FOOD INTOLERANCE NETWORK FACTSHEET
Headaches and migraines
Keywords: headache, migraine
I myself suffered from frequent mild headaches and occasional severe migraines for about 20 years, until my family undertook a 3 week trial of the low chemical elimination diet for our daughter’s behaviour. I was shocked to realise that within days my head was clear and free of pain.
Food challenges showed that my headaches occurred the same day when I ate MSG and a day or more after I ate foods containing amines – not only well known amine containing foods such as cheese and chocolate but also lesser known problems such as fish that had previously been frozen and vacuum packed meats. The bigger the dose, the more likely I was to get a severe migraine.
Everyone is different and there are many possible culprits.
Research by Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit shows that headaches and migraines can be associated with certain food chemicals.
According to their research, the percentage of people with headaches or migraines who are likely to be affected by the following food chemicals is approximately:
- MSG, preservatives, salicylates -- 70% likely to be affected
- colours (artificial and annatto 160b), amines -- 55% likely to be affected
- synthetic antioxidants (e.g. BHA 320) -- 35% likely to be affected
From: Loblay RH and Swain AR, 'Food intolerance'. In: Wahlqvist ML and Truswell AS editors. Recent Advances in Clinical Nutrition. 1986 London: John Libbey, 169-177.
You can see a complete collection of reports on headaches and migraines, including those below.
 Headaches just stopped dead after 9 years! (July 2009)
For 20 years I have suffered headaches, daily. Rarely a day goes by when I haven’t had one, often quite severe. There's not a practitioner or therapist that I have not seen or test that hasn't been done. Pain management is what I accepted my life to be. I trusted that all these experts knew that there was no identifiable cause. No one ever suggested it may be diet related!!! I didn’t consider it either as I ate a healthy diet! Even after reading Fed Up and the Failsafe Cookbook, I wasn't expecting my world to be turned around.
After 3 weeks failsafe: I haven't had a headache since last Thursday. It has been nearly 9 years since I went a whole week without a headache. Given my history, there's no way that this is coincidental especially given that my headaches have been quite severe for a couple of months. They didn't just lessen in severity slowly, they just stopped dead! …Failsafe is no sacrifice. I am not missing out. For the last 20 years I have been missing out and making sacrifices to my quality of life … almost everyone I know now knows my brief experience and I will continue to spread the word! I keep saying to myself if only more people knew
After 16 months failsafe …Without a doubt, food is the cause of my headaches! I am now trying to find the main culprits and find a balance as my tolerance threshold is very hard to determine. I completed the elimination diet as recommended by the RPA Allergy unit. The Failsafe Cookbook and Friendly Food cookbooks were great. For inspiration and a bit of variety, I also modified many cookbook and magazine recipes. It took me ages to do the challenges because I felt so good and didn’t want to upset the apple cart. I was completely Failsafe and felt really good. One day however, I met up with an old friend and I decided “what the heck, I’ll have that piece of chocolate cake and wash it down with an iced chocolate!” The next day I woke up feeling sluggish and I had a headache! I decided to do the challenges so I could determine what the real cause was so I could resume eating anything that didn’t affect me. Firstly, I challenged salicylates with no adverse affects. I was expecting amines to be the culprit after what I had read and because of my chocolate cake experience. The next challenge was amines. I indulged in large amounts of chocolate and other amine rich foods as per the RPA diet recommendations. To my surprise and disappointment, there was no immediate reaction. About a week or two later, the headaches came back with a vengeance and lasted for about a month. (Incidentally, I have always had different and worse headaches with my periods. While Failsafe, the period headaches were minor to insignificant.)
After the amine challenge and returning to failsafe, the headaches eventually disappeared. I reintroduced salicylate foods to my diet. I began becoming less strict with amine rich foods as well, like the occasional use of tomatoes in a pasta sauce with a sprinkle of cheese, eating nuts, drinking cola, beer and champagne. The problem is that I don’t get an immediate reaction after eating something so I don’t know exactly what or how much is too much. I figure that I have a threshold that I can build up to. Once that threshold is reached however, the headache can be weeks long, even though I feel that I have just tipped the scales. The good thing is that I know I can go out and not have to make a special off the menu order. I choose the least risky, but if it’s going to contain amines, I just keep to low amines at home for a while to balance things out. Chocolate, cheese and red wine seem to be definite no-nos, but most other things I can handle in small amounts stretched over time. We recently went on a holiday to Victoria. I wanted to enjoy myself and remain headache free. I also wanted to enjoy eating out without fussing too much, so about a month prior, I went almost strictly amine free. Whilst on holiday, I was fairly headache free with only the occasional minor one, even at the MCG with 85000 roaring people! I knew that the delayed affect might occur, but I was prepared to deal with that when I got home and it wasn’t too bad in the end. It’s just about finding balance, but I know if I want to be completely headache free, I just return to Failsafe.
Now that I have control over my headaches, I have returned to study and recently completed 80 hours of work experience as a Teacher Assistant in a noisy classroom. I feared that the stress and noise would make my head sensitive and more prone to headaches, but I was so surprised to reach the end of the day and think “I didn’t have one today!”. There were only 2 afternoons that I had to resort to pain relief. Before Failsafe, I could not have contemplated study or work outside the home. Now I am considering going beyond being a Teacher Assistant and returning to uni to complete a Dip Ed and teach. – Sharyn, by email.
 Profound migraine, trigeminal neuralgia and the cream cheese diet (September 2008)
I stumbled upon your web page by accident. I have lived the last 30 years with profound migraine and trigeminal neuralgia. I am on some powerful meds and am trying to put off MVD (microvascular decompression) surgery. My headaches are chronic and have absolutely stolen the best years of my life. I have almost learned to expect and just deal with the incessant pain. But I think I just may have accidentally made an odd discovery. I wanted to lose a few pounds and I decided to do Dr. Atkins Fat Fast for a few days - which is simply cream cheese and nothing else. Within two days my head was pain free. So I am thinking this is very strange: is eating food giving me headaches??? I began to research and came upon histamines. I am amazed as I have never been ‘allergic’ to anything and never had sinus problems. I did note to the doctor that I was certain oranges had triggered migraine attacks - and wine or alcohol and dark chocolate. He told me to stay away from them but never mentioned histamines. I used to have friends … a life ... I have contemplated suicide many times. I have been told to put ice packs on my head. I fantasize about somehow being present at my own autopsy and taking a hammer and beating my own head and face to pieces. Now I think I am on to what might have caused this pain all these years. – by email, USA [preservative-free cream cheese is one of the many failsafe foods - S]
 Migraines from MSG (June 2003)
I am a chronic migraine sufferer. MSG is one of the big ones for me (triggers migraines and rash) and almost every major food company feels a need to use this in their products - Maggi is the main offender with others, eg Trident, not lagging too far behind. Why are these in our food if they are harmful? - John, by email
 282: 282 one of main triggers for migraine (September 2002)
I am very interested in your research re calcium propionate. I thought that it may be of interest to you that as a migraine sufferer, I have found that 282 is one of my main triggers for a migraine attack. I have them very infrequently but very severely. By keeping a food diary I have been virtually able to avoid them. Calcium propionate has been off my list for at least five years. Thanks for drawing the attention of the world to the effects of this preservative. - by email (Migraines were one of the first symptoms linked to propionates in Additive Code Breaker by Maurice Hanssen, Lothian, many editions. In my own double blind placebo controlled study of the behavioural effects of 282 on 27 children, parents were invited to take part in the challenges if they wished – while eating bread with 282 but unbeknown to her until afterwards, one of the mothers in the study experienced a migraine so severe she couldn’t go to work: Dengate & Ruben J Paediatr Child Health. 2002 - S)
 "I didn't think I could do without" (September 2002)
I'm starting to get on top of this diet but it has taken ages because I've only just got around to eliminating the things I didn't think I could do without - like a cup of tea with breakfast. Sometimes you just can't believe something that feels so good, so right, can be so bad - but I seem to react (with migraines) to both salicylates and amines. I also react to milk - not incredibly sensitive, but more than about half a cup and I'm gone - and it took me quite a long time to admit that. - email, NSW
 635: Poisoned by a Coles hot chicken (January 2006)
I have just been "poisoned" by a Coles Hot chicken. After eating it for lunch and dinner I got a terrible migraine with vomiting and nausea. The migraine was terrible and lasted for 5 days. I read the bag and found that it had it had at least 4 lots of flavour enhancers in it, including the stuffing, marinade and seasoning. Just another thing I can't eat out in case it came from Coles. Also Devondale now has flavour enhancer in their soft spread. Of course I wouldn't buy it but who knows what you get when you buy a sandwich out. Where will it end? Everyone is trying to poison me.
I was very angry at the time (and still am) that some people can poison my food and not care that I'm extremely sick and lose 5 days out of my life having to cancel all arrangements etc. I wrote to Coles … (and) Safeway … (and) Devondale… I will purposely avoid all their products. I also spoke to KFC and found there is nothing I can eat there except a dinner roll as everything has flavour enhancer in it. It is so difficult now going out to people homes or functions where you get served chicken and feel it's rude to ask where they bought it from but too scared to eat it. With the Devondale spread it's even worse; it could end up in cakes, scones, sandwiches from anywhere.
Now I have to ask “What brand of butter do you use in your cakes, sandwich etc" before I buy it or eat it. Life is getter harder with these additives. The food must be pretty tasteless if they have to use enhancers all the time. – Wendy. (Devondale have since removed flavour enhancers from their spread - S).
 Amine-related migraines since the age of 3 (March 2006)
My 7 year old daughter Caitlin (not her real name) has had migraines since she was about 3 years old. We had no idea what they were for several years. She usually gets a fever with her migraines and because of the fever the doctor would always put it down to a virus, prescribing painkillers. I would often give her panadol for 4 days straight just to keep the headaches at bay. She goes limp and listless, her eyes always droop, she lies there and sleeps for hours until the panadol wears off and then then the pain and fever return. Most times she will scream and cry, grabbing her forehead and pleading with me to take the pain away, “Mummy Mummy my heads hurts, please stop it.” She has always complained of feeling sick (nausea) when she gets them too, and ‘sore legs’. As well, she has had problems with nasal congestion and had been using Rhinocourt nasal spray daily. She has always been a nail biter & a teeth grinder at night.
One year after she started getting the migraines, we were referred to a pediatrician who could find no medical reason for them either. He thought it may have been an attention grabber or perhaps the start of a cold. The migraines continued on and off with no regular pattern that I could work out, once a week, then maybe another in 6 weeks times, then 2 months. It varied greatly.
Two years later we started taking a fish oil supplement. The migraines became more frequent and she started throwing up with them. She would go to sleep with a migraine and wake at 3 am and throw up in bed or the bath (with the migraine and fever). I said enough!! No more Panadol, Nurofen or Painstop! This time her pediatrician ordered a cat scan which was clear. He offered my 6yr old a daily dose of betablockers or a trial using riboflavins or diet manipulation …guess which one we chose?
We have been eating failsafe since about March this year and have never looked back. On day 2 of the amine challenge, Caitlin got a migraine, droopy eyes, became listless, and a fever. School rang and asked me to collect her again. She stayed unwell for several days with the headache.
During the challenge, she also got a blocked nose, sore tummy, sore nose, nightmares and was badly constipated. Since the end of the amine challenge (3 months ago) we haven’t had one migraine! No more snotty nose or blocked nose, nasal sprays, nightmares, sore tummies, nail biting, teeth grinding, or sore legs - her nails are growing for the 1st time in her life. So, no more amines for Caitlin! – by email, NSW
FROM  One liners (July 2005) Pre-menstrual migraines
We have been on the failsafe diet for nearly three and have had excellent results for the whole family - I have had no pre-menstrual migraines, my 18 month old’s eczema all but disappeared and my three year old's behaviour has changed dramatically.
 Dental fillings and migraines (September 2003)
My mother was advised to have all her teeth out because her fillings might be causing her migraines. She doesn't get migraines any more, but I'm not convinced that fillings were the cause. She is eating a lot less salicylates because she avoids tomatoes (the skins get stuck in her false teeth), strawberries (seeds likewise) and apples (too difficult to bite). - by email
 "a few lives and a lot of sanity" (May 2000)
I have a family, both maternally and paternally, of very happy, giving people who are easily angered, overreactive, bored, fidgety, highly strung or vague. I also have a history of either myself or a relative with asthma, sinusitis, rhinitis, excess mucous, eczema, hives, itchy crawly skin, headaches, migraines, lethargy, anxiety attacks, depression, colic, reflux, stomach aches, bloating, wind, dyslexia, food reactions, mouth ulcers, bedwetting and growing pains. What chance did I or my son have in missing out on food allergies and intolerances? It is a shame that we didn't know the links between all of these symptoms and food intolerances. There have been two suicides and one diagnosed schizophrenic who tried many times to take his own life. I read your book as soon as I could get my hands on it. If only my family had been aware of these things years ago there may have been a few lives saved as well as a lot of sanity! - Reader, NSW
 Additives and food pollution (August 1999)
I finally got around to looking at your web page and decided to tell you my story although I imagine this sort of thing is all too familiar to you by now.
I am a middle aged male employed in a professional capacity. I have a family. For at least 25 years of my life I suffered migraine headaches. I saw doctors and specialists, I had CAT scans and no physical causes were found. In 1982 I was advised by a specialist to take large doses of aspirin together with ergotamine. I hated ergotamine. I had headaches at least every second day for many years. I took aspirin at rates of up to 2 dozen 300mg tabs a week. At one stage my doctor said I had "mild neutropenia". In the 1990s I took sumatriptin tablets (Imigran) which worked about as well as anything but were very expensive.
In 1995 ... I [found out about food intolerance]. I was ready to try anything and commenced the Elimination Diet. I had a continuous migraine for 6 days but stuck to it. I then started to improve dramatically. I have not taken an aspirin since. I take the occasional Panadol (maybe once a month on average) and this is almost always related to a dietary excursion (usually beer.)
Despite reading all the stuff about how I would improve and be able to reintroduce some foods I have stuck to the elimination diet. I have no wish to undertake challenges and no wish to start eating strongly flavoured but poisonous foods again ... I have learned to appreciate the food I eat and find a lot of enjoyment in subtle flavours.
Now the second part of this message. The more I read about food intolerance the more concerned I am getting. When I read your letter contained in Ministers.html my reaction is one of EXTREME ANGER. How can ANZFA possibly even consider softening of labelling regulations. I have been caught myself by ingredients lists that appear innocuous except for the word flavours or possibly oils with undisclosed antioxidants.
I have never written to a newspaper, never written to a politician and never even spoken to one on a serious matter except through work. However, I now feel very strongly that there must be changes made to stop food pollution.
How can a society where people will chain themselves to construction equipment to stop mining of toxic materials blithely tolerate the addition of things like BHA, BHT and TBHQ to the very food we eat. Sorry, there is no point preaching to the converted.
The point is I would like to HELP ... Of course I am very busy, but I am becoming very passionate about food intolerance issues as I read more and more. Please let me know what I can do. – by email, NT
FROM  Can a vegetable garden really be so bad? Read the two-part story from this family of five (May 1999)
We are finding it difficult to start on the diet properly. Our vegetable garden at the moment is rewarding us for months of hard work by producing large amounts of tomatoes, sweet corn, strawberries and silver beet, it is very hard to pass all these up.
However, when we eliminated all additives - which wasn't many as we have always tried to avoid these anyway - our three-year-old started sleeping through the night every night for the first time - after only two days without two glasses of cordial each day. People said he is just growing up, but when he had commercial bread two days in a row for lunch (we usually bake our own) he woke up in the night on those two days only.
My own experience has been really great. I have suffered from migraines which last for two days every week for years. After five weeks of no additives and no foods high in amines I had not had a single migraine and felt wonderful. Then last week a friend gave us some home cured and dried beef, I couldn't resist. Guess what, a migraine the next day. I am going back on the diet straightaway.
Our 13 year old daughter suffers from asthma and headaches and was becoming what we thought must be normal at her age (withdrawn and sullen). Now she is hooked on the diet. No asthma, no headaches - she feels great and her general attitude to life in general has improved.
My husband thought that sitting in front of a computer all day was giving him headaches every afternoon but has now made a connection between his headaches and chilli sauce on his sandwiches and the orange he was eating for lunch.
Our 11 year old son was actually the one we decided to do the diet for …
Part 2 (two weeks later)
I've decided that I don't care how much our garden is producing after having two migraines following tomatoes for dinner one night and silver beet another. Both these left me feeling unwell and nauseous for 4 days …. – by email
 ‘Ultra-healthy’ diet led to asthma and debilitating health issues (May 2007)
My mother and I have known for years that we are allergic to aspirin. We both react with ringing in the ears, nausea, vertigo, lethargy, and I even lost consciousness once. I avoid salicylates in cosmetics and toiletries at all costs, but my health has steadily declined (I am 24). My mother and I both have had doctors mystified for years with strange and debilitating health issues. They told my mother oh you have lupus, no you don't, yes you do, no ... so on and so on. Now they have decided that we both have fibromyalgia. None of my doctors have ever mentioned that salicylates are in foods. After coming across this information I realised that almost every diet change recommended to me by the doctors has caused my salicylate intake to be astronomical. It's no wonder I've been in and out of emergency rooms.
Everyone made fun of me calling me a "health nut" because of the supposedly ultra-healthy diet I was on. I was trying to follow the USDA guidelines and eating lots of fruits and vegetables - especially citrus, broccoli, and spinach. The heart healthy recommendations include lots of processed tomato products and using as many different herbs as possible (to give flavor instead of salt). I also was trying to eat as many "naturally sweetened" things as possible. I was eating a lot of fresh oat granola, but it was loaded with honey, almonds, and pretty much anything that comes up high in the sals. I also was using olive oil for cooking, salad dressing, and with herbs instead of butter on bread.
It's no wonder that I was getting worse. I was having so many migraines that I only had about two days a month that I could function without excruciating pain in my head, I had chronic tendonitis, chronic fatigue, if I ever did get to sleep I felt more tired when I woke up than before I slept and I was still gaining weight. Now that I am on the right track I have only had two migraines in two months, and I have only had a tendon problem one day. I was diagnosed with adult onset asthma and was using an inhaler every day and now I only have to use it when I get exposed to salicylates. My mother and I have both been improving so drastically that everyone is asking us what is going on. – from the USA
 160b: Migraine, headbanging and violence from annatto 160b (February 2008)
Through the elimination diet and challenges we found out that annatto 160b causes a severe reaction in our 7 year old daughter. Symptoms include migraine, loss of fine motor control, head banging, violence and aggression, screaming and yelling, loss of rational thought and temporary memory loss, beginning 24 hours after ingestion and gradually diminishing over two weeks. Luckily for us (and by chance) I seldom purchased products containing annatto prior to the challenge, I shudder to think where we would have ended up if she had been consuming annatto regularly all her life. – reader, Qld
 Migraines, ‘Fear of the dark’ really a food reaction (August 2006)
We started the diet nearly a year ago for my son, a sweet 5 year old who would become an aggressive, extremely hyperactive and an emotional monster nearly every day. I saw you on A Current Affair and after taking muesli bars and sultanas (which I had thought were healthy) out of his diet I noticed most of his aggressive behaviour disappear.
After that we started the full diet and not only did our son become an angel, we noticed that our daughter was a very strong amine reactor, becoming uncontrollably emotional, depressed and ‘full on’, as well as having frequent nightmares and bedwetting. Unfortunately since we have moved 2 months ago our son has gone backwards fast, I now think as a result of amines in meat from new butchers. It is so upsetting to see all the progress disappear, and he has had HUGE problems at school this term. I have traveled back to our old butchers to stock up on meat and am started to see some improvement after one week.
The biggest shock for me however, was when I recently discovered I was a food reactor!! I was a junk food addict and would eat about 5kg of chocolate a week. I can’t believe now I had so many symptoms, and I never even put them together as symptoms, let alone found the source of the problem! I was getting migraines, I constantly had a headache behind my eyes, I felt very faint and disoriented, had stomach pains that felt like needles - usually after eating lollies, and I was always bloated - something which really upset me.
The weirdest thing to attribute to food however was my extreme ‘fear of the dark’ as I called it. I would be terribly scared of the dark, I would think that my mind thought it could see little people and things out of the corner of my eye, even though I knew they weren’t there, I would open my eyes every 10 seconds while trying to get to sleep, just to check if there were monsters or robbers there, and every time I closed my eyes all I could picture in my head was horrible things that would scare me. I was a bit worried I was starting to go crazy, then I stopped eating chocolate and didn’t even notice all these symptoms disappeared.
It wasn’t until I splurged on a whole chocolate cake over two nights that I discovered what had caused these problems. After eating the cake I was completely on edge. I couldn’t sit down for ten seconds without turning around to make sure there were no monsters or robbers behind me. Eventually I had to sit with my back to the wall so I wouldn’t think there were things behind me. That was the last time I ate chocolate, and the thought of ever eating it again scares me! – by email.
FROM  Amines, migraines and eczema (August 2006)
I am now 46, and have lived for most of those years with dreadful eczema all over my body, some times much worse than others. I went to many skin specialists, all who told me that diet was not linked, not to scratch, bathe in the sea when possible, not to use harsh soaps and apply cortisone creams. My eczema never got any better. I started the elimination diet a few years ago with my daughter, who suffers migraines, and not only did her headaches decrease, but my eczema also faded to almost nothing! Amines were the trigger for her migraines, and with keeping off amine rich foods in our house, I have not had any eczema problems since, and I no longer need to apply creams to any parts of my body. What a relief!
FROM  Son’s migraines caused by same chemicals daughter’s behaviour (November 2006)
My story started with an uncontrollable daughter who at 8 years of age was already getting suspended from school and was a horrible bully. The school wrote me a referral to a paediatrician. At the time I thought would only mean having her medicated to control her which I was dead set against.
I have two older boys that were very well behaved so I wanted to find the cause of the problem and not just cover it up with medication. Three days after Christmas 2002 my daughter went off to such a degree that all I could do was hold on to her while she bit, kicked and screamed until she was physically exhausted. That was when I knew there was something seriously wrong so I went to see a child psychologist who fortunately for me recommended your book Fed Up.
Within a month I went from thinking my daughter was destined for jail to thinking what a lovely young girl she is turning into. The results were noticeable that quickly. And from my daughter’s point of view she felt better within herself. She was no longer on an emotional roller coaster every day. Because of how she felt on the diet it made it easy to keep her on it. She was feeling a whole lot more in control of herself.
Since cleaning out our cupboards I noticed that my eldest boy no longer suffered migraines and no longer took so long with gut aches on the toilet. So obviously he also was affected by these chemicals but in a different manner than my uncontrollable daughter … – by email, NT
 Migraines a thing of the past (May 2008) Winner of Courage Award May 2008
I started failsafe eating a week ago in absolute desperation with my 14 year-old son who was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD at the age of 6 years old. He progressed well on medication until we had a car accident last year and he suffered minor brain damage. After the accident his behaviour became worse and he has attempted suicide several times. Last Wednesday I took him to hospital for sedation after he broke windows and several holes in the wall with his head. Thursday morning I searched the net for a solution and came across your website. I started the diet that day. Today I have a son who obeys, talks to you face to face, calmer, quieter, he smiles and has got himself a job part time which he loves. If he is offered food at work he says no and takes his own or waits until he gets home.
One week later ... Today is day 15 and he is still going great. We have just had the best school holidays with our two sons playing instead of fighting physically and verbally. At work, his boss doesn't even know he has ADHD and ODD. He did eat a piece of chicken at work and advised me his brain felt funny and would not eat anything that is not on the list. I'm glad he tried something off the list in moderation and noticed the difference. Your Failsafe Cookbook has been a great help and I do not leave the house without the list of basic foods and list of additives. I call this my bible. Not only has his behaviour changed but also his stomach pains and migraines are a thing of the past. The television has gone from a volume of 60 to 15. Thank you for your website that changed our lives and made my teenager happier. The difference has been unbelievable. - Janelle, Qld
Our foods have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Avoiding well-known migraine triggers such as MSG or chocolate, cheese and wine may not be nearly enough to find out if food affects you.
People have different reactions to various food chemicals so any or all of the above food chemicals can cause the problem.
I do recommend my book Fed Up for a greater understanding of the chemicals in our food, the elimination diet, support and helpful recipes.
See also Introduction to food intolerance.
The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians http://fedup.com.au/information/support/dietitians
© Sue Dengate update January 2013