Image: Hot dogs are stacked up before the start of Nathan's annual hot dog eating contest in the Coney Island section of New York
The nitrates in hot dogs can trigger an instant headache.
updated 8/6/2010 4:15:50 PM ET 2010-08-06T20:15:50

You've stuck your toes in the sand and fired up the grill. The burgers are sizzling. An ice-cold Corona and a panoply of toppings awaits.

Sounds like the recipe for a perfect summer afternoon.

And the formula for a killer headache, it turns out.

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Mind-numbing headaches are more likely to strike as the mercury rises, a recent Harvard University study says. The researchers found that for every 5°C increase in temperature, the risk of severe headache jumped by 7.5 percent. That's bad news for the more than 8 percent of American men who suffer from migraines or severe headaches — an ailment inversely correlated with age, according to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control report.

But the heat may not be the only perpetrator at play. Even your burger's pickle — which contains headache-inducing nitrates — could be the source of your summertime brain pain. "Migraines are often triggered by a combination of things — whether it's food or alcohol or weather," says Alexander Mauskop, M.D., neurologist and director of the New York Headache Center. And these factors may spark more diffuse headaches in those who aren't migraine-prone, he says.

You shouldn't have to sacrifice summer fun for relief. Skipping meals can also trigger headaches, so when you sense an oncoming 'ache, make these simple food swaps instead.

The trigger: Diet soda
The sugar substitute aspartame lurks in diet soda, yogurts, and the tabletop sweeteners Equal and Nutrasweet. While some research says it's innocent, the FDA has received thousands of complaints about aspartame-induced headaches and dizziness, among other maladies.

Your move: Switch to Splenda. "It's chemically closely related to sugar, so we think it's less likely to give you a headache," says Dr. Mauskop.

The trigger: Barbecue sauce
"We call it Chinese restaurant syndrome — the effect of too much MSG," Dr. Mauskop says. "It's a food enhancer, which is why restaurant food often tastes so much better." While it may please your palate, it beats up your brain, potentially — and painfully — tightening the brain's blood vessels. Soups are the most common culprit, but MSG also hides in barbecue sauce, potato chips, and processed meats.

Your move: Manufacturers rarely refer to it as MSG. So check food labels for its sneaky pseudonyms: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate, yeast extract, hydrolyzed oat flour, texturized protein, and calcium caseinate. Or simply purchase packaged foods that say "MSG-free."

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The trigger: Hot dogs
"Nitrates and nitrites affect the nitric oxide system in the brain," says Dr. Mauskop. "Nitric oxide is released during a migraine attack." The resulting headache may hit within minutes or hours after eating smoked and cured foods

Your move: It's simple: Skip the summer sausage and hot dogs, and throw fresh meats on the grill. And don't top your food with sauerkraut, which also contains the compounds.

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The trigger: Alcohol
You likely know a thing or two about hangovers. But in migraine-prone people, the wine-induced throbbing may strike almost immediately, says Dr. Mauskop. That's because it contains tyramine, sulfites, and histamine, all of which may trigger migraines. Red wine and other dark drinks like bourbon and whiskey are more likely to cause a morning-after headache, too, thanks to certain pigments thought to trigger inflammation. Alcohol can also deplete your magnesium stores, a possible cause of headaches.

Your move: Opt for clear beverages, such as gin or vodka, which are less likely to trigger a migraine, Dr. Mauskop says. Your perfect drink: The Bloody Mary — it contains vodka and tomato juice, which is rich in alcohol-metabolizing fructose.

The trigger: Cheese
Tyramine is a by-product of fermentation found in beer and wine, but also in certain cheeses and pickled foods. It's thought to signal release of the excitatory neurotransmitter norepinephrine, resulting in blood vessel constriction and increased heart rate. And for migraine-prone guys, this may equal a head pounder.

Your move: Rethink your burger toppings. Trade tyramine-rich aged cheeses (like Swiss, blue, and parmesan) for American or cottage cheese, and ditch the pickles entirely. If you crave a little crunch, top your patty with fresh cucumbers instead.

The trigger: Dark chocolate
The amino acid phenylethylamine isn't innately evil — it's the substance in chocolate responsible for your post-Snickers euphoria. The cocoa-dwelling compound triggers the release of serotonin and catecholamine, brain chemicals that help regulate mood, but also make the blood vessels in your brain constrict. This, or a resulting chemical reaction in the brain, may start the throbbing, says Dr. Mauskop.

Your move: "The better the chocolate, the darker it is, the more likely it's going to give you a headache," Dr. Mauskop says. That's not an excuse to inhale a milk chocolate bar, though. Satisfy your sweet tooth with chocolate pudding — it's less concentrated with cocoa and provides a shot of magnesium, which can help alleviate migraines, he says.

10 tips for instant pain relief

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