Food Triggers for Migraines

Not every migraine is tied to a trigger. But if yours are, one of the best ways to prevent them is to learn your triggers and do your best to avoid them. For some people, that means saying no to certain foods.

Why Does Food Cause Headaches?

The exact cause for migraines isn’t known. But doctors agree that brief changes in your brain activity bring them on. These affect your blood vessels and nerve signals as well. The result: throbbing head pain that can sometimes last for days.

Many things can cause migraines, like medicine you take, changes in your hormones, and a lack of sleep. Your diet plays a part, too. In about 10% of people with these headaches, food is a trigger.

Foods to Watch Out For

Some common trigger foods include:

  • Bananas
  • Beans (like broad or fava)
  • Chocolate
  • Corn
  • Citrus fruits
  • Cultured dairy products (like yogurt and kefir)
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes

Cut Back on Cheese

Tyramine is a natural compound that forms in protein-rich foods as they age. It’s also a trigger for migraines. These cheeses are high in tyramine:

  • Blue
  • Brie
  • Cheddar
  • Feta
  • Mozzarella
  • Muenster
  • Parmesan
  • Swiss

Avoid These Additives

Chemicals added to food to enhance their flavor or help them stay fresh longer may bring on a headache:

MSG (monosodium glutamate): The main ingredient in soy sauce and meat tenderizer, MSG can spark a migraine within 20 minutes. It’s sometimes listed on packaged foods as “all natural preservatives” or “hydrolyzed protein.”

Nitrates and nitrites: These chemicals are found in many cured and processed meats, like hot dogs, ham, and bacon. Once they get into your system, they cause your blood vessels to swell, which can start a headache.

Aspartame: It’s unclear how this artificial sweetener, which is 150 times sweeter than sugar, causes headaches. More research is needed. Still, you may want to limit how much you use it.

Watch What You Drink, Too

You may have heard that red wine causes migraines, but other alcoholic drinks like beer, champagne, and hard liquor can also make your head pound. Certain ingredients in alcohol cause chemicals and blood vessels in your brain to act in an abnormal way. You don’t need to spend all night at a bar for this to happen. For some people, one boozy drink can be enough to trigger a headache.

Caffeine can cause headaches. But it isn’t wise to go cold turkey on your favorite drinks. That could lead to a withdrawal headache. Instead, you may need to limit your caffeine intake to no more than 200 milligrams a day. That’s about one small cup of coffee. Remember, it isn’t just hot drinks and some sodas that have caffeine. Chocolate has some, too.


Check Your Eating Habits

It isn’t just the food you eat that can trigger a migraine. Your eating habits play a role as well. You may get a headache if you:

  • Don’t eat enough
  • Don’t drink enough water
  • Skip meals

How to Hold Off Migraines

Take these steps to help stave off a migraine after you eat:

Choose better food. Eat as much wholesome, fresh food, like fruits and vegetables, as you can. Avoid processed and packaged foods. They might contain ingredients that will trigger a headache.

Eat more “mini” meals. Instead of three large meals during the day, opt for 5-6 small ones. This will prevent you from getting a headache because you’re hungry. You’re also less likely to eat a lot of a single food that could trigger a migraine.

Drink plenty of water. To stay hydrated, sip at least eight glasses of water each day.

Keep a “headache diary.” Track the foods you eat each day and the time you eat them. If one is a trigger, the headache will likely hit 12-24 hours afterward.

Manage your stress. Feeling tense and worried may be enough to make your head throb. Regular exercise can give you a sense of control of your feelings. It’ll also help you lose extra pounds or stay at a healthy weight.

Go slow when trying to ID food triggers. Don’t cut out everything that might cause a headache at once. That’ll only make it harder to figure out which ones really do affect you. Also, it’s a bad idea to restrict food for children and pregnant women.

Instead, cut out one potential food trigger at a time. Keep track of how you feel over the next month. This should help you decide whether the food in question is a problem, or if you can safely start eating it again.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Lawrence C. Newman, MD on January 09, 2019


NHS Choices: “Migraine,” “Migraine - Causes,” “Migraine - Symptoms.”

The Migraine Trust: “Common Triggers.”

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “Migraine Diet: A Natural Approach to Migraines.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Headaches and Food.”

Harvard Health Publications: “Food and migraine: a personal connection.”

Turkish Journal of Neurology: “The Relationship Between Migraine and Nutrition.”

American Migraine Foundation: “Alcohol and Migraine,” “Diet.”

Mayo Clinic: “Caffeine content in coffee, tea, soda and more,” “Migraine,” “Migraine self-management.”

National Headache Foundation: “Alcohol and Headaches,” “Low-Tyramine Diet for Migraine.”

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