Get Headaches? Try Eating More of This Nutrient

Updated: Feb. 24, 2023

This might have been annoying advice when you were young...but new research shows there's actual wisdom to it.

If you ever experienced a headache when you were young and heard an adult say, “When’s the last time you went to the bathroom?”…well, new science shows that in fact there may be a link between headaches and gastrointestinal health.

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What the study says

According to the American Migraine Foundation, 39 million people live with regularly occurring migraines, while millions more experience the occasional headache—often without understanding why. Research has shown that for migraines in particular, certain foods can trigger these attacks—like processed foods, sweets, fermented foods, some fruits, and alcohol.

It turns out, some foods may also help prevent headaches. Published January 2023 on Frontiers in Nutrition, this study analyzed past data collected between 1999 and 2004 from 12,700 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The researchers investigated the relationship between dietary fiber intake and reported cases of severe headaches and migraines among those participants.

The results identified a significant association between high dietary intake and fewer cases of headaches or migraines. One of the studies they evaluated had even found that for every 10 grams of fiber an individual consumed, the likelihood of a severe headache or migraine was reduced by 11%.

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How? The researchers point out different reasons that dietary fiber intake and severe headaches could be linked. First, they highlight the relationship between gut health and brain health, also known as the “gut-brain axis.” Since previous research has made the link between severe headaches and gastrointestinal disorders (such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease), this new study may help support the theory that migraines have been linked to a variety of inflammatory diseases. Because dietary fiber plays an important role by feeding the microbiota in the gut, which keeps the bacteria in the gut healthy and thriving, this benefits that gut-brain connection—and, in turn, could relieve persistent migraines.

Second, dietary fiber also helps to decrease the glycemic index of foods—meaning one’s blood sugar levels are more regulated when they eat high-fiber foods. Studies have shown that a low-glycemic diet can alter the body’s inflammatory response and therefore help stave off, or minimize the effects of, migraine attacks.

While these study results are certainly promising, the researchers noted that more research is needed in order to confirm the association between high fiber intake and headaches.

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How fiber and brain health are linked

At this point, there’s an extensive amount of research supporting that the gut and the brain are interconnected—a relationship that can impact an individual’s general wellness. Continued research demonstrates how fiber intake is a vital part of that connection.

A 2022 peer review found how inflammation in the gut can increase the development and progression of Parkinson’s disease. Another study also found a link between high-flavonol foods and reduced dementia risk. Given that a majority of high-flavonol foods are high-fiber foods and are known for protecting the body against oxidative stress that causes inflammation, these results go hand-in-hand with what this new study seems to suggest. The gut-brain axis has also been shown to play a factor in feelings of depression.

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How to increase your fiber intake

Because the gut-brain axis connects the gastrointestinal tract to the nervous system, here are a few ways to get even more fiber into your diet to keep your brain and belly both happy:

  • Eat more plants. It’s honestly as easy as that. Fiber is first and foremost found in plants. By adding more plant foods to your diet—like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, nuts, seeds, and more—you’ll easily be adding more fiber to your diet. If you’re up for a particularly delicious challenge, one study found participants who ate 30 different kinds of plants throughout the week ended up having a more diverse and healthier gut microbiome composition than those who ate 10 or fewer.
  • Snack on nuts. If you’re looking for a crunchy, salty snack during the day, reach for a handful of nuts instead of a bag of chips. All nuts provide fiber, while also adding protein and vitamins. In particular, research even shows how almonds can benefit gut health and reduce inflammation.
  • Where have you bean all my life? Indeed, beans are high in fiber (as well as protein, vitamins and minerals). For example, one cup of black beans adds a whopping 15 grams of fiber.
  • Go whole grain. While traditional enriched grain foods have been stripped and only contain the endosperm (the starchy white carbohydrate in the center of a wheat kernel), whole grain foods still contain all parts of the kernel that are high in fiber. The bran is left in place—that’s the outer layer of the kernel that provides good-for-you fiber—as well as the germ, which contains a slew of vitamins and minerals. So for an easy way to add more fiber without having to try too hard, swap out your usual go-to enriched grains in bread, crackers, tortillas and more with whole grain.

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest Medical Review Board member Latoya Julce RN, BSN emphasizes that it’s important to remember that fiber requires water to be properly digested. “With the help of water, fiber turns to gel and slows digestion,” she explains. “Without water, stools can become too bulky and dry to pass through comfortably.”