It isn’t always clear what causes a migraine episode after eating. Here’s what the research says about post-meal migraine attacks and what you can do to manage them.
Navigating migraine episodes (aka attacks) can be overwhelming. When you live with chronic migraine, figuring out the root causes of your episodes can help you learn how to prevent attacks.
But getting to the bottom of what causes your attacks is often easier said than done.
The process of figuring out your triggers can feel frustrating. For some, the connection between food and migraine episodes is direct and undeniable. For others, it’s less obvious. If you notice that some migraine attacks start after eating, you may suspect that there’s some sort of link.
The relationship between food and migraine is complex. Eating certain foods or having specific post-meal conditions may be the catalyst for migraine attacks — but every person with migraine is different.
At the same time, if you do know a food-related trigger, cutting out that food entirely usually won’t magically cure your chronic migraine.
We’ll cover some of the potential reasons you may have migraine attacks after eating, exploring trigger compounds, current treatment options, and preventive strategies to help you get to the bottom of whether food is contributing to your migraine attacks.
When it comes to the human body, nothing is simple. This is especially true when we look at migraine and diet.
The way our bodies respond to food involves intricate pathways and connections. Here’s a deeper look into some of the potential causes of migraine episodes after eating:
Our body’s glucose regulatory system has a crucial task: maintaining balanced blood sugar levels. A growing body of research suggests that migraine may be linked to impaired glucose metabolism.
Typically, after we eat, our blood sugar rises temporarily because our body breaks down carbs into glucose. However, some people experience postprandial hypoglycemia (or reactive hypoglycemia), where their blood sugar levels decrease after eating.
A study in 2018 found a link between migraine attacks and increased insulin secretion caused by hypoglycemia. A smaller study in 2015 suggests that women with migraine had higher blood insulin levels after eating sugar.
If you experience pain, discomfort, or clicking in your jaw when eating, you may have TMJ. This can cause migraine episodes in some people.
Research from 2017 found that people who had TMJ were also more likely to have migraine or headache episodes.
Eating can put added strain on your jaw, which can exacerbate TMJ symptoms. This can cause pain and, potentially, even a migraine attack.
When allergic reactions occur, our immune system releases histamines and antibodies to try to fight off the unwelcome “invader.”
Researchers in 2021 looked at immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies in particular. The research found that people who had at least one food-specific IgG antibody were more prone to frequent and severe migraine episodes.
“I have recently discovered some foods and spices that trigger my migraine attacks every single time. I’ve been watching it for a while now and documenting it to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it.”
Tabitha Porter, Bezzy Migraine Community Member
In the context of migraine, a trigger compound is a chemical substance — whether naturally occurring in foods or added during processing — that can trigger or exacerbate migraine symptoms.
Not everyone will be affected by these compounds in the same way. While some people with migraine might have intense migraine attacks after consuming certain compounds, others might remain unaffected.
While research on compounds and their effects on migraine is lacking, caffeine, tyramine, nitrate, and phenylethylamine are a few commonly discussed compounds that research suggests may be linked to migraine.
The relationship between caffeine and migraine is a complicated one. Caffeine affects adenosine receptors in our brain and narrows blood vessels. For some, this can help reduce pain associated with migraine attacks. That’s why certain migraine medications contain caffeine as an active ingredient.
It’s believed that caffeine withdrawal, rather than the caffeine itself, can be a migraine trigger. However, more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between caffeine and migraine.
When the amino acid tyrosine breaks down, tyramine is produced. Tyramine is vasoactive and can cause elevated blood pressure.
Some emerging research suggests that this compound can trigger migraine episodes by altering blood flow patterns and causing vasoconstriction (the narrowing of blood vessels).
Tyramine is typically found in fermented or aged products like cheeses, alcohol, and overly ripe foods like bananas and avocados.
Nitrates are food additives that are believed to be a migraine trigger in some people.
Nitrates act as vasodilators. Consuming foods with high quantities of nitrates may result in an abnormal constriction of blood vessels in the brain. It’s believed that this dilation could potentially be the mechanism that triggers migraine onset.
Phenylethylamine is another compound that’s created as a result of amino acids breaking down.
A 2020 journal article suggests that phenylethylamine may reduce blood flow to the brain and make some people more vulnerable to a migraine attack.
Figuring out the best strategy to prevent or treat a migraine attack depends on what’s causing your episodes.
This applies to migraine episodes that occur after eating, too.
If your episodes are linked to TMJ, you may turn to treatments like physical therapy or medications to relax the muscles around your jaw. If your episodes are linked to an allergy or food sensitivity, you may find that avoiding those foods helps reduce the frequency or severity of your attacks.
If you’re having migraine episodes after eating, it’s a great idea to talk with your doctor to figure out what exactly is causing your attacks and what the best treatment strategy is.
The good news is that over the years, strides in medical research have deepened our understanding of migraine. Now, many treatment and prevention options exist to help anyone manage life with chronic migraine.
For many, a combination of personalized treatment plans — including both pharmacological interventions and lifestyle adjustments — has proven most effective.
Your doctor may suggest one or a combination of the following:
There are several reasons that you may experience a migraine attack after eating. It can be challenging — and frustrating — to figure out exactly what’s causing yours.
Strategies like keeping a food diary, staying updated on the latest research, and communicating openly with your healthcare team can help you understand if there’s a link between your migraine episodes and diet.
Medically reviewed on October 30, 2023
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