It’s little wonder that people are often desperate to find a fix for their migraine attacks, and dietary choices are usually among the first behavioral factors we're told to examine. This makes sense, given the interwebs are awash with articles listing foods that trigger migraine attacks—and even neurologists and dietitians may be quick to recommend cutting certain foods from your grocery list.
- Rachel Gargiulo, RD, Maryland-based certified nutrition consultant
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 purging 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 someone else spiraling into migraine hell.
In order to establish a true cause-and-effect relationship between specific foods and migraine head pain, it's important to consider whether the consumption of a certain food always comes before a migraine, as opposed to just occasionally. Pay extra close attention to these five common trigger foods, says certified nutrition consultant Rachel Gargiulo, as they could be pushing your neurons over the edge.
One way to help your doctor sus out foods that trigger your migraine attacks is to write everything down. Keeping a careful migraine diary that details what you ate, the weather, your exercise, your sleep, symptoms, time of day, and countless other details will help you determine what you may want to avoid—or not—in the future.
The 5 foods that most commonly trigger migraine
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 three 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.)
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 migraine attacks 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 head pain. Though this may seem like bad news for bacon lovers seeking to banish migraine attacks, 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—a 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 tenderizers, canned vegetables, and many processed foods. While some people swear MSG is a migraine trigger, a causal link hasn't been established just yet. 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.”
5. Artificially sweetened products
Anecdotal reports linking migraine attacks 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. So if you sometimes rely on diet soda for a late afternoon pick-me-up, write it down in your migraine diary. You and your doctor may be able to determine if this is a true migraine trigger for you and whether it's best to avoid it.
Other treatment options to consider—beyond foods that trigger migraine
Though it may be tempting to eliminate everything and the kitchen sink in a last-ditch attempt to stave off migraine attacks for good, a severely restrictive dietary overhaul may add more stress than it is worth. Remember, managing stress is a key part of migraine prevention, and it's sometimes difficult to tell foods that trigger migraines from ones that don't.
There is an abundance of prescription medications, devices, and natural remedies you can try to treat migraine attacks, such as acupuncture, exercise, or relaxation training. 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.
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