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What foods can trigger a migraine?

Medically reviewed by Sally Chao, MD. Last updated on Nov 10, 2021.

Official answer

by Drugs.com

Although migraine triggers are different for everyone, multiple foods are thought to be possibly associated with triggering migraines in some people. Research into what specific foods trigger migraines is inconclusive, but migraine patients consistently report alcohol and chocolate as triggers.

It can be tough to identify what foods might set off a migraine. Patients are often asked to avoid foods containing the chemicals tyramine, beta-phenylethylamine and nitrates, but definitive studies are sparse. These chemicals are present in many foods, including:

  • Aged or blue cheeses like cheddar, parmesan and gorgonzola
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Processed meats
  • Chocolate
  • Pickled and fermented foods
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Citrus fruit
  • Nuts
  • Gluten
  • Dairy

Alcoholic beverages (particularly red wine and beer), the artificial sweeteners aspartame and sucralose, as well as the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) are also thought to be possible migraine triggers.

Caffeine itself is often used as a treatment for migraines, but caffeine withdrawal may trigger one of these headaches.

Finding your triggers

While research into food as migraine triggers is inconsistent, dietary interventions can be helpful for some people who experience migraines, as dietary triggers can play a role in the onset of migraines.

  • To help identify trigger foods, keep a food and headache diary, taking note of all of the foods you eat, along with the times you get a migraine.
  • Noticing patterns can help you to identify whether you frequently develop a migraine after eating certain foods.
  • A trigger food causes effects within 12 to 24 hours.
  • Limit 1 food of concern at a time for about 4 weeks to see if your migraine patterns change.

Some studies suggest that a food can be considered a trigger if it results in a migraine more than 50% of the time. If you identify multiple possible triggers, it is not recommended that you eliminate all of them for an extended period of time.

Keep in mind that other factors can also exacerbate migraines, including:

  • The start of your menstrual cycle if you menstruate
  • Insufficient sleep or changes to your sleep schedule
  • Dehydration
  • Fasting

It’s important to note that even if a certain food is a problem one day, the very same food may not trigger a migraine on another occasion. This is because other factors — such as stress, the weather and dehydration — can combine with a food intolerance to trigger a migraine. For example, you may ordinarily be able to eat chocolate with no issues, but if you eat chocolate when you are dehydrated, these two factors combined might be enough to trigger a migraine.

Managing migraine patterns

To help manage migraines, it is recommended that you limit your intake of caffeine to 100 to 200 mg daily (approximately 1 to 2 cups of coffee). Though caffeine is commonly used in many over-the-counter migraine medications, too much can be problematic. If you need to cut back, cut down your intake by 25% each week to avoid caffeine withdrawal, as withdrawal itself can contribute to migraines.

You should also try to eat at regular intervals. Not eating results in a drop in your blood sugar levels, which can make migraines worse. In general, eat a healthy diet with plenty of whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (like olive oil and avocado) and lean protein.

Try to stay hydrated and avoid highly processed food, trans fats and excess sodium. Talk with your doctor about any long-term avoidance of foods, since you could miss out on important nutrients.

In some people, dietary supplements may be helpful in preventing migraines. For example:

  • Riboflavin (vitamin B12) may help prevent migraines at a dose of 400 mg daily, though it can take up to three months of daily use to experience this benefit.
  • Studies show that the antioxidant coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) may also be useful in migraine prevention.
  • Supplementing with 400 to 600 mg of magnesium citrate each day may help in some circumstances as well.

Be sure to consult your physician before taking any dietary supplements for migraine.

References
  1. American Migraine Foundation (AMF). Diet and Headache Control. August 13, 2016. Available at: https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/diet/. [Accessed September 29, 2021].
  2. Gazerani, P. Migraine and Diet. Nutrients. 2020 Jun; 12(6): 1658. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7352457/. [Accessed September 29, 2021].
  3. American Migraine Foundation (AMF). Migraine and Diet. January 1, 2016. Available at: https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-and-diet/. [Accessed September 29, 2021].

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