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Nutrition Articles  ›  Special Concerns

Common Foods that Can Trigger Migraines

How Your Diet Can Cause a Headache

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian
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Often described as an intense throbbing or pulsing in one specific area of the head, a migraine headache is a condition that can't--and shouldn't--be ignored. This severe headache can last for a few hours or up to several days. People who suffer from migraines are often left incapacitated, seeking a dark, quiet place to rest and recuperate.
 
While there are many causes of migraines--and just as many treatment options--looking at your diet is a great place to start.
 
The foods you eat, how long you go between meals, and the nutritional balance of your meals (ratio of protein to carbohydrates to fat) can all be migraine triggers. Anything that disrupts the body’s normal stability can cause a headache. Skipping meals, fasting and experiencing low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can trigger migraines in some people; eating extremely cold foods can act as the catalyst for others. It is therefore important to maintain a daily headache journal to note the timing of each meal and snack, as well as the foods and beverages you consume if you suspect your diet may be causing your headaches.
 
TIP: If you're already using SparkPeople's free Nutrition Tracker to log your meals and nutrition, it can double as your headache journal. Jot down your notes about meal timing, spacing of meals, or other possible triggers that aren't related to food (jet lag, stress, poor sleep) in the "Today's Nutrition Notes" section (located just below the food tracker). You can then easily print out your report to take to your doctor appointments.
 
Be diligent and look for patterns in your daily headache journal that will provide the clues needed to determine your food triggers. For example:  Do you often suffer with a migraine 2-3 days after consuming aged cheese or wine? When you become crazy-busy at work and skip lunch, do you suffer with a migraine the following day? This process can be time-consuming and labor intensive, but think of the relief you will experience--and the decrease in migraine frequency and duration--when you discover your triggers. Your treatment plan will be more effective and beneficial. 
 
Common Migraine Triggers in Foods
In the beginning stages of identifying the foods that trigger your migraine, first focus on these big categories.
  • Alcohol: While red wine is most often cited as a migraine trigger because it contains tyramine (more on that below), all alcoholic beverages can be triggers for certain people. Experiment to discover your specific list of drinks.
  • Caffeine: Interestingly, research has shown that caffeine may help with the absorption of some pain medications used to treat migraines. But too much caffeine can trigger migraines in many people.  Finding your individualized caffeine allotment is crucial. Limiting caffeine intake to no more than 200 milligrams daily (the amount in 1 to 2 cups of coffee, depending on how it's brewed) is often recommended, although some people may discover that they fare better when avoiding caffeine completely. Remember that coffee and tea aren't the only caffeine sources. Soda, energy drinks, chocolate and pain killers like Excedrin also contain caffeine.
  • Tyramine: This naturally occurring monoamine compound is found in plants and animals. However, with fermentation, decay (or over-ripening) and processing, foods can develop even larger amounts.  Tyramine is a migraine trigger for many. Foods to watch include: red wine, beer, avocados, overripe bananas, aged cheese, pork, fermented soy products, nuts, chocolate and meats that have been pickled, aged, smoked and fermented.
  • Tannins: This bitter plant compound is found in large amounts in coffee, tea, chocolate, red wine and apple juice. 
Food Additives:  The food additives to monitor as possible migraine triggers include:
  • Aspartame, the artificial sweetener that goes by trade names such as Nutra-sweet and Equal.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor-enhancing ingredient used in many foods such as salad dressing, frozen dinners, Chinese food, canned vegetables, canned soups and processed meats.
  • Nitrates and nitrites. These food additives are used to preserve a food’s color, enhance flavor, and protect against dangerous and toxic bacterial growth. They can be found in hot dogs, bacon, ham, processed poultry and cured meats. 
Just Show Me the List:
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • I've had migraines forever. I take medication every day to help quell them. However, if I eat certain trigger foods I will have a breakthrough migraine. Sometimes even the smell of some foods can trigger migraines for me. I wish more people understood how easily migraines could be triggered and could be more compassionate about understanding the effects of migraines. - 5/7/2014 9:47:59 AM
  • IAMFAT5498
    What I have not seen is anyone having headaches every day of their lives. That is what I have had unless I am on some kind of meds. I have tried everything else. My Mother said even as a small child I had headaches. I am now 71 and still have to be on medication and after being on one have to change to - 3/24/2014 2:44:02 PM
  • I disagree with the safe foods under grains. Gluten is a HUGE migraine trigger, which is in all wheat, barley and rye products. If gluten is triggering your migraines you can't have english muffins, bagels or pasta made with wheat.

    Gluten is my trigger. Yeah, its hard, but it's worth avoiding. I haven't had a migraine in 6 months- I was having them 2-3 times week. - 12/14/2013 8:19:45 AM
  • As I've gotten older mine have mostly been just that aura that comes and goes. I got that at mile 11 of my half marathon in October and it was very hard not to tense up and freak out thinking I might be getting my first full-blown migrane in ages.

    Fortunately, the light show grew and disappeared & that was that.

    My granddaughter has just hit puberty and is suffering mightily. But she's a smart girl and is trying to track what she eats and what she does so we're hoping we can find her triggers. - 11/26/2013 7:00:40 AM
  • Suffered from severe migraines for many years but was never able to find a trigger food, but knew bright sunshine on water or snow triggered them.
    Hysterectomy put an end to migraines, but I still occasionally have the "aural vision" that preceded the headache.
    And this winter I had two episodes my friends said were "silent migraines".
    An endocronologist once told me a migraine is really a form of seizure. I agreed since my body quivered inside when I had one.
    Unfortunately some of my children and grandchildren suffer migraines. - 6/20/2013 7:44:37 PM
  • BAMAJAM
    My severe headaches were frequent, and they were torture for me----each one lasting days, along with violent nausea. Menopause was my relief! My doctor said the same "cure" happened to his mother. There is a downside to menopause for some women, but not for me. I am lucky indeed that the change in hormones was my successful cure to this wretched pain--! - 6/20/2013 2:53:25 PM
  • FKBENSON82
    So, this is my first spark people comment, but it's so close to home. I've had migraines and other types of debilitating headaches for as long as I can remember. When I started investigating nutritional ways of treating my boys' Tourettes I became aware of migraine triggers in myself as well. My two BIG triggers are autolyzed yeast extract and red food dye, besides the better known culprits aspartame and sugary foods for a hypoglycemic. I've found just trying to stick with natural/whole foods is best for me. I'm probably the biggest and quickest label reader I know now, mostly because I know just what to look for. Could you possibly include tips on how to detect these triggers for those who are unsure. Thanks for sparking! - 6/20/2013 11:18:45 AM
  • DBRADLEY84
    I have had migraines for over 50 yrs. And I have tried everything under the sun. When I stopped trying so many things that were recommended and were supposedly cures for the headaches , I felt better. I tried too hard to make them work. I was too busy worryinb about what not to eat or do, I was causing the headaches to get worse. I still have the headaches but not as often. - 6/20/2013 10:48:11 AM
  • Interesting, but I see sugar listed as a safe food and as an OK ingredient in many foods. I know many people in addition to me who find sweets to be a trigger. So I know to also avoid any concentrated sugar products.
    - 6/20/2013 10:20:46 AM
  • I have a minimum of 2-6 migraines a month and honestly food is usually not the trigger. I eat wheat all the time, in fact every day for breakfast I eat either Multigrain Cheerios or some form of flake cereal. (Some have thought Gluten was the culprit). I love cheese, especially sharp, so that is all we eat. I choose mustard over ketchup for the calories and it doesn't trigger anything. I don't drink caffeine, it makes me emotional, it doesn't give me migraines. I don't drink alcohol either.

    So, I look at this article and think, "ya ya whatever, doesn't apply the, what else to you have??"

    I know smells bother me, lights bother, so no flashing lights or bright ones right in my eyes.

    So, my search continues. Thanks anyway.

    rumbamel - 6/20/2013 9:45:08 AM
  • I had severe migraines from my college days to about 56yrs old. They were diagnosed as cluster migraines because they would come and go lasting about 2-3 months, then going away for 6 months to sometimes 2 years. When I was in a cycle I had to avoid any alcohol, chinese food, and Cheez-its!
    So now that I am 60, I have been migraine free for 4 1/2 years. I am convinced they had to be tied to hormonal imbalances. Now that I am past menopause, I am free.

    To those of you still suffering from these horrible headaches, my heart goes out to you. Many times I thought, "please just let me die." I did find one thing that worked well during my last 3 cycles. The doctor ordered oxygen for me. I kept an oxygen tank ready and at the first signs of a headache I would breathe oxygen through a mask for 5-10 minutes. It stopped the headache in its tracks. Just a thought. - 6/20/2013 8:05:49 AM
  • LLOYDIS
    I had been experiencing migraines for many many years (30), until i eventually decided enough is enough!! Through the food elimination process, i finally discovered that processed cheese and margarine were the main culprits! Further experiments proved that anatto was indeed the main cause for my migraines. Since avoiding the processed cheeses, and going for organic cheese only, and substituting margarine for butter, i no longer have migraines. I am totally cured of this horrible menace!! :-) - 6/20/2013 7:14:37 AM
  • I've been having migraines of varying severity (from "annoying pain behind my left ear" to "dark room no noise now!") since I was a teen. I can prevent them from becoming overwhelming by taking a high dose of OTC pain meds with a full pot of coffee at the onset, or I have to knock myself out with a custom-made cocktail if the method doesn't help.

    The only trigger foods I have are MSG and artificial anything (especially artificial food coloring- hello blue raspberry!). Everything else has no impact at all or is helpful. - 6/20/2013 4:56:06 AM
  • Been dealing with migraines almost all my life, as has my father, two brothers and my sister. All of us just about share the main trigger off MSG - usually the stuff in Chinese food and soy sauce and the likes. I try to avoid that as much as possible now, as well as keeping up my balance between caffeine drinks and water. ALWAYS stay hydrated, as that can trigger migraines as well. - 6/16/2013 11:06:52 PM
  • M-F-PECK
    Sounds like a complete list. Doesn't leave much to enjoy. - 6/9/2013 10:06:14 AM