly stop, the blood vessels can widen too much, causing headache symptoms, Pasquariello explains.
Naturally, one of the quickest ways to alleviate this is to consume some caffeine, though you’ll want to do this with caution, especially if you’re trying to cut back in the first place.
Instead of quitting caffeine cold turkey, gradually “reduce caffeine intake over the course of a few weeks,” Pasquariello recommends. Reach for a drink with a bit less caffeine than you usually drink (like a latte with only one shot of espresso vs. two or three, or simply a smaller cup size of Joe), which will give you a solid caffeine fix without triggering headaches. Staying hydrated will further offset these headaches, so drinking more fluids (from water or otherwise) can help as you wean yourself off caffeine, she adds.
For a tasty solution to a dehydration headache, nosh on fresh watermelon. About 90 percent of this pink fruit is made of water, so eating it can help restore your body’s fluid balance and relieve dehydration, says Casey Kelley, MD, ABoIM, board-certified integrative medicine specialist, and founder and medical director of Case Integrative Health. What’s more, “watermelon contains electrolytes like potassium, which is lost through sweat during dehydration,” Dr. Kelley adds. Of course, eating watermelon isn’t a substitute for drinking water or electrolyte fluids, but it can certainly help boost your body’s fluid levels.
Although any food will help relieve hunger-related headaches, beans and legumes like chickpeas and black beans are a great choice. These are high in fiber and protein, two particularly satiating nutrients. Beans are also rich in magnesium, a mineral that “could be helpful for preventing migraines and headaches [over time] or lessening their severity,” Pasquariello says. And since the ingredient can be enjoyed in so many ways, you’re sure to find a bean recipe that works for you; toss them into salads, mix them with pasta, or puree them into spreads. You can also simply pair beans with rice for an easy hunger-busting meal.
Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, or oats are no match for hunger headaches, which are caused by low blood sugar levels due to skipped meals. That’s because whole grains increase and stabilize blood sugar levels, according to Dr. Kelley. For starters, they contain complex carbohydrates, which break down gradually and provide a slow, steady release of glucose. “Whole grains are [also] a great source of fiber, which slows down digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, helping keep blood sugar level stable,” she adds. The exception is if you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity, as some whole grains (such as farro) contain gluten and may cause reactions that involve headaches, Dr. Kelley says.
Known for their impressive roster of brain-friendly nutrients, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard might also benefit headaches. “Leafy greens are excellent sources of magnesium, which [is] linked to migraine prevention and relief,” Dr. Kelley says. They’re also teeming riboflavin, a B vitamin found to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines in some folks, she notes. “Finally, these vegetables are rich in antioxidants like vitamin C and beta-carotene; antioxidants reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which can contribute to migraine attacks in some people” Dr. Kelley says.
Like caffeine, fermented foods (such as kimchi, yogurt, and miso) can be common headache triggers for certain people. However, for others, they might be a valuable component of headache management. It’s all thanks to their high content of probiotics, or good bacteria, which benefit the connection between the gut and brain. This could relate to the anti-inflammatory effect of probiotic-rich foods, according to Pasquariello. “Since headaches and migraines are linked to inflammation, an anti-inflammatory diet [can help, and] fermented foods can be part of that,” she says.
When to See a Doctor About Your Headaches
While many headaches can be eased with lifestyle and diet changes—like managing stress, getting more sleep, or staying hydrated—there are scenarios that warrant a trip to the doctor, according to Dr. Kelley. Get medical help if you experience headaches that are sudden, extremely severe, or paired with neurological symptoms like confusion, numbness, weakness, or difficulty walking, as these may point to a stroke, she advises. Similarly, you should see a healthcare professional if you’re having headaches and recently experienced a head injury.
“If you’ve never had headaches before and suddenly start [getting them], or if your headaches have changed in frequency or intensity, consult your doctor,” Dr. Kelley says. This is especially important if your headaches “start to interfere with the quality of your life and lead to missed days of school or work,” she adds. Your doctor can identify the underlying reason for your headaches, and hopefully, create a treatment plan to help you find relief.
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