Living With Migraines

Migraine Diets and Food Triggers

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Migraine Diets and Food Triggers

One of the many tricky aspects of living with migraine is that an attack can sometimes be triggered by what you eat or drink. But these triggers can be different for everyone, and understanding how food and beverages impact you can be tricky when there are many other triggers—and migraines can come on unexpectedly, as well. Also, the diet changes that work for someone else with migraine may not work for you.

However, there are ways to get a sense of how your food and drink sources are affecting you, so you can reduce the likelihood of them triggering future migraine episodes.

Migraine Food and Drink Triggers: It’s Personal

According to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF), patients themselves have identified nearly all foods tied to migraine — not by scientific studies. That's why it's difficult to give concrete advice on what food and drinks you should avoid. The AMF says the most common food triggers reported by those with migraine are alcohol and chocolate.

Although a glass of wine might preclude a migraine for you at some point, this may not always be the case. That's because, rather than being an outright trigger, what you eat or drink may be one of many contributing factors when a migraine occurs. For example, maybe you had that glass of wine after not sleeping well the night before and having a stressful day at work, so sleep disturbances, stress, and wine together were what tipped you over the edge.

Is There a Migraine Diet?

Many people with migraine hope for a special diet that will cure them or reduce the severity and frequency of their attacks. And while there isn’t a particular “migraine diet” that will work for everyone, researchers have recently discovered some interesting findings.

A July 2021 study published in the journal BMJ found that people with migraine who ate a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids reported shorter and less severe headaches than those who ate a traditional American diet. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and are found in foods like salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. The results were especially noticeable when people also reduced their intake of omega-6 fatty acids, found in vegetable oil and corn oil, in processed foods like crackers and pastries.

Headache specialists recommend a well-balanced diet with as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible. This includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats such as omega-3s, as mentioned earlier. It's also good to limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg/day or the equivalent of one teaspoon of table salt, which you can do by cooking from scratch instead of eating processed foods, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Common Food and Drink Triggers

Many foods and drinks reported as triggers by people with migraine can be broken down into specific categories. These include:

  • Alcohol: 33 percent of people with migraine report alcohol as a trigger, according to the AMF. They often cite red wine as a surefire trigger, possibly because of components such as histamine and flavonoids. However, studies show that other drinks with alcohol are just as likely to cause a migraine—sometimes even more. The AMF states that alcohol in any alcoholic beverage is the potential trigger, not other substances.
  • Chocolate: 22 percent of people with migraine report chocolate as a trigger. But in possibly good news for chocolate lovers, there is insufficient evidence that this is a cause of migraine, according to a March 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients. Instead, researchers found people might eat chocolate before a migraine because of food cravings as part of the prodrome phase—the pre-headache or beginning stage of a migraine.
  • Processed meats: Processed meats like hot dogs and bacon contain high levels of nitrates and sulfites. These chemicals may preclude a migraine attack.
  • Caffeine: While caffeine can help relieve migraine, it can trigger a migraine in high doses for some people. Culprits include large amounts of coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soda, as well as chocolate. However, caffeine can be difficult to avoid altogether because it’s found in many foods, drinks, and supplements. Some surprising sources can include protein bars, multivitamins, and decaf coffee, says the AMF.
  • Aged cheeses: Aged and fermented foods like aged cheese, cured meats, and smoked fish contain a tyramine substance, which some people say can trigger their migraines. Beans and tropical fruits like pineapple contain tyramine as well.
  • Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners that contain a substance called aspartame may also be linked to migraine.
  • Foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG): MSG is a flavor enhancer often added to canned vegetables and soups, processed meat, and Chinese food. Some people with migraine report it as a trigger, but it may not be the MSG itself that is the problem. “For a long time, people thought MSG was a trigger, but it turns out that anything that's very salty, if you don't drink enough water to balance it out, that can trigger the migraine,” says Carolyn Bernstein, MD, FAHS, a neurologist who specializes in headache medicine at Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

None of these foods have been shown in scientific studies to cause migraine; not that they won’t but that their likely impact on migraine may have been exaggerated, according to the AMF. Only about 20 percent of people with headaches are thought to be food sensitive, says the Cleveland Clinic.

Keeping a Food Log

When you experience a migraine, many doctors advise people with migraine to help identify possible food triggers. Write the foods you eat each day.

If you get a headache within a few hours of eating a particular food, it might be a trigger. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the problem with this approach is that foods contain so many ingredients and chemicals that it's hard to pinpoint what exactly might impact you. And as mentioned, other factors, like stress, the weather, and your menstrual cycle if you're a woman, can affect you as well.

However, keeping a food log doesn't hurt. Suppose you think you've identified a particular trigger. In that case, you can eliminate it for a few months and see if that makes a difference. If you're trying to test over one potential trigger, stop only one at a time so you can get accurate data for each.

Food Tips to Minimize Migraines

Regardless of what your triggers may be, the way you space out your food and drink consumption during the day can help reduce your likelihood of another migraine episode.

  • Try eating five small meals a day to help keep yourself evenly sated. Eat a carbohydrate with a protein or healthy fat each time to stay full. Examples include cheese and fruit, an egg scrambled with tomato and onion, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or hummus and vegetable sticks.
  • Drink water throughout the day. One surefire way to reduce the likelihood of a migraine is to stay adequately hydrated throughout the day. You might take a water bottle with you when you go out or keep a glass of water handy at your desk while you work. It’s also good to skip sugary beverages like sports drinks, juices, and sodas.
  • Don’t skip meals. As tempting as it may be to forego food when you’re busy or tired, try to eat at your regular mealtimes—especially if you know that going too long between meals can trigger a migraine.

Getting a Handle on Your Food Triggers

Since certain foods and drinks are just some of the many things that can trigger migraine, it’s crucial to understand how other factors are influencing the frequency and severity of your episodes, too. The best way to do this is by working with a doctor who can help you understand your triggers, prescribe medication that can help, and support you over the long term.

To start this process, fill out Mable’s quiz so you can get the personalized migraine care you need.

Sources

Photo by Dose Juice on Unsplash

1.      American Migraine Foundation, “Diet and Headache Control.” https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/diet/ 

2.      Ramsden C E, Zamora D, Faurot K R, MacIntosh B,Horowitz M, Keyes G S et al. Dietary alteration of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for headache reduction in adults with migraine: randomized controlled trial BMJ 2021;374 :n1448 doi:10.1136/bmj.n1448 

3.      U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025." https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf 

4.      American Migraine Foundation, “Migraine and Diet.” https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-and-diet/ 

5.      American Migraine Foundation, “Alcohol and Migraine.” https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/alcohol-and-migraine

6.      Nowaczewska M,Wiciński M, Kaźmierczak W, Kaźmierczak H. To Eat or Not to Eat: A Review of theRelationship between Chocolate and Migraines. Nutrients.2020;12(3):608. Published 2020 Feb 26. doi:10.3390/nu12030608  

7.      Interview with Dr. Carolyn Bernstein, headache specialist at Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital 

8.      Cleveland Clinic, “Headaches and Food.” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9648-headaches-and-food

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Updated on
September 23, 2022
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