Are Your Headaches Linked to Your Diet?

Next time you are out at a public event, glance around and try to keep track of every sixth person that walks by you. Did you struggle? Was it too many people to count?

According to the National Library of Medicine, roughly 1 in every 6 Americans suffer from headaches and migraines. Studies also show that 50% of the global population has recurring headaches and deems to be the 6th highest cause of years lost due to disability. Even if you don’t suffer from frequent headaches, a pesky headache while you are trying to work, get stuff done around the house, or just even relax can be so frustrating.

Luckily, there are several nutritional tactics that have proven to combat regularly occurring headaches.


Many individuals have been conditioned to believe carbs are the worst thing they could put into their bodies, but that is so not true! Our bodies absolutely NEED carbohydrates, so when a majority of them are cut out of our diets, adverse effects like headaches and migraines will begin to occur. It’s all about portioning and moderation. You’re not convinced? Let’s break it down and have a miniature chemistry lesson.

Carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and fiber composed of carbon, water, and hydrogen. Sugars have one or just a few sugar units making them a simple carbohydrate, whereas starches and fibers have long chains of sugar units making them complex carbohydrates. Glucose, fructose, and galactose are monosaccharides meaning “one sugar.” There are also disaccharides and polysaccharides, but put those in your back pocket for a different chemistry lesson.

Carbohydrates, or more specifically glucose, is the body's preferred source for energy and is used by it’s cells to do basically everything. Getting out of bed uses glucose, walking to the mailbox uses glucose, jogging on a nice day uses glucose, taking a test uses glucose, and digesting your breakfast uses glucose. Now, remember that glucose is a type of sugar, and sugar is a simple carbohydrate.

With all of that being said, when individuals are deficient in carbohydrates, their blood sugar levels are completely depleted leading to low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Their body then releases a hormone that signals hunger to the brain. The brain uses glucose as its primary energy source, so when it does not receive glucose from carbohydrates, the body’s blood vessels begin to tighten and blood pressure spikes up, causing tension and pain in the head.

It is recommended by the Institute of Medicine that 45-65% of an individual’s total calories come from carbohydrates, depending on their caloric needs. That is half or more of our total calorie intake!

You may be thinking that you don’t deprive your brain of glucose, but what are some reasons that individuals would be deficient in carbohydrates?

Meal Skipping: We’ve all been there, you’re running late for work and don’t have the time to eat a nutritious breakfast to start your day off right, or you forget to grab your breakfast bar on the way out. Some individuals are also convinced that meal skipping during the day helps them lose weight, but in reality they are mostly losing water weight and counterproductively slowing down their metabolic rate. This is because our bodies go into survival mode and hold onto all of the nutrients it can. Either way, skipping meals especially in the morning, deprives your brain and body of the necessary fuel it needs to function well. So next time you decide to skip a meal, try to at least grab something small to replenish your body’s glucose stores and avoid a lingering headache.

Low Carb diet or Keto diet: The renowned Keto Diet drastically decreases an individual's intake of carbohydrates and replaces them with fats, putting their bodies into a state called Ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state that allows the body to burn fat as its primary energy source instead of carbohydrates. The body then relies on receiving ketone bodies by the liver from the breakdown of fat instead of glucose. This causes blood sugar to drop, causing stress on the brain, mental fatigue, brain fog, and persistent headaches. Although many individuals have had success losing weight on the Keto diet, it is a difficult diet to maintain long-term as our bodies thrive off of the right amount of glucose.

Being on the Keto diet or restricting too many carbohydrates also facilitates a lower production of insulin, a hormone that absorbs glucose in the blood, because there's less glucose to absorb. This promotes an imbalance of electrolytes and oftentimes too much sodium. When the body is dehydrated these imbalances in the body cumulatively lead to a headache.


All of the metabolic processes occurring in our bodies that produce energy for cells NEED water and being even mildly dehydrated causes a drop in energy production and raised pressure in the body. In fact the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends about 15 cups of fluid a day for men and 12 cups of fluid a day for women. This number increases depending on one’s activity level.

According to the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, you are dehydrated once you feel thirsty as feeling thirsty is a symptom of losing just 1% of your water. Once you begin losing more water, the effects can be significant. Losing just 2-5% of water can cause dry mouth, flushed skin, fatigue, headaches, and impaired physical performance.

A journal in the National Library of Medicine discloses that dehydration is closely related to migraine and headache severity and frequency as well. A 30-day study was done on 256 women that were referred to neurologists for their headaches. A correlation analysis was done on the number of days they had headaches, the duration of their headaches, and their daily water intake. The results showed that migraine disability, pain severity, headache frequency, and duration of headaches were significantly lower in those who consumed more water.

A water imbalance in the body is also a significant contributor to developing a headache. Sodium, chloride, potassium, and calcium are all electrolytes. Electrolytes are what regulate our fluid levels and aid in many other bodily functions such as helping our blood clot, maintaining our blood pH, contracting our muscles, transmitting nerve signals, etc. When an individual is low in sodium, called hyponatremia, water moves into their cells. Similarly, when someone has too much sodium, called hypernatremia, water moves out of their cells. When either of those things happen, personality changes, lethargy, and headaches will persist.

Simply stated, drink your necessary amount of water everyday!


Fats have many essential roles in the human body. They are used as an energy source, a component in all of our cells and tissues, absorb and transport vitamins, regulate normal growth and development, can decrease pain reception etc. Most people would agree that fats have a negative connotation though. Why is this?

It’s all about the type of fat that is being consumed. Saturated fatty acids are “saturated” with hydrogen and contribute to plaque buildup, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Unsaturated fats are missing hydrogen pairs and promote lower cholesterol levels.

Omega-6 fatty acids (FA)’s and Omega 3 FA’s are polyunsaturated fats and make up a large portion of our immune and nerve cell membranes. They are both involved with regulating pain, psychological distress, and migraine pathogenesis. Sources of omega 3 Fatty Acids include fish, chia seeds, flaxseed, certain oils, and walnuts. Sources of omega 6 FA’s include red meat and various vegetable oils.

According to a medically reviewed article, Omega 3 FA’s have actually been found to reduce pain reception and inflammation whereas Omega 6 FA’s are believed to do the exact opposite, promote inflammation and pain reception. A research study was done to test this theory in which participants either had a high omega-3 and low omega-6 diet or just a low omega-6 diet. After the end of the 12 weeks, results showed that those who had the combination of high omega-3’s and low omega-6’s had a greater decrease of headaches, improved quality of life, and higher levels of DHA-EA, long chain fatty acids known to have anti-inflammatory properties. A different medical journal conducted a similar study and found that a high omega-3 and low omega-6 diet was more conclusive to decreased symptoms than a diet just high in omega-3’s. Both medical studies show that a diet high in omega 3 FA’s and low in omega 6 FA’s could be the perfect ratio for better control over headaches and migraines.

With all of this being said, individuals have different needs to cater to their health and diet specifically. If you are someone who suffers from frequent headaches or migraines, try incorporating foods with high omega 3’s and low omega 6’s into your diet and see if you have relief.


Migraines can also commonly be caused by certain foods. These foods are called “triggers” because consuming them induces a headache/migraine. Alcohol, chocolate, cheese, cured meats, food preservatives, artificial sweeteners, MSG, and too much caffeine are a few products that have been reported to trigger migraines. Elevated levels of stress also significantly increases the development of a tension headache.

Not every individual has the same triggers, so keeping a food and associated symptom log to determine your personal triggers or simply implementing exercises that help ease a stress-filled mind could be extremely beneficial for your well being.

Finding the right solution to your headaches can feel lengthy and tedious. Beginning the process of adjusting your diet can also feel overwhelming. You can rest assured that Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating meal plans follow the guidelines from both the AHA and ADA, meaning they have the correct amount of carbohydrates, dietary fats, and other nutrients so that you don’t have to do the planning. If you have any questions about how our meals can benefit your health, give us a call at 1-800-442-3438 and ask for one of our Registered Dietitian Nutritionists.

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