No matter what your headache trigger may be—PMS, intense workouts, an exceptionally high-and-tight, Ariana Grande-inspired ponytail—there’s no question that a pounding skull is, well, a total pain. And while acupuncture, exercise, and biofeedback training are helpful ways to reduce symptoms without drugs, they require some advance planning. (So, not exactly helpful if you’re randomly stricken with a headache in the middle of a conference call.)
In these emergency situations, turning to food may help. “I find that the three main causes of headaches are dehydration, low blood sugar, and stress,” says Toronto-based holistic nutritionist Sarah Goldstein. Eating full, balanced meals can help keep blood sugar stable, she says. Staying well-hydrated can also do wonders to help keep headaches at bay.
One caveat: Food can also cause headaches in and of itself. That’s why Goldstein recommends keeping a journal that takes note of how you feel after you eat. “Headaches may be triggered by coffee, red wine, nitrates in cured meat, or sulfites,” she suggests—although really, any food sensitivity can have the same effect.
But once you’ve ruled out dietary links for your headaches, Goldstein recommends loading up on the following foods to help prevent the pain from starting—and, potentially, lessen its intensity if it does come on. (Oh, and maybe try swapping your pony for a loose, Meghan Markle-approved bun.)
These are the 6 things you should eat and drink on the regular if you’re prone to headaches.
First things first: hydrate! “Generally, I ensure my clients are drinking enough water, roughly 6-8 glasses per day, and that they are getting enough electrolytes through their diet,” Goldstein says. Because dehydration is a major headache trigger, H2O is her first line of defense against them—even better if spiked with a pinch of electrolyte-rich salt or a squeeze of lemon.
Try carrying a water bottle with you throughout the day, and make sure it’s always full so you can take those deep, fulfilling chugs as you please. (Rocky theme song in the background optional.)
How does this hot-button beverage factor into headaches? For some people, says Goldstein, small amounts of coffee can actually help a headache, thanks to caffeine’s vasodilating properties, which relax the blood vessels constricted by stress and tension. Research has also shown that caffeine helps pain meds work more effectively, if those are your jam.
But take note: Goldstein says that for other people, the tiniest amount of coffee may cause headaches—and if your food journal reveals this is true for you, steer clear. Weaning off coffee can also be a cause of excruciating daily headaches. So if you’re trying to quit, back off slowly, Goldstein says. She recommends switching to tea—like matcha!—or substituting decaf for half your regular brew.
This might just be the best news you’ll read all day: Chocolate is super-high in magnesium, which has been proven to be helpful for headaches. “Foods high in magnesium are important as magnesium may relax muscle tension,” says Goldstein. She says magnesium supplementation is another option, but filling your diet with magnesium-rich whole foods is ideal. (Like these PMS-busting brownies, for one.)
Salad with protein
As mentioned before, out-of-whack blood sugar is linked to headaches, which is why Goldstein stresses that it’s important to keep it level by eating balanced meals throughout the day. A protein-rich salad is a foolproof way to make sure you’re getting all the right nutrients. “Eating enough fiber, such as vegetables and beans; protein, like fish, poultry, or tempeh; and healthy fat, like olive oil, is important in managing blood sugar,” Goldstein says.
The nutrition pro recommends focusing on leafy greens and legumes, which are high in that all-important magnesium. Set aside some meal-prep time to make your lunch before running out the door—or, in a pinch, pick up a salad or grain bowl from a local eatery.
Feeling extra hangry? Opt for a scoop of guac. Avocados are a headache-relieving double-whammy, rich in magnesium and healthy fats that stabilize blood sugar and balance hormones. Plus, they’re easy to eat on the go and you can add them to everything: smoothies, salads, dips, bowls, or plain, garnished with hemp seeds. Or you could always get fancy and make these avocado boats that double as works of art.
Nuts and seeds
“Enjoying foods like nuts and seeds as a snack, maybe with some fruit, can also help to manage blood sugar levels in between meals,” says Goldstein. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, pecans, and Brazil nuts all score high in—you guessed it—good fats and magnesium. Keep stashes around the house, office, and in your convertible gym bag for a quick fix.
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