Friday, October 1, 2021

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 bothersome 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 a woman of Lebanese descent – they cook everything in olive oil!  


I had numerous migraines throughout the years for a variety of unknown reasons, then, about seven years ago, just as I was heading to my fortieth birthday, they increased significantly in frequency and reasons.


Maybe it was a body chemistry change. Maybe it was a later-in-life development of allergies. Maybe it was my brain’s mid-life crisis.


Whatever it was, I started to track everything I ate every day, keeping a food journal that I still religiously maintain to this day. I found that my new triggers were things I had enjoyed – in some cases, really enjoyed – my whole life. Most cheeses started to give me headaches, which in turn added pizza to the no-eat list (which, with my previously mentioned aversion to wings, makes me the life of any party). Onion rings became taboo. Citric acid in a sports drink wiped me out. A good aged steak is off limits. Those are just a few of my many newfound triggers.


I did some research while the frequency of headaches and number of triggers grew and found a common denominator: Tyramine. It comes from the natural breakdown of an amino acid known as tyrosine. When consumed, it can stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which can cause blood vessels to constrict. The combination of neurotransmitters and blood flow to the brain both going haywire can cause 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, smoked meats).


This magical list, which breaks foods down into 3 categories (the other 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 was actually a secondary discovery by the health industry. 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, 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 foolproof. And, the headaches are my body trying to tell me something, so why dupe that warning system?


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 20 September 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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