When a headache strikes, you may run through your usual routine: Turn out the lights, lie down and pop a pain pill. But did you know that certain foods may ease, and even prevent, headaches? Add these soothing foods to your shopping list and find out for yourself.
The side you love with dinner could help soothe your aching head, especially if your headache is alcohol-related, says Erin Palinski, RD, a registered dietician in private practice in New Jersey. “Since alcohol is a diuretic, it can not only cause dehydration, but also cause you to lose electrolytes such as potassium,” she says. “Eating potassium-rich foods can help to alleviate hangover-related headaches.” Surprisingly, a baked potato (with the skin) is one of the most impressive sources of potassium, containing a whopping 721 mg. By comparison, a banana serves up 467 mg.
Dehydration is a major cause of headaches, explains Stella Metsovas, BS, CN, a nutritionist in private practice in Laguna Beach, California. So instead of popping a pain pill next time your head throbs, consider reaching for water-rich foods, like watermelon. “The natural water contained in both fruits and vegetables contains essential minerals, like magnesium, that are key in headache prevention,” she says. Try this tasty, hydrating watermelon smoothie: In a blender, combine 2 cups seeded watermelon chunks, 1 cup cracked ice, ½ cup plain yogurt, a drizzle of honey and ½ tsp grated ginger. Blend and enjoy. (Bonus: The ginger can help ease headache-induced nausea symptoms!) Other foods with high water content include berries, cucumber, melon, soups, oatmeal, tomatoes and lettuce.
Java has been a folk remedy for headaches for centuries, but does it really work? Yes, but in moderation, says Palinski. “Alcohol can cause blood vessels to expand, exasperating headaches,” she explains. “Since the caffeine in coffee is a vasoconstrictor, it can help alleviate a headache by helping to reduce the size of the blood vessels.” But hold off on the triple venti. Too much coffee could make matters worse. “Caffeine is also a diuretic, which can increase dehydration and increase the severity of a headache,” adds Palinski. “The bottom line: One cup of coffee may be helpful for decreasing hangover-related headaches, but drinking coffee throughout the day would not be the best choice for curing a headache.”
Low-carb dieters beware: Too little carbohydrates and you might bring on a headache. “When you follow a low-carbohydrate diet, you begin to deplete glycogen stores, which are a main source of energy to the brain,” says Palinski. “This also causes an increase in fluid losses from the body, which can trigger dehydration. By reducing energy to the brain and causing dehydration, these low-carbohydrate diets can trigger headaches.” When one hits, consider reaching for healthy carbs, such as those found in whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, fruit or yogurt. Bonus: A healthy boost of carbs may also improve your mood, as they help your body to release serotonin, the feel-good hormone.
According to past research, magnesium, found in almonds, may protect your body from the brunt of a headache by relaxing blood vessels. Migraine sufferers may also experience relief by following a diet rich in magnesium, some experts believe. “To increase your magnesium intake, try consuming magnesium-rich foods such as bananas, dried apricots, avocados, almonds, cashews, brown rice, legumes and seeds,” suggests Palinski.
Can you say caliente? It may sound unusual, but spicy foods such as salsa and hot peppers may help you snap back from a headache faster. “Depending on the type of headache, spicy foods may be helpful,” says Palinski. “If a headache is due to sinus congestion, spicy foods may help to decrease congestion and open the airways, helping to decrease pressure and the accompanying headache.”
When your head is pounding, your body may be calling out for calcium, says Metsovas. “The brain depends on calcium to function efficiently,” she adds. “Make sure you are consuming calcium-rich foods, like fat-free plain Greek yogurt, which is a great source of calcium, with no added sugars and beneficial probiotics for your gut.”
Sprinkle them on salads, in oatmeal or on top of soups and stir-fries. Why? These tiny seeds pack a big nutritional punch. “Sesame seeds are rich in vitamin E, which may help to stabilize estrogen levels and prevent migraines during your period,” says Palinski. “It also improves circulation, which helps prevent headaches.” Bonus: Sesame seeds are also rich in magnesium, which may give them added headache-preventing power.
What worked for Popeye may work for your headache. “Spinach has been shown to help decrease blood pressure, prevent hangovers and may help to alleviate headaches,” says Palinksi. “Try using spinach leaves instead of lettuce for a headache-preventing power salad.” This summer salad is packed with headache-soothing foods: Toss together 2 cups spinach leaves, 3/4 cups cubed watermelon, 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots and 2 Tbsp chopped walnuts or almonds, and drizzle with raspberry vinaigrette.