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Food Triggers for Migraines

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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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