Survey research tells us that close to 100 percent of people experience a headache some time in their life. There are many types of headaches and therefore many causes. The most common is a tension-type headache (not surprising). Migraines represent about 13 percent of all headaches, with women three times more likely than men to get this form.
The frequency of migraines can range from several times a year to multiple times a week. The official criteria for “chronic” migraines defines them as headaches happening fewer than 15 days a month for more than three months. It also includes at least two of the following — a pulsating feeling, pain seeming to come from a single location, pain of moderate to severe intensity, and aggravation of the migraine from physical activity. In addition, symptoms might be nausea/vomiting and/or sensitivity to light/sound.
Non-diet triggers can be generalized into several categories — environmental, hormonal, medications, or other medical conditions. Reported environmental triggers include barometric pressure, bright or flashing lights, heat, humidity, noise, odors, poor sleep, and time zone changes. Hormonal triggers may be related to puberty, use of oral contraceptives, hormone replacement meds, a woman’s menstrual cycle, or pregnancy. Your pharmacist is a good resource for identifying medications you are taking that might trigger migraines. Over-use of pain meds can also be a trigger.
It appears that a wide range of medical conditions can increase the risk of migraines — diabetes, high blood lipids (think high cholesterol or triglycerides), high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, insulin resistance, obesity, strokes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, trauma, anxiety and depression. Many of these can be addressed by dietary changes. Family history also increases the chances of having migraines.
There is some research looking at the relationship between migraines and inflammation reactions in the body. This points to conditions like diabetes and obesity, which cause inflammation, as well as dietary factors such as food allergies or sensitivities.
Dietary triggers are not consistent for all migraine sufferers and some have not been supported by research. Some reported possible food triggers for headaches, including migraines, are aspartame, excessive caffeine or caffeine withdrawal, chocolate, cultured dairy products (buttermilk, yogurt), legumes, MSG, nuts and nut butters, nitrates/nitrites (think processed cured meats), sulfate-containing foods (red wine, some dried fruit, etc.), alcoholic beverages, tyramine-containing foods (aged cheese, sour dough bread, over-ripe fruit, dried meat, meat extracts, fermented soy foods, etc.), high fat foods, and yellow dye #6.