Think Spicy Food is Causing Your Headache? Probably Not.
It’s most likely not the heat itself that’s triggering your headaches, but there may be other culprits in your spicy food.
While some people claim spicy foods cause a headache, studies thus far have found no direct link between spicy foods in general and headaches. Even the National Headache Foundation’s Headache Sufferers’ Diet guide makes no mention of avoiding spicy foods.
So if that’s the case, then why do some people associate spicy food with headaches? There may be a variety of connected triggers. Here’s a look at what some of those may be.
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
First identified in the 1960s, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome refers to an array of symptoms, including headaches, that often strike people who have recently eaten Chinese food, which can often be spicy. More recently, research has shown that there’s no consistent link between MSG and these symptoms, including headaches and migraines. 1 But other flavorings commonly used in Chinese food, including soy sauce and teriyaki sauce, might trigger headaches for some because of high tyramine content. Tyramine, an amino acid commonly found in foods, occurs naturally in certain foods, and higher amounts are often found when items are aged, fermented, or stored for long periods of time. Tyramine is also found in some cheeses, a commonly reported dietary headache trigger.
One of the difficulties in isolating spicy food as a headache trigger is the fact that the spices are often being used in conjunction with other foods that could be headache triggers. So while certain spices may be safe by themselves, the type of food you’re adding spices to may possibly give you a headache. Again, tyramine is the thing to watch out for: Any kind of meat that has been aged, smoked, salted or dried, or has had tenderizer added, could potentially be a trigger. Additionally, any kind of nuts or citrus, such as lemon juice, could also act as a trigger in some people. When in doubt, check the ingredients of what you are eating. You may discover that you’ve been putting blame on the wrong components all along. Some simple food swaps could spare a headache for some.
Blame Your Stomach
The body is a complex organism, and if one part of it is out of balance, the effects can be felt all over. In fact, if you get a headache after eating spicy food, it might not be your head at all that’s having a reaction, it might be your stomach! Odd as it may sound, studies have shown that there may be a link between acid reflux and headaches. 2
Everyone Is Different
Finally, it’s important to remember that while there has been a great deal of research done on headache triggers, there still remains plenty of work. Just because no direct link between spicy foods and headaches has yet been discovered doesn’t mean spicy food can’t be a trigger for you personally. Every person’s different. If you believe spicy food is triggering your headache, try keeping a headache diary to track patterns and consider consulting your doctor.
1. Freeman, M. (2006), Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: A literature review. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 18: 482–486. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1745-7599.2006.00160.x/abstract
2. Saberi-Firoozi M, Yazdanbakhsh MA, Heidari ST, Khademolhosseini F, Mehrabani D. Correlation of gastroesophageal reflux disease with positive family history and headache in Shiraz city, southern Iran. Saudi J Gastroenterol. 2007 Oct-Dec;13(4):176-9.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19858642