If you have migraine, you likely already know that it can be influenced by a number of factors, based on your genes as well as your environment.
Although scientists are still exploring the neurological mechanisms that trigger migraines, lifestyle modifications — coupled with appropriate medication — can be a powerful way to help manage your symptoms.
Those lifestyle adjustments can include what you eat and how you manage your eating habits from day to day. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all diet for people with migraine, here are 6 foods to watch out for:
- Processed and cured meats: Nitrates and nitrites are essentially salts commonly added to meats like salami, sausage, and bacon to extend their shelf-life. The salty additives bind with iron in the blood and can affect oxygen delivery to the brain. The body reduces nitrates and nitrites to nitric oxide, a highly active blood vessel dilator which can trigger throbbing head pain. Certain heart attack medications such as glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) also produce nitric oxide and can likewise cause the intense pain of migraine.
- Dairy products: It may be surprising, but yogurt and other cultured dairy products such as cheese may trigger your migraine. These products are high in tyramine, an amino acid linked with migraine for decades. Tyramine in stronger cheeses (cheddar, camembert, gouda, gruyere, parmesan, provolone, Roquefort, stilton, aged feta and goat cheese) can affect the adrenaline system to cause vasoconstriction and rebound headache.
- Red wine: This one’s probably not so surprising. Alcohol can trigger head pain, and that glass of cabernet at the end of a long day might be especially likely to affect you. Red wines, of course, contain more grape skin than whites. Grape skins contain histamine, which can make you more susceptible to migraine, and tannins, which release serotonin that can cause head pain in some people. Congeners — impurities in the distilling process or substances added to impart aroma and flavor to darker alcohols such as red wine, whisky and brandy — can also trigger migraine and hangover.
- Baked goods with yeast: Although most people can enjoy nutritional yeast, tyramine is again present here and, for some, can potentially instigate head pain.
- Food additives — monosodium glutamate (MSG), histamine, aspartame, and sucralose: MSG is a very common food additive in canned foods, frozen foods, instant noodles, chips and other snacks. Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners used in “sugar-free” and reduced-sugar products can alter the gut biome and are also listed as common triggers for migraine.
- Caffeinated drinks: Caffeine triggers a migraine episode for some people, yet can help relieve head pain for others. Try to avoid fluctuations in your caffeine intake — those ups and downs can be a migraine trigger. Learn about caffeine withdrawal headache in our blog.
Although these 6 foods are common sources of migraine pain, the list is by no means all-inclusive. For some sensitive people, potential trigger foods could also include citrus fruits; ice cream; garlic, most beans, including fava, pinto, lentils, and snow peas; tomatoes; onions; corn; olives; soy products, like miso, tempeh, or soy sauce; bananas; raspberries; papayas; avocadoes; and even chicken liver and other organ meats.
It’s not necessary, of course, to eliminate all these foods from your diet, particularly if you’ve never experienced head pain from them. A food that causes one person’s migraine may have no effect on the next person.
Your optimal migraine treatment plan is one tailored to your own body and individual needs. Work with your doctor and loved ones to uncover your possible migraine-trigger foods and make sure your dietary habits support your needs.
If you do suspect that some elements of your diet may be causing your head pain, one approach is to try an elimination diet. Elimination diets have shown to be effective in identifying specific food triggers.
First, over a 2- to 3-week period, stop consuming any foods that you suspect might be triggering your migraine symptoms. Then, reintroduce those foods back into your diet gradually, one by one, and observe any possible symptoms. Allow 2 to 3 days to assess each one and note any symptoms that result. Overall, this process may take 5 or 6 weeks.
Some things to remember during your elimination diet:
- If you have a known or suspected food allergy, conduct your elimination diet under your doctor’s supervision.
- Try eating 5 small meals a day to stay regularly nourished as you evaluate your reaction to food items.
- Keep track of the foods you’re eliminating and re-introducing, as well as any resulting symptoms.
- Think of the process as “replacing,” rather than “eliminating.” For example, if you’re cutting out bread or cereals with gluten, replace them with gluten-free options on the market. No need to give up your morning cereal!
- A good rule of thumb: choose fresh items over their processed counterparts. For example, try simple home-made dressings in place of bottled ones. Replace processed meats with lean proteins and omega-3 rich foods like salmon.
- At the end of the process, if you find you want to eliminate several different foods, discuss with your doctor or dietitian to avoid a nutritional deficiency.
- Above all, be patient with the process, yourself, and your body. Food is fuel and should bring joy and healing into your life, not anxiety or stress.
Keeping track of your symptoms — even smaller clues, changes, or patterns — can inform a headache specialist to help diagnose your migraine, triggers, and risk factors, and begin to bring you relief.
Armed with this knowledge, the specialist can tailor treatment individually to you — a critical step, as every person’s migraine experience is unique to them. The right combination of treatments and lifestyle changes can put you on the right track to relief from frequent or severe migraines.
Ready for a new approach? Mable can help guide you toward individualized migraine relief with diagnoses based on your personal DNA. Take our DNA quiz to explore what type of treatment may be right for you.