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How to Tell When Food’s a Migraine Trigger — and When It Isn’t

Managing Migraine

February 07, 2024

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Photography by Studio Firma/Stocksy United

Photography by Studio Firma/Stocksy United

by Nandini Maharaj

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Medically Reviewed by:

Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH

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by Nandini Maharaj

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH

•••••

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Aged cheese, processed meat, and additives are common migraine triggers, but not for everyone. Trial and error and symptom tracking can help you find yours.

With food allergies, even a small bite can trigger digestive symptoms like cramping and diarrhea. For example, people with celiac disease experience pain and inflammation in their gut when they ingest gluten.

As someone with migraine, I’m aware that food can be a migraine trigger. But, unlike food allergies, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause of migraine episodes.

Sometimes it’s the combination of being hungry and low on sleep that leads to a migraine attack. Other times, my symptoms will persist despite being nourished and rested.

Since diet can play a role in the frequency and severity of migraine attacks, learning about potential food triggers can help you manage your symptoms.

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What is the connection between diet and migraine?

The human body needs a variety of nutrients to function properly, most of which come from your food.

Some people find that certain foods can trigger a migraine attack. These include chocolate, aged cheeses, and processed meats.

However, these potential food triggers don’t have the same effect on everyone. Given this variability, it’s hard for an individual to know which foods are best to avoid.

A 2023 study of 1,118 people suggests that most of the food triggers specific to migraine are processed foods and foods containing histamine. Histamine is a chemical compound that plays a role in allergic reactions.

Some foods containing histamine include:

  • tomatoes
  • avocado
  • nuts
  • shellfish
  • cured meats

Other studies on migraine triggers point to foods that are high in tyramine, an amino acid that helps regulate blood pressure.

Tyramine-rich foods include:

  • aged cheese
  • pickled or fermented foods
  • smoked meat
  • dried fruit

In addition, processed foods like hot dogs and pickles contain nitrates and food preservatives that may also trigger migraine.

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Foods that trigger migraine

Migraine triggers are different for every person. However, some foods trigger migraine more often than others. Food triggers may depend on your genes as well as a host of factors, from your stress level to changes in the weather.

Aged cheeses

Aged cheeses include hard cheeses like Parmesan and Swiss, and those made with an edible mold like blue cheese. The breakdown of proteins during the aging process leads to an increase in tyramine, which can trigger migraine.

Processed meat

Processed meat includes hot dogs, sausages, and deli meat. These meats often contain preservatives like nitrates and nitrites which prevent bacteria from growing and give the meat a salty flavor.

Nitrates and nitrites are generally considered safe to consume. However, when these preservatives are ingested, they can release nitric oxide into the blood and trigger migraine.

Chocolate

According to the American Migraine Foundation, chocolate is a migraine trigger for 22% of people. Chocolate contains the central nervous stimulant beta-phenylethylamine as well as caffeine, which may contribute to symptoms.

Food additives

Some migraineurs are affected by food additives. These include food dyes and artificial sweeteners like aspartame.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a migraine trigger for 10–15% of people.

Fermented foods

Pickled or fermented foods tend to be rich in tyramine, which can trigger a migraine attack.

These foods include:

  • pickles
  • olives
  • kimchi
  • sauerkraut

Soy products that are fermented also contain high amounts of tyramine.

These include:

  • tofu
  • soy sauce
  • teriyaki sauce
  • miso soup

Alcohol

Alcohol is the most common food-related migraine trigger, with 33% of migraineurs affected by it. Drinking any kind of alcoholic beverage can lead to dehydration, a common migraine trigger.

Red wine contains sulfites and tyramine, both of which may trigger migraine. The fermentation process used to produce wine or beer may increase the level of tyramine.

Caffeine

The picture is less clear for caffeine consumption.

For some people, drinking caffeinated beverages like tea or coffee is a migraine trigger, while others find that it eases their symptoms. In both cases, this may have to do with how caffeine affects blood flow.

Caffeine is also found in certain medications, vitamins, and herbal supplements. Sometimes it’s not the caffeine itself but caffeine withdrawal that triggers symptoms.

Recognizing when food is a trigger

Learning which foods trigger migraine can be tricky since a particular food may not lead to an attack every time. Moreover, you can experience migraine symptoms in the absence of food triggers.

Before cutting foods out of your diet completely, it’s helpful to rule out when food is a migraine trigger. To use symptom tracking to identify migraine food triggers, I:

  1. Keep track of my food intake and migraine symptoms over a 1-month period.
  2. Record what I ate within the past 24 hours.
  3. Note other potential triggers like a lack of sleep or weather changes.
  4. Flag any foods or drinks that seem to be a trigger and avoid them the following month.
  5. Monitor my symptoms to see if the frequency of migraine increased, decreased, or saw little change after eliminating foods.

What I learned from symptom tracking is that eating any one of these suspected food triggers alone was unlikely to trigger a migraine attack. When I ate a combination of these foods or had a craving for them, migraine attacks were more common.

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Strategies for prevention

Eliminating all potential food triggers isn’t possible and could mean missing out on important nutrients. Just think of all the foods containing caffeine like my personal favorite, chocolate.

A more realistic approach is to start making small changes, like below:

  • Keep a migraine journal with a list of foods and symptoms.
  • Eat regular meals or consume smaller portions throughout the day to stave off hunger.
  • Stick to a consistent bedtime and morning routine.
  • Take breaks from screens throughout the day.

Frequently asked questions

Read on for answers to common questions about foods that trigger migraine.

What foods can make a migraine go away?

Foods that are high in magnesium like avocado and cantaloupe can help provide migraine relief, but they won’t make a migraine attack go away completely. The fatty acids in tuna and salmon can also help alleviate symptoms.

Why does eating make my migraine worse?

Some foods can cause blood vessels in the brain to dilate or constrict and cause pain. Frozen drinks, caffeine, and salty foods are more likely to cause head pain.

What drinks help with migraine?

Hydration is important for managing migraine. Drinks that may provide migraine relief include water, green tea, ginger tea, and decaf coffee. Hydrating with electrolytes and minerals may help too.

What should I eat for breakfast if I have a migraine?

Starting your day with foods that help stabilize blood sugar can help with migraine. This includes a balance of protein, fat, and healthy starches.

Examples are:

  • a protein shake or smoothie with nut butter
  • hard-boiled eggs and a piece of fruit, like an apple
  • oatmeal with nuts and milk or butter
  • whole-grain toast with a side of protein, like sausage
  • a sweet potato hash with scrambled eggs and greens
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Takeaway

Food can be a trigger for some migraine sufferers but not others. Avoiding certain foods temporarily and tracking your symptoms can help you make beneficial dietary changes.

Another way to reduce food triggers is eating a diet of fresh, whole foods as often as possible.

Medically reviewed on February 07, 2024

4 Sources


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About the author

Nandini Maharaj

Nandini Maharaj, PhD is a freelance writer covering health, work, identity, and relationships. She holds a master’s degree in counseling and a PhD in public health. She’s committed to providing thoughtful analysis and engaging wellness content. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, American Kennel Club, Animal Wellness, Introvert, Dear, and POPSUGAR. She is a dog mom to Dally, Rusty, and Frankie. Find her on Twitter or her website.

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