Top 13 Foods that Trigger Migraine – What You Should Avoid

As we navigate our fast-paced, high-stress modern lives, understanding the foods that trigger migraine is increasingly relevant. Notorious for their debilitating effects, migraines can compromise productivity, personal relationships, and overall quality of life. 

The relevance of migraines in today’s world cannot be understated. World Health Organization states that migraines are among the top ten most disabling illnesses worldwide. The condition affects a significant portion of the global population, with triggers ranging from stress and changes in weather to certain foods and drinks. 

Understanding Migraines and Their Triggers

Migraines are headaches characterised by severe, throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head. They can persist for hours or even extend over multiple days, bringing along symptoms such as nausea and vomiting or an overwhelming sensitivity to light and sound. These debilitating headaches are recognised as a multifaceted neurological condition, thought to arise from genetic predisposition, hormonal imbalances, and external environmental triggers.

Diet plays a significant role in triggering migraines for some individuals. Certain foods that trigger migraine and beverages contain substances that can affect blood flow, inflammation, and neurotransmitter levels in the brain, potentially leading to a migraine episode. Recognising and avoiding these foods that trigger migraine can help individuals manage their condition more effectively. However, it is essential to remember that everyone’s experience with migraine triggers is unique, and the foods listed here may not affect all migraine sufferers similarly.

Foods that trigger migraine may only trigger migraines when combined with other factors, such as:

  1. Stress

Emotional or physical stress can make individuals more susceptible to migraine triggers, including specific foods that trigger migraine.

  1. Lack of Sleep

Insufficient sleep can lower the threshold for experiencing migraines, making it easier for certain foods to trigger migraine attacks.

  1. Dehydration

Not drinking enough water can exacerbate the effects of dietary triggers, increasing the likelihood of a migraine.

  1. Hormonal Changes

Fluctuating hormone levels, particularly in women, can make individuals more sensitive to foods that trigger migraine.

  1. Sensitivity or Allergy

Some people may have a heightened sensitivity or allergy to certain foods that trigger migraine when consumed.

  1. Food Combinations

In some cases, consuming a combination of foods that trigger migraine may be more likely to provoke an attack than consuming a single trigger food.

Foods that Trigger Migraine

Migraine sufferers often have unique triggers, and among the most common are certain foods that trigger migraine and beverages. Identifying and avoiding these dietary culprits can greatly help manage and reduce migraine episodes’ frequency. In this section, we will discuss the top 13 foods that trigger migraine, delving into the reasons behind their effects and providing medical sources and expert advice from nutritionists and physicians.

It’s important to remember that not all foods will trigger migraine for every individual, but awareness of these common triggers can aid in making more informed dietary choices.

1. Caffeine

Caffeine plays a dual role in migraines; it can trigger and relieve symptoms. While moderate amounts can reduce migraine pain by narrowing blood vessels in the brain, too much caffeine or sudden withdrawal can lead to a caffeine-rebound headache, triggering a migraine. According to the American Migraine Foundation, limiting caffeine intake to less than 200 milligrammes daily is advisable to avoid potential migraine triggers. 

Foods that trigger migraine and drinks containing caffeine:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Chocolate
  • Some sodas
  • Energy drinks

2. Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, have been linked to triggering migraines. Aspartame, a low-calorie sweetener used in various diets and sugar-free products, has been the subject of numerous studies, some of which suggest a possible connection to migraines. A report in the Headache journal described three case studies of people whose migraines were triggered by aspartame. Nutritionists often recommend reading food labels carefully and limiting foods that trigger migraine containing artificial sweeteners.

Foods that trigger migraine containing artificial sweeteners:

  • Diet sodas
  • Sugar-free candies
  • Low-calorie yoghurt
  • Sugar-free gum
  • Some protein bars

3. Alcohol

Alcohol, particularly red wine, can trigger migraines in certain individuals, possibly due to chemicals it contains, like histamine and tannins or due to the dehydration it can cause. Studies suggest up to 30% of people with migraines consider alcohol a trigger. Nutritionists recommend drinking alcohol in moderation and staying well-hydrated to reduce the risk of a migraine.

Foods that trigger migraine containing alcohol:

  • Wine
  • Beer
  • Liquor
  • Some desserts (e.g., tiramisu, rum cake)

4. Chocolate

Chocolate has been identified as a common migraine trigger. It contains both caffeine and beta-phenylethylamine, which may influence the onset of migraines. However, the Migraine Trust states that chocolate might be more of a craving during the early stages of a migraine rather than an actual trigger. As with many potential food triggers, moderation is key.

Foods that trigger migraine containing chocolate:

  • Chocolate bars
  • Chocolate cake
  • Brownies
  • Hot chocolate
  • Chocolate ice cream

5. Foods Containing MSG

Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavour enhancer, has been reported to cause migraines in some people. A study found that an MSG challenge caused more frequent and severe headaches and migraines than a placebo. Nutritionists advise looking out for MSG on food labels as it’s commonly used in processed foods that trigger migraine.

Foods that trigger migraine containing MSG:

  • Chinese takeout
  • Canned soups
  • Processed snack foods (e.g., chips, crackers)
  • Frozen dinners
  • Salad dressings

6. Cured Meats

Cured meats can contain nitrates and nitrites, food additives that can dilate blood vessels and potentially trigger migraines. One study published in Cephalalgia found that consuming nitrate-containing foods could increase the frequency of migraines. Physicians recommend eating fresh, lean meats instead of cured or processed ones to avoid migraines.

Examples of cured meats:

  • Bacon
  • Salami
  • Pepperoni
  • Hot dogs
  • Ham

7. Aged Cheeses

Aged cheeses are high in tyramine, a natural substance formed from protein breakdown as foods age. A tyramine-rich diet can trigger migraines in some people. A study reported that dietary restriction of tyramine can be beneficial in preventing migraines. Dietitians suggest that individuals prone to migraines monitor their intake of aged cheeses.

Common high-tyramine cheeses:

  • Cheddar
  • Blue cheese
  • Gorgonzola
  • Swiss
  • Parmesan

8. Pickled and Fermented Foods

Pickled and fermented foods are often high in tyramine, making them potential migraine triggers. A comprehensive literature review noted a correlation between fermented foods and migraines due to their high tyramine content. Nutritionists often recommend limiting the intake of these foods in a migraine-management diet.

Pickled and fermented foods that trigger migraine:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Pickles
  • Olives
  • Soy sauce

9. Frozen Foods

Extremely cold foods might trigger a “brain freeze,” leading to a full-blown migraine in susceptible people. It is thought to occur due to a rapid dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the head in response to the cold. A study found that many patients reported cold stimuli as migraine triggers.

Frozen foods that trigger migraine:

  • Ice cream
  • Slushies
  • Popsicles
  • Frozen yoghurt

10. Salty Foods

Excessive consumption of salty foods can lead to dehydration and high blood pressure, triggering migraines. A study in the Journal of Headache and Pain found an association between high sodium intake and increased frequency of migraines. Dietitians suggest monitoring sodium intake as part of a comprehensive approach to managing migraines.

Salty foods that trigger migraine:

  • Potato chips
  • Pretzels
  • Salted nuts
  • Canned soups
  • Deli meats

11. Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits can trigger migraines for some individuals, especially those with allergies or sensitivities. It may be due to the histamine content of citrus fruits. Physicians recommend discussing potential food sensitivities or allergies with a healthcare professional and modifying your diet accordingly.

Examples of citrus fruits:

  • Oranges
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Grapefruits
  • Tangerines

12. High-Fat Foods

High-fat foods can influence inflammation in the body, which might trigger migraines. One study found that a low-fat diet could help reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and migraines. Nutritionists often recommend a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins for those with frequent migraines.

High-fat foods that trigger migraine:

  • Fast food
  • Fried foods (e.g., French fries, fried chicken)
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Fatty cuts of meat
  • Pastries

13. Foods High in Histamine

Histamine, a chemical found in certain foods, can trigger migraines in some individuals. It can cause blood vessels to swell and press against nerves, causing a headache. According to a study, managing the intake of high-histamine foods can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. 

Common high-histamine foods that trigger migraine:

  • Dried fruits
  • Eggplants
  • Processed or smoked meats
  • Vinegar-containing foods (e.g., pickles, mustard)
  • Avocado

How to Prevent Migraines

Effectively managing migraines involves identifying personal triggers, including certain foods, and making lifestyle adjustments. Here are eight lifestyle changes and dietary modifications that can help prevent migraines:

  1. Eat Consistently

Maintain a regular eating schedule to prevent blood sugar fluctuations that may trigger migraines.

  1. Stay Hydrated

Drink plenty of water and moderate alcohol and caffeine to avoid dehydration-related migraines.

  1. Avoid Food Triggers

Keep a diary to identify and eliminate potential migraine-triggering foods like caffeine or aged cheeses.

  1. Sleep Regularly

Aim for 7-9 hours each night with consistent bedtimes and wake-up times to reduce migraine risk.

  1. Manage Stress

Incorporate stress-reduction techniques like deep breathing, yoga and meditation into your daily routine.

  1. Exercise Moderately

Engage in regular, moderate exercise to reduce tension and prevent migraines; consult a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise programme.

  1. Limit Exposure to Triggers

Be mindful of your environment and minimise exposure to potential triggers like bright lights, strong odours, or loud noises.

  1. Consult a Healthcare Professional

Work closely with your doctor or a headache specialist to develop a personalised treatment plan and discuss potential preventive medications to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.

Eating Right to Fight Migraines

Understanding the interplay between diet and migraines is crucial to managing this debilitating condition. This article has highlighted the potential role of various foods that trigger migraine. Each food category can contribute to migraines in unique ways, underscoring the complexity of this condition.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that every individual is unique, and the foods that trigger migraine can vary significantly from person to person. Stay informed, stay healthy, and remember to consult a healthcare professional or dietitian for personalised advice and a comprehensive dietary plan.

Above all, know that you are not alone in this journey. Multiple strategies are available to manage migraines and improve the quality of life, including avoiding certain foods that trigger migraine.