If you suffer from migraines, cluster headaches or tension headaches frequently, you’ll know how damaging these can be to your spirit and well-being. Past research has suggested that melatonin may prevent them from occurring – so can we fix them with a diet and sleep?
Does melatonin really help guard against headaches and can we adjust our diet to improve or reduce symptoms. This article will explore the evidence and suggestions on how we can help improve some headache syndromes.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by a tiny organ in the head called the pineal gland. Melatonin is responsible for letting us know when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake.
The pineal gland is able to control our sleep cycles by producing more melatonin at night, which makes us drowsy, and slows down production in the morning to make us alert.
It works by responding to our exposure to daylight – which may account for why some of us sleep more in the winter than the summer (if you’re reading this in the northern hemisphere like Scotland!).
It also pays close attention to our natural body clock, called your circadian rhythm.
This is why we suffer jet lag when we travel to different time zones! In some countries (not the UK), melatonin is available as an over-the-counter supplement, which some use to help sleep or get through jet lag.
It’s also commonly used by shift workers who constantly have sleep problems due to switching from night shifts to day shifts and vice versa.
How does melatonin affect headaches?
Some people find that an irregular sleep pattern can trigger their headaches, or having too much disturbance during the night.
The reason why headache sufferers may have such disrupted sleep could be due to their bodies not producing adequate melatonin to sedate them. Some studies have found low melatonin in sufferers of cluster headaches and migraine.
However, a systematic review this year found that many studies looking at use of melatonin and headaches to be of poor quality, despite some potential positive findings.
The research in this area is by no means extensive – many papers written on the subject are case reviews (reporting on trials of melatonin for people unresponsive to traditional medications).
How can food affect melatonin?
Some foods contain natural amounts of melatonin. No doubt many of you reading this will be aware of the old belief that drinking a glass of warm milk before bed aids restful sleep. Milk contains melatonin, so there’s a good chance there’s some truth in that.
However, melatonin is ubiquitous in fruit and vegetables, and so following a healthful diet that is plant-based, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables could help promote sleep.
So if your diet is high in animal products and low in plants, this could be one of the reasons that explain why your sleep is disrupted. We also know that poor sleep can cause weight gain too.
According to a paper published last year (2017), the following foods contain the highest levels of melatonin in a form that is generally considered to be well-absorbed by the body:
- Cereals: wheat, barley, rice and oats
- Fruit: grapes, cherries, strawberries, banana
- Vegetables: most, except beetroot (beets) and potatoes. Tomatoes and peppers score well as do mushrooms.
- Legumes: especially sprouting legumes
- Nuts and seeds: particularly pistachio
Non plant-based foods also contain melatonin, but their levels tend to be lower. Fish and eggs are among the highest of animal-based protein.
Melatonin is also an anti-oxidant, and a plant-based diet is loaded with antioxidants thanks to unique compounds in fruit and vegetables called phytonutrients. Together, they help our bodies maintain itself as we rest.
If you know that sleep is something that you struggle with, there are some well-known tricks recommended by sleep experts. The National Sleep Hygiene website is a great place to go for pointers, but here are just a few:
- It’s important to ensure the right amount of light in your bedroom. Blackout blinds are a great way to help you fall asleep and a daylight sunrise alarm could help you wake more naturally.
- Other sleep environment factors are really important too: the right pillow, the right heat in the room (not too hot, not too cold), ambient noise caused by things such as a TV in the other room, noises from fans or humidifiers – all these things can influence your sleep
- Avoid reading from a smartphone, laptop or tablet before sleep as the light that they emit can disrupt sleep
- During the day, it’s important to get exposure to daylight. So if you work in a dark office or a building that gets little daylight – consider going outside for your lunch, or at least a lunchtime walk.
- Avoid daytime naps lasting more than 30 minutes
- Avoid stimulants at nighttime, such as caffeine. And limit alcohol and cigarettes, as both can interrupt sleep (there’s no such thing as a nightcap! It might help you fall asleep, but the quality of your sleep will be worse)
- Fatty foods or foods heavy in substances that disrupt your digestion will affect your sleep. For example, if you know that certain foods (such as spicy foods or acidic foods) make your stomach overact, then avoid then before bedtime.
When headaches should be not be ignored
All of us at some point will suffer headaches. Stress can be a major cause of headaches, as can many other causes such as dehydration, lack of sleep, alcohol, reactions from food among others.
If headaches are prolonged, severe or recurrent – the internet is the last place you should be looking for a diagnosis or management advice. This post is intended for those already with a diagnosis of migraine, cluster headaches or tension headaches.
The following are considered to be red flags, and if any ring true for you – then seek medical advice. In most cases, they’ll have a perfectly straightforward underlying cause – but it never pays to ignore worrying symptoms.
- Sudden onset, with fierce pain – often described as first and worst; but any severe headache that reaches its peak quickly after onset.
- Headaches with a stiff neck and fever
- Headaches that cause or are associated with visual disturbances
- Headaches after an injury to the head should be checked out too
This list isn’t exhaustive – it’s always better to seek advice than not if you’re unsure.
Pixabay.com – pheee
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.