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Identifying Food Triggers for Migraines

Experts explain the link between diet and migraines.

Identifying Your Personal Food Triggers continued...

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.

To minimize migraines, Loder recommends limiting caffeine to 200 milligrams a day. That's about the amount found in 8 ounces of coffee or four 12-ounce cans of cola.

If you take caffeine in excess, reduce the amount by a little every day. Don't quit caffeine cold turkey. If you do, you may end up with nagging head pain known as a rebound headache.

Chocolate. Chocolate cravings sometimes intensify with stress and hormonal changes, two strong migraine triggers. Women may blame chocolate for their migraines. But chocolate cravings could be a sign that a headache is on its way, and not a headache-starter. 

"Chocolate doesn't appear to play a significant role in triggering migraine headaches," Marcus says.

Marcus led a study of women who suffer from migraine or tension-type headaches. The women ate chocolate or carob, a chocolate substitute. The researchers concluded that chocolate is no more likely to provoke migraines than carob.

Tyramine and tannins. Foods with high levels of tyramine and tannins, two naturally occurring food compounds, may set off your migraine. But the scientific evidence backing them up as migraine-starters is not recent and is considered weak.

Tyramine is found in:

  • Red wine
  • Beer
  • Avocados
  • Overripe bananas
  • Aged cheeses
  • Pork
  • Soy-based foods
  • Certain processed meats
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate

Tannins are abundant in:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Chocolate
  • Red wine
  • Apple juice

Food additives and artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, has been blamed for migraine headaches. The same goes for food additives, including nitrates in processed meats and monosodium glutamate (MSG). But the scientific evidence for a link isn't conclusive.

It's natural to want to control migraines as much as possible. But when it comes to food, people can become needlessly stressed about what to avoid, Marcus cautions.

Loder agrees: "Controlling your diet is an appealing way to feel like you're helping your headaches. But try not to be overly concerned about food."

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