Understanding the Relationship Between Nutrition and Headaches

<strong>Understanding the Relationship Between Nutrition and Headaches</strong>

As chiropractic physicians, we are no strangers to patients complaining about headaches. In fact, it is rare to go through a day without someone experiencing a headache or a history involving some sort of headache, even a migraine headache. Although we tend to work with patients on the physical side of things, it is crucial to consider the nutritional aspect when dealing with headaches. The different causes of a headache may be from the foods or the chemicals that we are eating or exposed to, as well as certain nutrient levels that we could potentially be deficient in which would require supplementation to correct.

Headaches can be severe, and they can affect one’s daily life, as seen in the case of a young woman who walked into my office a few years ago. She was in her early 20s, and her headaches were daily, intense, and debilitating, with pain at a scale of 10 out of 10. As we walked through her food diary, I discovered that she was consuming a case of Diet Coke every single day. On examining some of these things, we found out that the chemicals, particularly aspartame, found in Diet Coke is a known trigger for headaches.


It’s interesting that most patients assume that there will be a pretty thorough workup, lots of laboratory testing, and a lot of expenses. Still, sometimes it’s really just as simple as narrowing down the single chemical that could be the causative agent. As a first step, I asked her to discontinue Diet Coke for a couple of weeks to see what happens. It’s important to note that patients may experience detoxification headaches or what we call herx reactions when discontinuing certain things they’re exposed to that are not healthy. Sometimes, when you take things away, there’s the potential for clearance headaches. For instance, when a person drinks coffee for 20 years and is asked to stop, they can get headaches as a result of the elimination of the particular chemical that may be causing the problem in the first place. In this young woman’s case, after a couple of weeks, her headaches were 100% gone. It was as simple as finding the chemical that was causing the problem and eliminating the exposure to it.

Water is another important aspect to consider when dealing with headaches. We’ve learned that we need half of our body weight in ounces of water every single day, but there’s not enough literature to support that claim. However, it’s essential to determine how much water is really essential. We can look at different markers in the blood, such as anion gap or kidney markers, to determine if there are any indications that we are dehydrated. We can also look at the color of our urine. First thing in the morning, our urine will be darker, maybe a goldenrod color because we’ve been storing it all night. But once we’re up after we’ve done our first morning urination and we’re drinking plenty of water, the urine should be a pale yellow to almost clear, showing that we’re getting adequate water and we’re no longer dehydrated. Water needs to be water; we don’t count coffee, tea, or Crystal Light, which is loaded with some of these chemicals that can cause headaches. Water really just needs to be consumed as water.

When it comes to food, there are various triggers that can lead to headaches. For instance, it is advisable to avoid consuming foods that contain tyramine, such as aged cheese, cured meats, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, as they are known to trigger migraines. Additionally, processed foods, foods containing MSG, as well as artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and additives, can also pose a problem. Furthermore, some individuals may have a sensitivity to gluten and dairy products.

Once patients’ food triggers have been identified, it’s important to work with them to develop a plan to avoid those triggers. This may involve keeping a food diary to track what they’re eating and how it’s affecting their headaches, and then slowly eliminating trigger foods from their diet. This can be a gradual process, as eliminating too many foods too quickly can be difficult and overwhelming for the patient. Working with a nutritionist or registered dietitian can be helpful in developing a plan that’s tailored to the patient’s individual needs and preferences.


In addition to avoiding trigger foods, there are certain supplements that may be helpful in reducing the frequency and severity of headaches. Magnesium, for example, is a mineral that plays a crucial role in many bodily processes, including muscle and nerve function, blood sugar regulation, and blood pressure control. Research has shown that magnesium deficiency is associated with an increased risk of migraines and that supplementing with magnesium can help reduce the frequency and severity of headaches in some patients. Other supplements that may be helpful include riboflavin (also known as vitamin B2), coenzyme Q10, and melatonin. Again, it’s important to work with a healthcare provider to determine which supplements are appropriate and safe for the patient.


As chiropractic physicians, we’re well aware of the physical aspects of headaches and how they can be treated through spinal manipulation, massage, and other hands-on techniques. But it’s important to remember that headaches can also have a nutritional component and that addressing this aspect of the problem can be just as important in finding a long-term solution. By working with our patients to identify trigger foods, ensure adequate hydration, and supplement as needed, we can help them achieve better overall health and fewer headaches. The next time a patient walks into your office complaining of headaches, don’t forget to consider their nutrition as well as their physical symptoms. With a comprehensive approach, we can provide more effective, holistic care.

About Author


Dr. Cindy M. Howard has been in private practice since 1999. She is board certified in Internal Disorders and Nutrition and hold a fellowship in Medical Acupuncture. She is the past president of the ACA Council on Diagnosis and Internal Disorders and serves currently as the Northern Illinois Delegate for the American Chiropractic Association. She serves on the medical advisory board for The Functional Medicine University and Integrative Therapeutics. Dr. Howard is the Director of Functional Nutrition for Neurosport Elite which focuses on sports performance for serious to elite athletes. She also teaches for the diplomate program and is an Executive Board member and Instructor for POWERPlay in Sports. She is the team Chiropractic Physician for DREAMZ Elite competitive cheer.

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