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What foods and drinks can help relieve a headache?

Headaches are a common form of pain. There are many types of headaches, and they may be temporary or come and go for longer periods of time.

Food and drink may play a role in headaches. Some food and drinks may be especially helpful for headaches, such as water, antioxidant-rich foods, and ingredients such as caffeine.

Other foods may trigger headaches. People who deal with regular headaches can work with their doctor to help identify any underlying causes, including identifying and eliminating trigger foods, to help relieve their headaches.

In this article, we look at how different foods affect headaches, and explain how to identify food and drink related headache triggers.

Headaches are a type of pain that affects the head. Doctors classify headaches by the type of pain and location of the pain.

Headaches may be primary headaches, meaning they appear on their own and have no related conditions, or secondary headaches, which appear due to an underlying condition.

The International Classification of Headache Disorders helps classify over 150 types of primary and secondary headache disorders.

Some of the more familiar headaches include:

  • Migraine: Migraine causes intense throbbing pain in one area or side of the head or neck, along with other symptoms such as sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and changes in vision.
  • Tension-type headache: A tension-type headache or stress headache causes mild to moderate dull pain. Some describe it as feeling as though there is a band tightened across their head.
  • Cluster headache: A cluster headache causes intense pain, generally on one side of the head or around one eye, and may occur with other symptoms such as nasal discharge or tearing eyes.
  • Sinus headache: A sinus headache is a secondary headache due to pressure buildup from inflammation. It typically occurs with other symptoms in the sinuses, such as congestion or runny nose, swelling in the face, and itchy eyes.

The frequency and severity of headache pain can vary greatly. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke notes that some people may experience mild headache symptoms 1-2 times a year, while others experience headaches more than 15 days every month.

The general idea behind using food and drinks to help relieve headaches is to help eliminate or reduce the triggers causing the symptoms.

Water

Drinking enough water is important for all systems and cells in the body, and may help reduce or avoid headaches by keeping a person hydrated.

Even mild dehydration may lead to a number of symptoms, including headaches. A 2015 study in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice suggests that drinking water is a simple way to keep the body hydrated and reduce or prevent headache pain.

Fruits and vegetables

Many fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that help reduce oxidative stress in the cells and fight against free radical damage.

A 2020 study in the journal Antioxidants notes that oxidative stress appears to play a role in migraine and that some antioxidants may play a simple role in helping treat or prevent migraine headaches.

Apart from taking supplements containing antioxidants, people can also consume foods that contain antioxidants such as fruits, vegetables, and edible flowers.

Some examples of nutritious foods include:

  • leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and chard
  • bright-colored vegetables such as carrots and bell peppers
  • spicy peppers such as cayenne
  • spices such as ginger, turmeric, and garlic
  • root vegetables such as sweet potato and beets
  • berries such as blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries
  • mushrooms such as oyster, shitake, and maitake

A small 2014 study in the Journal of Headache and Pain suggests that a low-fat, high-fiber diet containing only plant foods helped relieve migraine symptoms in participants. However, researchers concluded that further study was necessary to understand the link between food and migraine.

Herbal tea

Herbal teas may help reduce headache symptoms because they are hydrating and may contain pain-relieving ingredients.

A 2014 study of 100 people with acute migraine without aura found that a simple ginger tea reduced migraine severity in people who drank it with fewer side effects compared to sumatriptan, a prescription migraine abortive.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes that chamomile may help with issues such as sleeplessness and anxiety. In theory, its calming effect may help with tension headaches.

Anecdotally, some people feel that peppermint tea helps relieve sinus congestion and pressure, which in turn helps relieve sinus headache pain. More formal research is needed to give any backing to this claim.

Caffeinated foods

Small amounts of caffeine may also help some types of headaches, because blood vessels tend to enlarge before a headache.

Caffeine has a natural vasoconstrictive property, meaning it narrows the blood vessels. This may counteract the effects of the headache and ease symptoms.

Some foods with natural caffeine in them include:

  • coffee
  • black tea
  • green tea
  • soda
  • energy drinks
  • sports drinks
  • chocolate

However, people should be wary about having too much caffeine. In some people, caffeine may also be a trigger for their headaches or cause a headache later when the effects of the caffeine wear off.

For some people, certain foods trigger headaches or make them worse.

The exact trigger foods for each person will vary. Some potential trigger foods include:

  • dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • eggs
  • citrus fruits
  • tomatoes
  • alcohol
  • wheat products such as pasta, bread, and baked goods
  • chocolate
  • nuts
  • aged cheese

Additionally, some food additives may trigger headaches in some sensitive people. Potential triggers may include:

As food triggers can vary from person to person, the best way for a person to find their potential triggers is to keep a food journal, logging all the foods they eat each day.

When a headache occurs, the person can refer to the journal to see what foods they were eating around that time.

Not everyone will find headache relief by avoiding certain foods. Other natural ways to avoid or get rid of headaches include:

Setting a healthy nighttime routine

A healthy nighttime routine may help reduce risk factors such as stress. Some tips for improving sleep hygiene include:

  • avoiding blue light before bed, such as lights from computers, cell phones, or televisions
  • doing relaxing activities such as gentle stretches, self-massage, or breathing exercises
  • taking a warm bath or shower
  • sleeping 7-9 hours each night

Eating at regular times

Daily stresses and work may cause some people to eat at sporadic times or skip meals. It may also cause cravings for unhealthy snacks or potential trigger foods.

Setting specific meal times and sticking to them may help.

Find ways to reduce stress

Stress may be an important trigger for headaches and underlying issues such as inflammation. Finding ways to relieve stress may help reduce headaches.

What relieves stress may vary a bit in each person. Some general tips for stress relief include practices such as:

  • exercising
  • movement exercises such as yoga or tai chi
  • spending time in nature
  • massage therapy
  • aromatherapy

Anyone regularly experiencing headaches should make an appointment with their doctor to test for underlying conditions. Diagnosing and treating any underlying conditions may cause the headaches to go away.

For headaches that appear without a known cause, doctors may recommend medications to help prevent or treat the headaches as they appear.

Changes in diet and lifestyle can help support these efforts. Finding and eliminating any trigger foods may help ease symptoms. Eating a healthy diet rich in plants, nutrients, and antioxidants may also help ensure optimal health and prevent some headaches.