9 Food Additives That Trigger Headaches And Migraines

Do your headaches seem to come out of nowhere sometimes?

You may be surprised to learn that chemicals hidden in the foods you eat may be causing your painful symptoms.

Read below to discover 9 food additives that are known to trigger headaches and migraines, plus tips to determine what your own personal triggers may be.

What Causes Headaches?

Headaches and migraines are still not well understood. We know what happens during a headache – pain, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea – but we still don’t exactly know why these symptoms occur.

What we do know is that headaches can have specific triggers. These are foods, noises, lights, smells or other things that can cause a headache to occur.

Headache triggers are notoriously hard to nail down. Scientific research is helpful in determining what common triggers may be, but these studies should be taken with a grain of salt. This is because headache triggers are highly individual. Just because your friend gets migraines after eating soy sauce doesn’t mean you will too!

Can Food Additives Cause Headaches?

A food additive is anything added to food in order to lengthen its shelf life or improve its flavor, appearance, or texture. Food additives can be artificial or natural.

Artificial additives include dyes, preservatives, and flavorings made in a lab. Natural additives include salts, vegetable and fruit juices, sugar, and natural extracts like vanilla.

Food additives are known among headache and migraine sufferers to be a common source of headache symptoms. While headache and migraine triggers are highly personal, below are 9 common food additives that can spur on symptoms.

List Of 9 Food Additives With Side Effects

1. MSG

Monosodium glutamate, commonly referred to as MSG, has been frequently looked at as a possible trigger for headaches and migraines. This food additive acts as a flavor enhancer for salty, umami foods.

While there is a lot of research confirming that MSG causes headaches, these studies have not necessarily been done in a reliable way. This doesn’t mean MSG isn’t a possible trigger, though! Many people have successfully figured out that monosodiu glutamate is a definite cause of their headaches through process of elimination.

There is some research suggesting that MSG might trigger symptoms in women more often than in men. It is thought that MSG causes certain nerves to release chemicals that cause pain and dilation of blood vessels in the head and neck. This, as you may imagine, is what can lead to headache symptoms.

MSG can be found in: fast food, processed meats, broth, yeast extract, highly processed salty snacks

2. Nitrates And Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are food preservatives that prevent bacteria from growing. They can also add flavor and color to food. In addition to food, nitrates are found in certain medications given to people with heart disease.

In a study on these nitrate medications, four out of five patients reported severe headaches as a side effect. Other studies have confirmed this link between nitrates and headaches, especially in people already prone to migraines.

Exciting new research done in 2016 found that people who experience frequent migraines had a large amount of a specific bacteria in their mouths. This specific bacteria was shown to process nitrates and nitrites. These unique microbes may be a clue in the creation of new migraine treatments.

Just as important as research are the anecdotal reports from people who have experienced headaches after eating nitrates or nitrites. Many people have found relief from their painful symptoms after cutting nitrates and nitrites out of their diet.

Nitrates/Nitrites can be found in: cured meats, deli meat, bacon, hot dogs (look for labels that say “Nitrate-free”)

3. Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, also called non-nutritive sweeteners or NNS, are sweeteners that contain no calories. They are often recommended by medical professionals to people who are trying to lose weight or have diabetes.

Examples of artificial sweeteners include saccharine (brand name Sweet’N Low), aspartame (brand name Equal), and sucralose (brand name Splenda).

While artificial sweeteners were once thought to be a major cause of headaches, new research might prove otherwise.

One newer study found that aspartame made migraines worse in people when they already had one. However, most recent research shows that artificial sweeteners don’t cause headaches anymore than a sugar pill does.

This doesn’t mean that artificial sweeteners aren’t a trigger for you, though. Brian Grosberg, a doctor at the Montefiore Medical Center Headache Unit, says “Is it a myth [that artificial sweeteners cause headaches]? No. It’s possible that it can be a trigger for some people’s headaches, but it is not something that is generalizable to other people.”

Even if you don’t have headaches, there is still very good reason to avoid artificial sweeteners. Regular use may increase your risk of heart and kidney disease and can cause harm to your gut bacteria.

Artificial sweeteners can raise your blood sugar with frequent use even though they contain no actual sugar. This is bad news for people with insulin resistance or diabetes, who need to avoid spikes in blood sugar.

Artificial sweeteners can be found in: “No sugar added” food and drinks, “diet” food and drinks, “low-calorie” food and drinks, chewing gum.

4. Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are low calories sweeteners that don’t contain sugar OR alcohol. On average, these sweeteners have about half as many calories as regular table sugar.

Examples of sugar alcohols are erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol.

Sugar alcohols are known to cause stomach upset when eaten in large amounts, but there are also many anecdotal reports of these low-calorie sweeteners causing headaches.

Many people discover sugar alcohols as a trigger when they are trying to get rid of an existing headache. Some low-calorie ice creams and frozen desserts contain sugar alcohols; people looking to these frozen treats to relieve their head pain have instead made their headaches worse!

There is not much (if any) research supporting these experiences, but triggers are very individual. There is a good chance that, just like artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols cause headaches or migraines in some people.

Sugar alcohols can be found in: “low-calorie” food and drinks, “sugar-free” food and drinks, “diet” food and drinks, candy, ice cream.

5. Yellow Dye #5 (Tartrazine Dye)

This yellow food dye is banned in countries like Norway and Austria because of compelling evidence showing it can cause damage to your DNA. Regardless of this, yellow dye #5 is still widely used in the U.S.

Although there is no research saying tartrazine dye causes headaches, many people notice their symptoms get worse after eating foods containing it.

Food dye sensitivities can be hard to pin down. This is because dyes are often found in foods that contain a lot of other food additives that can also be headache triggers.

If you want to avoid this yellow food dye, spotting foods containing it is easy. Companies are now required to put a warning label on products containing tartrazine dye because it can cause severe allergic reactions.

Yellow Dye #5 can be found in: boxed macaroni and cheese, breakfast cereals, pancake mixes, candy, soda, chips, medications.

6. Sulfites

Sulfites are chemicals that can be used to keep cut fruits and vegetables from going bad. They are most widely known, however, as an additive in wines.

Sulfites are naturally occurring in a lot of foods and drinks, but these levels are not likely to cause any problems. If you are sensitive to sulfites, wines containing added sulfites may pose a problem.

In one study, 34% of people reported experiencing headaches after drinking a moderate amount of wine. Most of them believed it was the sulfites that caused their headaches.

While sulfites certainly can be a headache trigger for some people, it is more likely the alcohol (or the dehydration it causes) is what triggers symptoms.

If you do suspect that sulfites are a trigger for you, look for wines with no added sulfites. These wines will still contain naturally-occurring sulfites, but the levels will most likely be too low to cause problems.

Sulfites can be found in: wine, fruit juice, dried fruits, fruit leather.

7. Caffeine

You may not think of caffeine as a food additive because it is naturally-occuring in products like coffee, tea, and chocolate. However, caffeine is considered a food additive when it is added to foods it wouldn’t naturally be in.

Caffeine is a common ingredient in over-the-counter migraine medications and has been shown to greatly reduce headache symptoms. That being said, caffeine withdrawal is a major contributor to headaches and migraines in people who consume caffeine regularly.

Be aware of how much caffeine you are consuming and look for it as an additive in sports drinks and energy bars. Many people with headaches and migraines benefit from keeping their intake of caffeine on the lower end. A bonus of doing this is that when you do take a migraine medication containing caffeine, it will work even better.

Caffeine can be found in: energy drinks, sports drinks, energy bars, pre-workout supplements, sodas, medications.

8. Fluoride

Fluoride is a chemical that has been added to tap water since the 1940’s to reduce tooth decay. It is also found in toothpaste and mouthwashes.

Fluoride in drinking water has been linked to neurological symptoms, including headaches, in a small percentage of people. One study showed that even low levels of fluoride can lead to headache symptoms in 1% of people.

While 1% may sound like an almost negligible number, consider that 45 million people in the U.S. suffer from headaches. If only 1% of those people are triggered by fluoride, that would still be a whopping 450,000 people!

A professor at the Harvard School of Public Health stated that research supporting fluoridated water is outdated and questionable. Fluoride has the potential to cause damage to the brain because it can pass the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is meant to keep harmful toxins out of the brain.

While more research needs to be done, fluoride is certainly a potential migraine or headache trigger and is worth looking at. Some people who have had considerable trouble finding their personal migraine triggers have experienced relief after filtering the fluoride out of their drinking water.

It is more likely that fluoridated water, rather than toothpaste, would be a trigger. This is because you don’t swallow toothpaste, so the amount of fluoride you absorb from it is very small.

Fluoride can be found in: tap water, toothpaste, mouthwash.

9. Gluten

Wheat, which contains gluten, is one of the most common food allergies. Gluten-free diets have become popular increasingly popular in recent years, even for people who have no allergy or obvious intolerance.

Headaches are commonly experienced by people with an autoimmune condition called Celiac Disease. This disease causes harm to the body when gluten is eaten. About 1% of the population is believed to have Celiac Disease, although many people remain undiagnosed.

While the existence of gluten intolerance is still not certain, this protein found in wheat seems to trigger headaches in some people.

One case study confirmed that a man’s migraines went away after he stopped eating gluten and dairy. This man did not have Celiac Disease or any diagnosed gluten intolerance.

Gluten can be found in malt flavoring, brewer’s yeast, wheat starch.

How Can I Figure Out My Food Additive Triggers?

Finding which foods or food additives trigger your headaches can be a nightmare. This is because there are so many potential triggers!

In fact…

You may find that even certain foods help with headaches.

Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do that can help you find relief from painful symptoms.

  • Keep a food diary. Write down or take pictures of everything you eat and drink. Also include a record of your headache or migraine symptoms and when they occur. This can help you see connections between what you’re eating and your symptoms.
  • Avoid highly processed foods. Avoiding processed foods can be a huge help – this will allow you to get rid of the source of most food additives in your diet. You’ll also be eating healthier, which will improve your health overall!
  • See a headache or migraine specialist. If you can’t figure out your triggers on your own, don’t hesitate to find a specialist. The United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties, or UCNS, is an organization that certifies doctors to be Headache Specialists. There is also a CAQ Certification in Headache Medicine that is popular with Naturopaths. Look for either of these certifications when making an appointment with a headache specialist.
Kelli Yates
Kelli Yates
Kelli Yates is a health and nutrition writer, dietetics student, and co-host and creator of The Nutrition Nerds Podcast. In her spare time she teaches the free class Well-Fed Survival: Eating Healthy After A Disaster, which helps people build nutritious emergency food supplies and prepare for natural disasters.
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