Food Triggers for Migraines

Medically Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on February 27, 2015
4 min read

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

Studies have proven only a few foods, or things 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, 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 migraines.

"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 added to keep it fresh.
  • Alcohol causes more blood to rush to your head, which might cause 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 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 nonprescription 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.

Things that are put in foods to add taste, add 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 to make them taste better. It's famous for its use in Chinese restaurants. 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. Doctors think they might 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, or from foods that are colored with yellow dye No. 6, which is used in some snacks, drinks, and candy.

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

It isn't just what you eat that can bring on the pain. It's also 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.

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 adds. "Keep track of everything, because it's really an individual thing. You are your health care guardian."