The short and straight answer to the question asked in the title is, Yes. Eating too much salt may cause headaches, according to studies and medical experts.
Many of us must be aware of the fact that excessive salt consumption can lead to many serious health conditions such as heart failure, hypertension, kidney stones, stomach cancer or stroke (1),(2),(3),(4).
These medical conditions seem to be the long-term consequences of eating too much salt. Headaches, on the other hand, can be classified as an immediate consequence of too much sodium consumption.
Though, when compared to these serious health conditions, headaches might appear to you quite harmless.
Above we have said that ” Excessive consumption of salt may result in headaches. “. What is the scientific basis for this piece of information?
In the rest of the article, we will examine the related scientific studies and listen to the experts who have something to say about the positive correlation between excessive salt consumption and headaches.
Headaches and Salt Consumption
Certain food items – such as chocolate, red wine, coffee and aged cheese – have been associated with headaches for a long time.
The question is can salt be one of these food items that have the potential to trigger headaches in some people?
According to a study published in the Journal BMJ Open; those who eat a high sodium diet are approximately 25% more likely to experience headaches than those who consume sodium in moderation in their diets! Note: we will scrutinise the study below.
There are also other studies, suggesting that there is a correlation between high sodium intake, high blood pressure and headaches.
You might be saying that “I don’t add too much salt to my food; so, salt can’t give me a headache or can’t be the reason for my constant headaches“.
Well, if you live in the U.S, Canada, Iceland, Switzerland or the U.K, you might be consuming more sodium than you think you do (7).
For example, when you eat pizza, bread, ham, tortilla, tomato sauce, cereals or chips, you consume too much sodium without even realising it.
It is reported that Americans consume on average about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. The problem is medical authorities say an adult should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (10).
Some Important Notes
1-) You might be wondering whether sodium and salt are the same things. Although the two words sodium and salt are used interchangeably, they are not the same. Sodium – a mineral – is one of the key elements of table salt (11),(12).
2-) Even though too much salt is associated with various health problems, such as headaches or kidney stones, entirely removing salt from your diet would be a great mistake. This is because the human body can’t live without salt (sodium). Salt is required for many things in the human body such as; nerve and muscle function and regulation of fluids in the blood (13),(14),(15).
So, salt consumption should be neither too much nor too little.
Expert Opinions on Salt Consumption and Headaches?
Mandy Enright, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian nutritionist, said that consuming too much salt can cause blood vessels (located in the brain) to enlarge, thus leading to headaches (16).
Headache specialist Michale Doerrler said: “Sodium, the key element of table salt, has been linked to headache in more than one way. Research suggests that an excessive salty diet can lead to headaches.” according to LiveStrong.com (17).
According to an article published on Healthline; salty foods can increase blood pressure, thereby leading to either headaches or migraine attacks (18).
Salt Increases Blood Pressure and May Lead to Headaches
One potential reason that salt causes headaches is related to high blood pressure.
The question is does high blood pressure lead to headaches?
Well, it is difficult to provide an explicit answer to this question. Because there are contradicting findings and opinions.
While some ( researchers, medical doctors, and scientists ) say headaches can occur as a result of high blood pressure, other medical experts can’t see a strong link between the two.
The American Heart Association suggest that high blood pressure, in general, does not bring about headaches. However, if blood pressure numbers reach 180/120mm or higher, a condition is known as a hypertensive crisis, (which requires immediate medical attention) occurs and that may lead to headaches (22),(23),(24).
As said above, results and opinions are mixed as to whether or not high blood pressure leads to headaches.
However, if hypertension leads to headaches (as claimed by many), then we can say that excessive salt consumption is an indirect cause of headaches. This is because eating too much salt can increase high blood pressure, as medical research proved.
Salt Can Cause Headaches Independent of Hypertension
It has been known that too much sodium intake can either cause high blood pressure or make it worse. And, high blood pressure has the potential to trigger headaches, as we discussed above.
However, research from Johns Hopkins University suggests that high sodium consumption can lead to headaches independent of high blood pressure.
Here are the details…
The Details of the Study
Approximately 400 adults, with either pre-hypertension or stage I hypertension, participated in the study.
The study consisted of three 30-day periods.
Participants followed a high sodium diet in one period, an intermediate sodium diet in another period and a low sodium diet (known as the DASH diet) in another period.
After each 30-day diet period, the participants completed questionnaires that contained questions on the frequency and severity of their headaches during the study.
What Were the Results of the Study?
The results showed that those who ate a high sodium diet (around 8 grams a day) had approximately 25% more headaches than those who ate a low sodium diet (4 grams a day).
How Did Researchers Interpret the Results?
Dr Lawrence Appel, director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine said “Reduced dietary sodium intake offers a novel approach to prevent headaches.”
Lawrence and his team also noted that more research is necessary to replicate these findings.
Limitations of the Study
It is important to note that there were some limitations in the study. Here are some of them.
- Only those who were with either pre-hypertension or stage I hypertension participated in the study.
- It wasn’t revealed the prevalence of headaches in the participants before the study.
- The participants only completed questionnaires, so it was self-reported data.
- Researchers didn’t reveal the types of headaches the participants suffered from during the study.
Conclusion About the Study
Although there were some limitations, this study further supported the positive correlation between headaches and excessive salt consumption.
Plus, the study showed that excessive salt consumption may bring about headaches without increasing blood pressure.
Though, as the authors noted more research is needed to fully understand the mechanism behind sodium consumption and headaches.
How Much Salt You Should Consume a Day?
What we can infer from everything we have discussed thus far is that when eaten too much, salt can cause headaches along with other serious health conditions.
So, eating salt in moderation should be the goal. How much sodium should you consume a day?
According to the American Heart Association; an adult should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. Though the ideal limit is 1,500 mg a day for most adults. (26).
Sings of Too Much Salt Consumption
If you consume too much sodium ( without even realising you do ), you may develop some of the signs given below (27). Note: these signs can also emerge as a result of other health problems.
- Having frequent headaches
- Constant urge to urinate
- Persistent Thirst
- Swelling in strange places (too much sodium can even cause under-eye bags)
- Cravings for Salty Foods
What Can Be Done To Avoid Salt-Induced Headaches?
Needless to say, the most logical way to avoid salt-induced headaches is to limit your daily sodium intake. By doing so you may have fewer headaches, plus, protect yourself against the consequences of too much sodium consumption.
Additionally, if you think eating salt triggers headaches in you, consider increasing your water intake. If not for headaches, drinking enough water during the day can offer many benefits to your body.
Finally, making your own food as often as possible would prevent you from eating too much sodium that exists in many pre-packed and fast foods.
Headache is Common Problem Worldwide
Regardless of the underlying cause, if you get often headaches, you should know you are not alone.
Headaches are quite a common neurologic disorder around the world.
According to the NHS; more than 10 million people in the UK experience headaches on a regular basis (29).
Other Foods Linked to Headaches
There are other food items that can surprise you with their headache-inducing effects.
Knowing your headache food triggers, whether it is salt, coffee and etc. may help you control your headaches.
Here are some foods items that are scientifically associated with headaches.
Since studies are scarce, we can’t conclude that ” too much sodium can certainly cause headaches”.
However, a growing body of evidence says that eating too much salt may result in headaches, even independent of high blood pressure.
Indeed, more research is needed to comprehend how exactly too much sodium triggers headaches. However, until these studies arrive salt remains a potential headache trigger.
Remember, when it comes to headaches, everyone can have different food triggers. While some get headaches due to salt consumption, others can have headaches from eating raw garlic.
To know whether salt plays a role in your headaches, it is wise to cut back your salt intake. In doing so, you can find out whether or not too much salt causes headaches in you.
However, if you constantly get headaches, we strongly recommend you work with your doctor!
In doing so, you can explore the underlying cause of your headaches and implement the best treatment on your doctor’s instruction.
In all conditions; consuming salt in moderation can contribute to your overall health.
Tarkan is an experienced health writer ( currently more than 600 articles ) and also the founder of this website namely www.neededforhealth.com. His expertise in health stems from in-depth medical research and knowledge which he obtained over the course of many years.
Tarkan enjoys sharing factual knowledge on health, psychology and nutrition. He always aims to deliver evidence-based recommendations, provide links to related scientific studies.