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Food Triggers for Migraines

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on December 05, 2020

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 of 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 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:

  • Baked goods with yeast, such as sourdough bread, bagels, doughnuts, and coffee cake
  • Chocolate
  • Cultured dairy products (like yogurt and kefir)
  • Fruits or juices such as citrus fruits, dried fruits, bananas, raspberries, red plums, papayas, passion fruit, figs, dates, and avocados
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Olives
  • Soy products (miso, tempeh, soy sauce)
  • Tomatoes
  • Vegetables like onions, pea pods, some beans, corn, and sauerkraut
  • Vinegar

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.

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 unusual 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.

Eat more “mini” meals. Instead of three large meals each day, opt for five or six 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.

Manage 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 keep a healthy weight.

How to Do an Elimination Diet

If you suspect that certain foods or drinks trigger your migraine, an elimination diet could help. You'll cut out foods and drinks that can trigger migraines and then slowly add them back. If your migraine symptoms return, it may be a sign that it's because of a certain food.

Talk to your doctor before giving it a try. You'll want to make sure that it's safe for you and learn how to fine-tune the food plan for your needs.

Go slow

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

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 start eating it again.

Keep a food journal

A diary will help you keep track of your diet. If you get a migraine, don't look only at what you ate that day. Go back as far as 3 days before.

Sometimes, people crave the foods that will trigger their migraine. If you suspect a certain food or drink, remove it from your diet again for at least a month.

Think about your medicines

If your symptoms don't go away during this diet, your doctor may want to look at all prescription and over-the-counter drugs that you take. Some common meds, like those that treat acne, asthma, and heart disease, can bring on a migraine. So can some birth control pills and weight loss supplements.

Don't stop or change any of your medication doses until you get the go-ahead from your doctor.

An elimination diet isn't foolproof

Since migraines have many triggers that aren’t food or drink, keep in mind that the diet may not give you all the answers.

And for this diet to work, it's important to stick with the plan. There are lots of foods to cut out, and you'll need to be committed to seeing it through. But if you stay the course, you may come away with a plan of action for preventing a migraine headache.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

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,” "Migraine and Diet," "Caffeine and Migraine."

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,” "Does Caffeine Trigger or Treat Headaches?"

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health: "Headache Elimination Diet."

The Johns Hopkins Lupus Center: "Migraine Prevention Diet."

National Migraine Centre: "Food and Migraine."

Today's Dietitian: "Migraine Headaches -- Here's How to Identify Food Triggers and Reduce Debilitating Symptoms."

The Journal of Headache and Pain: "Nutrition intervention for migraine: a randomized crossover trial."

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