If you're one of the 38 million Americans who regularly get migraines, you probably want to do all you can to figure out why. Many people blame what they eat. But there's really no proof that diet triggers migraines. Still, experts agree that many things can cause them -- including a particular food.
"If someone tells me that a certain food triggers their migraines, I'm not going to argue with them. They should avoid that food," says Lucy Rathier, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.
Carol Ford is quite certain that red wine is one of her triggers. "I love to drink it, but I usually pay a big price when I do," she says. She's not alone. One out of 3 people who have migraines say alcohol is a trigger.
Booze's effects have been proven in studies, says Noah Rosen, MD, director of the Headache Center at the Cushing Neuroscience Institute. "People single out red wine or dark liquors, but unfortunately, any alcohol can be a trigger."
There are many theories about this. One is that alcohol dehydrates you. And it has certain chemicals that seem to set the stage for these headaches. But doctors aren't exactly sure why.
Booze isn't the only culprit. There's also evidence that two common food ingredients may trigger migraines:
MSG (monosodium glutamate). This food additive is in a wide range of processed, packaged, and restaurant foods. It's used to enhance flavor. Studies show it causes migraines in up to 15% of people.
Caffeine. If you've ever skipped your morning coffee, you might've paid for it with a raging headache. It's a sign of withdrawal. Some caffeine may be helpful because it eases swelling that can cause migraines -- it’s also an ingredient in some pain relievers. "But if you drink more than 120 mg a day and you miss 60 mg," that can lead to a withdrawal headache, Rosen says.
So, if you're going to drink caffeine, don't overdo it. Note: A cup of coffee packs 95 mg and a cup of tea has about half that.
What about foods like aged cheeses and preserved meats? Rosen calls these "speculated" foods, because there's no scientific proof that they trigger migraines. But many people say they do. Even trickier, Rosen says, are triggers that aren't widely shared. For instance, he has two patients who get migraines when they eat garlic. "It's not common, but in these people it may be the case," he says.