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Identifying Food Triggers for Migraines

Experts explain the link between diet and migraines.
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WebMD Feature

As headaches go, migraines are in a league of their own.

Migraines typically produce pulsating pain on one side of the head. That can lay you low for up to 72 hours.

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About 20% of people with migraines have headaches preceded by aura, which can include:

  • Blinking lights
  • Blurred vision
  • Blind spots or zigzags in your field of vision

Aura may also include numbness or tingling on one side of the body. Aura without head pain is also a form of migraine.

Migraines are often prompted by one or more triggers, including:

  • Emotional stress
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Diet

Here's a look at the way the foods you eat may have an impact on migraine headaches.

Why It's Tough to Target Food Triggers

Certain foods are often blamed for provoking migraines. But scientific evidence linking food to migraine is sparse, and in some cases, nonexistent.

"It may be the case that food triggers migraine," says Elizabeth Loder, MD. Loder is co-author of The Migraine Solution

"For the most part, people have different food triggers. So it's hard to define a list that applies to all headaches," Loder tells WebMD.

Other reasons make it tough to target food triggers.

Foods may become triggers only when combined with other, stronger headache-starters, such as stress and hormonal changes. 

"If you're feeling stressed, you skip breakfast and then you eat a hot dog for lunch. I'm not so sure you can blame the hot dog for your migraine," says Dawn Marcus, MD. Marcus is the author of The Woman's Migraine Toolkit and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. 

A suspect food may not trigger a migraine every time. In addition, an attack may depend on the amount of the food you eat. To further muddy the waters, you may not get a headache for several hours to several days after eating a trigger food.

Identifying Your Personal Food Triggers

Identifying your personal food triggers can be complicated. Experts say it's worth keeping a food diary to determine whether a food bothers you. But they also say there's no need to avoid common migraine-causing foods if they don't bring on your headaches.

Here are some of the foods and liquids that are often blamed for migraines:

Alcohol. Alcohol is one of the least controversial food triggers, largely because it starts migraines in motion in so many migraine sufferers. For some people, just a few sips produce pounding head pain. Red wine is often cited for starting migraines. But any type of alcoholic beverage can provoke headaches in people prone to migraine.

Caffeine. Caffeine can help, and hinder, headache patients. Caffeine improves the body's absorption of some pain medications used to relieve headache. But too much caffeine can spark a migraine, Loder says.

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