Most of us have experienced a minor headache before, but did you know that over half of us experience an excruciating headache at least once a year? Unfortunately for many of us, headaches happen a lot more frequently than once a year and can be quite debilitating. When treating patients who suffer from chronic headaches or migraines, it is important to understand the “root cause” of their head pain. I find most patients clearly know what triggers their headaches. I have heard explanations ranging from the weather to their mother-in-law, but a key starting point to treatment is always understanding what truly triggers the pain. For the sake of simplicity I will be using the term “headaches” to refer to both headaches and migraines. I completely appreciate that there is a difference as I too was once a migraine sufferer. Regardless of whether your headaches are occasional minor headaches or frequent migraines, the following information may help you feel better.
Before we dive into the “food-headache” connection, there a few common culprits to chronic head pain that should be ruled out first. The following is a list of things to focus on. After correcting for these factors, if the chronic headaches are still present, then it may be worthwhile exploring a food sensitivity connection.
1) Drink enough water. Dehydration is a very common cause of low grade chronic headaches. The number of chronic headache sufferers I have helped by just recommending more water is staggering. So do yourself a favor and drink 8 cups of filtered water each day, especially during the hot summer months.
2) Check your alignment and posture. The body is an intricate and complex machine, with many working parts. Treatment by a manual therapist can bring alignment back to your body and allow for improved functioning. For example, poor hip alignment can lead to headaches. Just imagine your headaches are coming from your hips?! At KIHC our Physiotherapist, Christine and Osteopathic Manual Practitioner, Graham, are both professionals when it comes to alignment and posture. They often can make a big impact on headaches when it is due to a structural issue in the body.
3) Reduce your muscle tension. Many of us hold our stress and tension in our shoulders, neck, and jaw. I am talking to all you teeth grinders out there. As the muscles in our face, neck, and shoulders become tense they pull and tug on insertion points in our bones. This is a recipe for pain. Getting a Registered Massage Therapist to take a look at these muscles and work out some of the tension can be a game changer. Both Joel and Rachel at KIHC can help you with this. Some gentle stretching, yoga, or tai chi may also be helpful.
Food Sensitivity vs. Food Allergy
So you’ve been drinking your water, getting regular massages, and your alignment is that of a well-seasoned yogi, but those headaches still persist. Well, there is another not so commonly talked about cause – FOOD. For decades doctors have been making the connection between certain foods and headaches/migraines. The most common headache provoking foods have been found to be chocolate, cheese, dairy, citrus, caffeine, alcohol, pork, seafood, onions, and wheat. This list is long, and every patient has a list of different trigger foods. In 2010 a thorough study by researchers in Turkey showed the connection between food sensitivities and migraines. Researchers tested migraine patients for IgG food sensitivities with the ELISA test and then advised the patients to avoid the reactive foods. After avoiding these trigger foods for 6 weeks, the patients showed a 50% reduction in migraines and migraines with less severity overall. This study supports the results of earlier research and suggests that the relationship between dietary triggers and migraines may be coming from the immune system.
But what is a food sensitivity? Is it like an allergy? Food allergies and food sensitivities are controlled by different parts of our immune system. In general, food allergies are a reaction via IgE immune chemicals which can result in fast anaphylactic-like reactions. When someone is having an allergic response to food (IgE at work) they experience symptoms such as hives, itching, and swelling of their tongue and mouth. These reactions can be deadly and most of the time people are advised to completely avoid food allergies. If you have had a skin prick test with an allergist, this is what they were testing for.
Food sensitivities are produced by a different part of our immune system called IgG. These IgG immune chemicals can cause a delayed hypersensitivity reaction. This could mean you may start getting symptoms up to 3 days after you eat the offending food(s). Food sensitivity symptoms/reactions are typically less pronounced. They can include gastrointestinal upset, skin irritation (acne and other rashes), low energy, increased pain, and headaches. These less immediate symptoms make food sensitivities more elusive and difficult to diagnose.
Diagnosing Food Allergies
Identifying on your own if you have a food sensitivity can be daunting. In general there are two methods used to start uncovering if you have a food sensitivity and if it could be a cause of your headaches.
The first is an Elimination Diet, which is still considered the gold standard for determining food sensitivities. This diet includes removing the most likely allergens for 4-6 weeks. At this point one then meticulously reintroduces one food group at a time. As you reintroduce these foods you are looking for some kind of reaction (like more frequent headaches). I find this diet very helpful but it can be overwhelming for patients. It is also possible to miss a sensitivity to a food that wasn’t removed (e.g. garlic).
My preferred method is to use an ELISA IgG food sensitivity panel, which can test for between 96 to 200 different foods. Based on these results we would then build a diet for the patient. The patient would then try this revised diet for 2-3 months, during which time we hope the headaches reside. By eliminating the foods the patient is sensitive to we are in fact decreasing the overall inflammatory burden on their body, which should result in fewer or no reactions, such as the headaches.
Knowing the underlying causes of chronic headaches is essential for long term wellbeing. If you have been suffering with chronic head pain it may be time to put down the ibuprofen and take a look at what is on your plate instead. Treating the root cause makes all the difference.