Food Triggers for Migraines

There are all sorts of things that can trigger migraines. For some people, it might just be lunch.

Studies have proven only a few foods, or substances in foods, seem to bring on headaches in a lot of people. 

"I don't recommend a particular diet to anybody with migraines. But if somebody says, 'Anytime I eat Brie cheese I get a migraine,' well then, don't do that," says B. Lee Peterlin, DO. She's the director of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Headache Research.

"The data does not support many of the often-cited food triggers, including chocolate. However, it is sound advice if a patient feels a particular food may be a headache trigger to remove it from your diet. If you put it back in your diet and headaches return, then it likely is a real trigger for you."

Here's a look at some of the common foods and drinks that have been linked to headaches in some people who are prone to migraines.

Alcohol

"Alcohol is definitely a trigger," says Cleveland Clinic neurologist Stewart Tepper, MD. "There are people who clearly cannot drink alcohol without having it trigger an attack. Some of the most common drinks that cause headaches are red wine, beer, champagne, whiskey, and Scotch.

Theories about why alcohol might cause headaches include:

  • In wine, it may be the sulfites, which are put in to preserve it.
  • Alcohol causes more blood to rush to your head, which might cause head pain.
  • When you drink alcohol, you can get dehydrated, which may trigger migraines.

The best way to dodge an alcohol-induced headache is to avoid drinking. But if you want an occasional drink,  don’t be surprised if a migraine follows.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a double-edged sword when it comes to headaches. In small doses, it can help ease the pain. You'll find it in many non-prescription migraine medicines.

But if you have a lot of caffeine -- say, more than two sodas or two cups of coffee a day -- you can get a migraine from withdrawal when you drink less.

"My best advice in regards to caffeine and migraines is to drink the same amount regularly," Peterlin says.

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Food Additives

Things that are put in foods for taste, color, or to keep them fresh can sometimes trigger headaches.

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a common cause of migraines. MSG is added to some foods -- probably best known in Chinese restaurants -- to make them taste better. MSG headaches may have one or more of the following:

  • Pulsing pain
  • Pain on both sides of your head
  • Flushing in your face
  • Dizziness
  • Burning in your chest, neck, or shoulders
  • Stomach pain
  • Gets worse when you're active

Nitrates and nitrites, which are found in processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meat, might give you a migraine. They're used to keep the meats fresh. If you're sensitive to them, they can expand the blood vessels in your brain, triggering headache pain. If you know they bother you, look for nitrate- and nitrite-free foods.

You may also get a migraine after drinking a soda sweetened with aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), or from foods that are colored with yellow dye No. 6, which is used in some snacks, drinks, and candy.

Aged Cheese and More

If eating cheese makes your head hurt, it's usually an aged type like Swiss, Parmesan, cheddar, or Brie. Aged cheese is high in tyramine, a natural chemical found in some foods. If you're sensitive to it, foods that have it can launch a migraine.

Other foods high in tyramine include processed meat (salami, pepperoni, lunch meat), pickles, olives, certain beans (snow peas, fava, broad), and nuts.

Some other foods that may trigger your migraines include:

  • Chocolate
  • Cultured dairy products (yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream)
  • Figs, raisins, and avocados
  • Yeast bread, doughnuts, or other pastries

Set a Schedule

It isn't just what you eat that can bring on the pain -- it's how often you eat it.

"Far more important than identifying every little thing in your diet is to eat regular meals. Skipping a meal is far more frequently reported as a headache trigger than even individual food triggers," Peterlin says.

Anytime you change your normal routine -- whether it's adding more stress, eating at a different time, or getting less sleep -- that can cause a headache to happen, she says. People who get migraines do best with boring regularity, she says.

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It's also important to watch your overall health, says Sandra Allonen, a registered dietitian with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She recommends you:

  • Eat small, frequent meals.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Choose whole-grain, high-fiber foods and lean proteins to slow down digestion and keep your blood sugar levels stable.
  • Get regular exercise and plenty of sleep.
  • Manage stress.

"And keep a food journal where you write down food and beverages consumed, environmental issues, plus your sleep, stress, and exercise patterns," Allonen says. "Keep track of everything, because it's really an individual thing. You are your health care guardian."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 19, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

B. Lee Peterlin, DO, associate professor of neurology; director, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Headache Research.

Sandra Allonen, RD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Cleveland Clinic: "Headaches & Food."

International Headache Society: "The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition."

National Headache Foundation: "Low Tyramine Headache Diet."

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