Thursday, July 31, 2014

Migraines and the tyramine connection

I’ve battled migraines since my senior year of high school. I can still remember the first one. It struck me without warning in biology class. Having never experienced – let alone having not really known about – migraines, it was disconcerting to be unable to see the chalkboard and then have to leave school to battle nausea and head pain all day. No longer unknown territory, migraines aren’t scary anymore but, to this day, they remain just as debilitating as the first.    

Early on I traced the primary causes of my headaches to chicken and olives. The sensitivity for chicken was rough, especially for someone who loves chicken wings and lives in Western New York (it’s as if I were damned).  But, I’ve been good – I haven’t had chicken since 1996. Staying away from olives has been an equal test of will and awareness; I am married to woman of Lebanese descent – they cook everything in olive oil!   

I’ve had numerous migraines throughout the years for a variety of unknown reasons. Last fall, they increased significantly in frequency and reasons. Maybe it was a hormone change, maybe it was a mid-life crisis that suddenly made me more susceptible; I am, after all, hitting the big four-oh this year.

So, I started to track everything I ate every day, keeping a food journal that I still religiously maintain. I found that my headaches were being caused by things I had enjoyed – in some cases, really enjoyed – for my whole life. A small nugget of cheddar cheese gave me a headache. A banana put a damper on my Thanksgiving. Citric acid in a sports drink wiped me out. Those are just a few of my new triggers.

I did some research while this was happening and found a common denominator. I don’t know how I went all of adulthood having never heard of it, but tyramine has proven to be the culprit. It comes from the natural breakdown of an amino acid known as tyrosine. When consumed, it can cause blood vessels to dilate, which in turn causes migraines.   

Tyramine is created as foods age. That’s why certain cheeses – like cheddar and parmesan – are migraine catalysts. That’s why bananas are, too (that stringy stuff inside a banana peel is full of it). The list of foods tainted with tyramine is actually quite large and for headaches sufferers it’s very confounding. Even things you wouldn’t ever think of being aged by the standard definition are and end up on the “use with caution” list (onions, citrus, red plums) or “avoid” list (soy products, peanuts, sesame seeds, walnuts, smoked meats).

This magical list, which breaks foods down into 3 categories (the last one being “allowed”) is readily available on the internet. One example can be found at the National Headache Foundation’s website at

The list’s value to migraine sufferers is actually secondary in nature. Doctors and pharmaceutical companies originally produced the list to help people not develop dangerously-high blood pressure while taking certain drugs intended to help with Parkinson’s Disease.

The list has been a godsend for me, as it helped me to manage and keep in check my migraines. Some folks choose instead to take prescription meds to prevent or counter the headaches, but it’s against my personal rules to medicate. I’d rather handle my health naturally. Plus, far too often I’ve heard from fellow migraine victims that the drugs aren’t 100 percent foolproof.

If you are hit with headaches on a regular basis, do yourself a big favor and track what you eat and follow the tyramine chart accordingly. By doing so, you can help bring to an end – or at a minimum, cut back dramatically -- an aggravating ailment which can really affect your professional and personal lives.

From the 04 August 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

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