Migraines remain mysterious. Despite all our research, we don’t really understand what causes them. For people with migraines there are typically many triggers that can lead to the development of headaches. For many people, diet is a big part of their migraine triggers, and when people have a dietary migraine trigger, a compound known as tyramine is one of the most common suspects.
What Is Tyramine?
Tyramine is a monoamine and a neurotransmitter that seems to be involved in regulating blood pressure, among other functions. We know that people who have too much tyramine can suffer elevated blood pressure, as well as headaches.
The body regulates tyramine and other monoamines with monoamine oxidase (MAO). People who don’t have enough MAO can experience blood pressure spikes, headaches, and other effects from consuming tyramine. Some people have naturally low levels of MAO, others might experience low-MAO levels because of medications. There are several types of MAO, and they’re not identical, although they function in similar ways.
It might be possible to increase the activity of MAO by improving the amount of free calcium in the body. However, clinical studies have not shown whether this is a good way to improve the body’s ability to process tyramines.
Tyramine and Headaches
Increasing blood pressure and headaches from tyramine were known in antiquity. The effect was associated with cheese, which resulted in some unpleasant physiologic effects for some people. In recent times the effect was rediscovered when a neurologist noticed that his wife had acute blood pressure spikes and headaches from eating cheese when she was on a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), an early type of antidepressant.
Monoamine oxidase is the enzyme that breaks down tyramine in the body. When it’s being inhibited, a person ends up with too much tyramine, causing blood pressure spikes and headaches.