Food and Nutrition

Mystery Migraines? Keep These 5 Common Trigger Foods on Watch

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Photo: Getty Images/Jamie Grill
Throbbing head, blurry vision, sensitivity to light and smells, and even nausea and vomiting—as any migraine sufferer will tell you, the struggle is real. Migraines have the power to leave you incapacitated for hours at a time, often forcing you to cancel plans and forfeit precious PTO (groan!) in favor of hours of solitude in your quiet, dark bedroom.

It’s little wonder that people are often desperate to find a fix for their migraines, and dietary choices are usually among the first behavioral factors we think to change. This instinctive reaction makes sense, given the interwebs are awash with articles listing foods that trigger migraines—and even neurologists and dietitians may be quick to recommend cutting certain foods from your grocery list.

Before you spend too much time tweaking your diet, however, be sure to consider the vast array of migraine triggers that don't involve food. The American Migraine Foundation highlights stress, changes in sleep, hormones, weather shifts, dehydration, light, smell, and medication overuse as common migraine triggers—in other words, there are a lot of things to rule out before you start going HAM on your pantry. Moreover, different foods affect different people, well, differently. You may be able to wash your sausage dinner down with a glass of red wine, while the same meal could send me spiraling into migraine hell.

In order to establish a true cause-and-effect relationship between specific foods and migraine headaches, it's important to consider whether the consumption of a food always come before a migraine, as opposed to just occasionally. Pay extra close attention to the five common trigger foods that follow, as called out by certified nutrition consultant Rachel Gargiulo. Be sure to write everything down, since without keeping a careful migraine diary, any foods you choose to eliminate are little more than a best guess—and who wants to restrict themselves based on guesswork alone?

Keep reading for five common foods and drinks that are believed to trigger migraines.

Foods that trigger migraines
Photo: Getty Images/Westend61

1. Alcohol

Okay, bad news first: Alcohol has been linked to two different types of migraine. Some people report the onset of a headache within 30 minutes to 3 hours after drinking alcohol, and for those who are particularly sensitive, even small amounts of booze may be enough to initiate symptoms. Migraine sufferers also appear to be predisposed to delayed alcohol-induced headaches (DAIH), which tend to show up hours after you finish drinking, as blood alcohol returns to normal.

Ready for the good news? Research suggests that the potency of alcohol as a migraine trigger may be overstated. So if you don't want to swear off cocktails altogether, consider keeping a detailed record of alcohol intake and migraine symptoms so you can know for sure whether they're linked. Additional tips for lowering migraine risk include eating food when you drink alcohol and skipping happy hour when your stress level is high. (Stress has the unfortunate ability to interact with other triggers, sometimes making a bad situation worse.)

2. Caffeine

Can’t imagine getting through the day without your morning cup of coffee? You may be in luck, as the effects of caffeine, like alcohol, vary greatly from person to person. In fact, some especially fortunate people even benefit from caffeine as a headache cure. As Gargiolo notes: “A little caffeine might actually stop the onset of a migraine from occurring, though this will be individual-dependent.”

That said, caffeine can also bring on headaches for many people. If you suspect you're one of them, be sure to wean yourself off of it gradually before slowly reintroducing caffeine and making note of its effect on your migraine symptoms. (Quitting cold-turkey will almost definitely give you a headache, if you're a heavy coffee drinker.) You may also check to see if a small dose of caffeine stops your migraine in its tracks. After all, you could be among the lucky ones!

3. Cured meats

Though dietitians may advise limiting hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and deli meat, the real compounds in question are nitrates and nitrites, which are preservatives added to prevent bacteria growth and keep food fresher for longer periods of time.

A recent small-scale study established a preliminary link between the gut bacteria in the microbiomes of migraine sufferers and the conversion of nitrates and nitrites into nitric acid, which is associated with migraine headaches. Though this may seem like bad news for bacon lovers seeking to banish migraines, researchers caution that this research is in its infancy and it's still a little too early to draw generalized conclusions. The only way to know how nitrates and nitrites affect you? Bingo—migraine diary.

4. Foods containing MSG

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly referred to as MSG, is a flavor enhancer added to foods such as soy sauce, meat tenderizer, canned vegetables, some Asian restaurant meals, and many processed foods. In addition to migraines, people who are sensitive to MSG may also experience symptoms such as chest pressure, tightening and pressure in the face, burning sensations in the chest, neck, or shoulders, facial flushing, dizziness, heart palpitations, and abdominal pain.

Though migraine complaints have been associated with this cluster of short-term symptoms, a causal link hasn't been established experimentally. If you suspect MSG is bringing on or worsening your migraine symptoms, it's worth ruling out by eliminating foods that contain MSG. Note that terms such as “hydrolyzed fat,” “hydrolyzed protein,” and “all-natural preservatives” may be used on ingredient labels in place of “MSG”—sneaky, right?

5. Artificially sweetened products

Anecdotal reports linking migraine headaches to artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, have been widespread for decades. However, the scientific evidence isn't compelling enough to make general statements about their impact on migraine sufferers. So if you sometimes rely on diet soda for a late afternoon pick-me-up, use your headache diary to determine if it's associated with your symptoms.

Foods that trigger migraines
Photo: Getty Images/Westend61

Other options for treating migraine headaches

Though it may be tempting to eliminate everything and the kitchen sink in a last-ditch attempt to stave off migraines for good, a full, restrictive dietary overhaul may add more stress than it is worth. Remember, managing stress is a key part of migraine prevention.

If you don't want to take medication for your migraines, there are plenty of natural treatments to try, such as acupuncture, exercise, or relaxation training. And most importantly, don’t lose hope, even if it seems like none of the strategies you've tried are working for you. Migraine triggers are vast and varied—and once you've ruled out any food-related links, you can move on to investigating the next one.

News flash: Women suffer from more migraines than men, and this is the surprising reason why. Oh, and have you heard about "text neck" and its role in sparking headaches? (Yes, it's a real thing.) 

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