Nutrition Articles

Common Foods that Can Trigger Migraines

How Your Diet Can Cause a Headache

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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

  • Suffered severe migraines from age 12 until I had total hysterectomy about age 50. I could never trace them to any food I ate. - 10/16/2014 10:05:51 PM
  • While many things can and will trigger a migraine, one must be very careful not to automatically reach for things such as magnesium, without checking on whether your body actually needs it. An overdose of these minerals have very serious medical side effects. - 10/16/2014 2:00:00 AM
  • AVALONR
    I know this thread is about food and it seems my only remaining food trigger these days is anything with oranges in it. When I was 35 I started having migraines almost daily. Fortunately, Imitrex worked for me so I was able to function although it was costing me thousands of dollars every year because insurance would not pay for the quantity I needed. At the age of 56, I started a diet and exercise regimen because I was overweight. I ended up training for triathlons so I am swimming, biking, and / or running six days a week anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. Yes, I still work full time and take care of my aging father. A few months ago, I realized my migraines were almost completely gone. It must be a side effect of all the exercise I am doing. So never underestimate the benefits you can receive from exercise. I was not expecting that. I eat almost anything I want now too. - 10/15/2014 1:17:12 PM
  • Silly me. I meant that I'm especially bad with foods that still have fungal fermentation going on. I have an uncanny ability to taste Aspergillus and other not-so-true fungi, so blue cheese, another one of my trigger foods, is absolutely off my plate. :( - 10/14/2014 8:47:12 PM
  • Chocolate and MSG are my main migraine trigger foods -- I've had to become an obsessive label reader, since MSG pops in the most random of places!

    In general, though, if something is fermented (except tea and baked goods), I never eat a lot of it (I'm especially bad with fungal fermentation). It's always a good thing to find out how things are made! - 10/14/2014 8:09:14 PM
  • I used to have migraines monthly, they started probably around 20 years ago. I found that it was chocolate that triggered them. When I'm PMSing I crave chocolate, so I'd indulge and then came the migraine. I've had to learn to control the cravings. I can have chocolate in small amounts without getting a migraine. - 10/14/2014 3:03:58 PM
  • I've had migraines since I was 10 and I just turned 60 last month. I'm glad that aspartame is finally on the list of triggers. Ever since it was introduced I've told my doctors it's a trigger and they told me I just didn't want to drink diet soda. Dieticians gave me heck over it too because you need to use this because of your diabetes. Well, I told them all to go straight to you know where because it was a migraine trigger. Thank you, whomever finally decided it was. - 10/14/2014 2:12:13 PM
  • I had migraines monthly for years and I believe they were hormonal in nature. When I first started getting them I remember thinking they were like hangovers I would have when I drank too much when I was younger. When I started learning about migraine triggers I realized that in my younger days I drank a lot of red wine!! Since I had a hysterectomy I've only had one migraine....and that was 17-18 years ago. - 10/14/2014 1:56:18 PM
  • SAMASTERS
    I have suffered from debilitating migraines since my concussion at 12ish. They got better when the orthodontist realigned my jaw (that may help for some out there). Then of course body chemistry changes over time and it must have gone back to normal jaw, or something because all of a sudden 3 years ago they came back with a vengeance! holy cow! Any way, my point is that Migraine Support Formula (they have a website if anyone is curious) has really help lesson the frequency and severity but they still come. And when they do, it's crippling. I got off daily meds that were hurting me more on the insides than helping my pain.
    I will take your gluten free comments in to consideration! thank you for that! I will do a vege juicer detox tonight to help my liver because I just had a 'level 10 migraine for 2 days' thats as bad as they get. lotsa stress last week that built up. Also, I'm going to set a goal to do yoga and stress my muscle fibers and relax...those are two things that really need attention right now! yikes.
    I hope some of this helps you as other comments here have helped me. - 9/22/2014 1:22:25 PM
  • I suffered with chronic migraines for years! I finally eliminated gluten from my diet just to see what would happen and they have mostly disappeared! I hate having to be gluten free, but I hate the migraines more! - 8/19/2014 10:08:38 PM
  • JANETEMILY
    I started having migraines in my teens, but no one in my family realized they were migraines; my parents thought they were caused by sinus problems (this was the 70's, not as much research had been done). I don't remember them being caused by any particular food, I believe they were hormonal. I had my first child when I was 25, and never had another migraine after that! - 8/17/2014 5:19:36 PM
  • I take medication every day to prevent migraines, but will have breakthrough migraines if I eat certain foods. Thankfully I have a pretty good grasp of what those foods are, although it took years and way too many migraines to figure out what those foods were. I'm allergic to all UV light, so I have to always wear protective lenses and have protective screens on windows, etc. Even a little bit of unfiltered UV light can cause a migraine like no other. Smells are also a big one for me, so the smell of aged cheeses, perfumes, lotions, cleaners, paint, etc can also trigger breakthrough migraines for me. Migraines are awful and not something I'd wish on anyone. - 8/17/2014 2:47:31 PM
  • MICKSMOM2
    My son has suffered from migraines since he was 3. He's 9 years old now. His migraines come on suddenly, with no warning signs like auras, etc. The really bad episodes cause vomiting, and he has to lie in a dark, quiet room. Once he is able to fall asleep, he is much improved afterwards. We have never been able to find a trigger for his migraines, so it's really frustrating. - 8/17/2014 8:08:24 AM
  • 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

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