Frequent Headaches and Nitrates
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and I do not play one online. I offer advice based on my experiences and research. Please consult with your physician before making any changes in your diet and lifestyle, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions.
For nearly all of my adult life I suffered from almost daily headaches. Sometimes they'd be annoyingly persistent, but dull in nature. Other times I experienced full-blown migraines. This all began around the time I turned fifteen, and I spent years trying to figure out why.
I was told by several doctors that they "knew what the problem was" and they could fix it. A dentist removed my wisdom teeth, but that did not help. A chiropractor said she could help with an alignment, but no go. An OB-GYN recommended hormonal birth control, but that wasn't a solution either.
I knew migraines run in my family, so I was worried that I was destined to deal with this pain for the rest of my life. It had gotten so bad that it was impacting my quality of life in a big way. Life is no fun when you spend much of your afternoon in pain, unable to enjoy time with your family.
I was beginning to feel like there were no options other than continuing to suffer or seeing a doctor for a prescription, Anyone that knows me knows how adamant I am about avoiding medications whenever possible. But I just could not go on how I was.
Then, something happened and I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. And not that bad kind of light you see as a migraine begins. I felt a glimmer of hope that maybe I had found an answer. My answer came in an unlikely way, and coming across the information was pure dumb luck.
After I had a conversation with my grandparents about my grandfather's similar reaction to MSG, I began to wonder if that could be causing my problems, too. During my research, I stumbled across information pertaining to nitrates and headaches, particularly migraine headaches. While I still avoid MSG as a precaution, I know for a fact nitrates were my trigger.
I found a study that showed that people who are prone to migraines have more of a certain bacteria in their mouths than people who are not. This bacteria is responsible for converting nitrates in food into nitrites, which are then changed into nitric acid in the bloodstream.
Separate studies had already found that having higher nitric oxide levels in the blood could trigger migraines. I won't bore you with the details, but if you're the scientific type that enjoys those details, this article on CNN.com gives some great information on the studies.
Finally a possible answer, now what?
I knew the only way to test my theory was to make some dietary changes. I needed to do an elimination test by cutting all the nitrates out of my diet to see if the headaches stopped, then introduce some again, to see if the headaches returned.
I did just that. For around two weeks I did not consume any foods with nitrates. I had far fewer headaches. I should note here that I am very prone to headaches of all sorts, so I wasn't surprised to still have some. The ones I did have, however, were nowhere near as painful or disruptive. Could it really be working?
I tested my theory the day I decided a ham and cheese lunch kit would be a good snack. I ate it mid-morning, and by mid-afternoon, I had a full-blown migraine. The pain was awful, but I felt like I had my answer. Nitrates caused my migraines.
I made the decision that day to make sure nitrates were no longer in my diet. I have cut them out, and for over a year I have felt better. I still get headaches, but I can trace them to something else almost every time. Sometimes it's sinuses, dehydration, or fatigue. I went from getting migraines multiple times a month to only a few times a year.
I can honestly say that it has changed my life. I'm no longer muddling through days or having to spend at least one afternoon a week in bed. Sure, there are some things I can't eat, but I've found a safe alternative to most everything. Which brings me to...
What foods contain nitrates?
Almost any cured meats contain nitrates. Vegetables also contain some naturally occurring nitrates from the soil, but my problems seem to come only from added nitrates. Here is a list of the things I avoid like the plague unless they explicitly say they're free from nitrates:
Any deli meat, pre-packaged or from the deli counter
Sausage of all sorts
Pepperoni, salami, or other cured meats
Ham, the kind you'd bake for holiday meals
Fun fact: a common substitute for nitrates is celery juice extract, and you'll find that on the ingredients list of many "safe" foods.
What can I eat?
I have found "safe" alternatives for almost all of the foods I listed above. Many national brands offer nitrate-free lunch meats and hot dogs. I have only found one brand of nitrate-free bacon, but surely there are others. Most bratwurst sausages are nitrate-free, but be sure to check the package to be sure your brand is.
A great place to shop if you've got one nearby is Aldi. They have more nitrate-free options than any other store in our area. It's the only place I can find nitrate-free bacon and breakfast sausage. They've got a great selection of nitrate-free lunch meats, too. Everything I have bought tastes wonderful.
I have not found any brands of ham or pepperoni/salami/cured meats that are nitrate-free, so I just avoid these foods. Sure, I miss them at times, but I prefer not having the pain. When we order pizza, I get chicken instead of pepperoni or ham. I've made it work without feeling like I'm missing out.
If you're dealing with pain from frequent headaches or migraines, I encourage you to cut nitrates out to see if they might be your trigger. You have nothing to lose and could potentially gain a life with less pain. That is something you could be grateful for.
Do you have any questions about nitrates or migraines? Do you have experiences you could share? I'd love to hear about them.