If you're one of the 38 million Americans who regularly get migraines, you probably want to do all you can to figure out why. Many people blame what they eat. But there's really no proof that diet triggers migraines. Still, experts agree that many things can cause them -- including a particular food.
"If someone tells me that a certain food triggers their migraines, I'm not going to argue with them. They should avoid that food," says Lucy Rathier, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.
Alcohol and Migraines
Carol Ford is quite certain that red wine is one of her triggers. "I love to drink it, but I usually pay a big price when I do," she says. She's not alone. One out of 3 people who have migraines say alcohol is a trigger.
Booze's effects have been proven in studies, says Noah Rosen, MD, director of the Headache Center at the Cushing Neuroscience Institute. "People single out red wine or dark liquors, but unfortunately, any alcohol can be a trigger."
There are many theories about this. One is that alcohol dehydrates you. And it has certain chemicals that seem to set the stage for these headaches. But doctors aren't exactly sure why.
Booze isn't the only culprit. There's also evidence that two common food ingredients may trigger migraines:
- MSG (monosodium glutamate). This food additive is in a wide range of processed, packaged, and restaurant foods. It's used to enhance flavor. Studies show it causes migraines in up to 15% of people.
- Caffeine. If you've ever skipped your morning coffee, you might've paid for it with a raging headache. It's a sign of withdrawal. Some caffeine may be helpful because it eases swelling that can cause migraines -- it’s also an ingredient in some pain relievers. "But if you drink more than 120 mg a day and you miss 60 mg," that can lead to a withdrawal headache, Rosen says.
So, if you're going to drink caffeine, don't overdo it. Note: A cup of coffee packs 95 mg and a cup of tea has about half that.
What about foods like aged cheeses and preserved meats? Rosen calls these "speculated" foods, because there's no scientific proof that they trigger migraines. But many people say they do. Even trickier, Rosen says, are triggers that aren't widely shared. For instance, he has two patients who get migraines when they eat garlic. "It's not common, but in these people it may be the case," he says.
Is Food Causing Your Migraine? Here's How to Find Out
For a food to be considered a trigger, it should regularly give you a headache within 12 to 24 hours.
"If I drink wine with dinner, I usually feel fine when I go to bed," Ford says. "But my head is often pounding when I wake up."
The surest way to pinpoint your food triggers is to keep a diary. You can use a notebook or one of the many migraine apps out there. Most people have more than one trigger. So, you'll have the most success if you track long enough to take notes on 20 to 30 migraine attacks, Rosen says.
Once you've found what foods might be causing your migraines, remove them from your diet for a month, one at a time. Keep track of how often you have headaches and how bad they are. If there's no change, that food alone may not be the trigger. If there is a change, avoid eating it, especially when your risk of getting a migraine is high. In women, for example, this might be during certain times in their menstrual cycle.
If keeping a diary isn't your thing but you're willing to make changes to your diet, experts advise eating food that's as wholesome, fresh, and unprocessed as possible. That'll help you get rid of many of the supposed chemical triggers. It’s the closest thing there is to a migraine-prevention diet.
Consistency Is Key
Another benefit to tracking what you eat is that it may reveal that you get a headache when you don't eat or drink regularly.
"Skipping meals and dehydration are both significant triggers," Rosen says. "We know this from what's called 'Yom Kippur headache' or 'first day of Ramadan headache,' since both events require fasting."
Experts recommend that everyone eat five or six small meals throughout the day. But this is extra important if you have regular migraines. Studies show it can reduce headaches. As a bonus, it fires up your metabolism and prevents weight gain, another link to migraines.