How Your Diet Can Trigger Migraines

Avoiding certain foods may help prevent attacks and reduce symptoms

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Dietary migraine triggers are very common. Some people notice migraines within a few minutes or up to several hours after consuming certain foods or drinks. While you may not have migraines in response to every single one of the known dietary migraine triggers, it is a good idea to become familiar with the most common migraine-inducing foods and to be on the lookout for migraine symptoms after eating them.

Components of Foods That Trigger Migraines

There are several natural components and additives that have been linked with migraines, and the different foods that have been noted to cause these headaches may have one or more of these ingredients. That said, the exact migraine-inducing components of some trigger foods are not known.

Dietary triggers induce migraines through several different mechanisms, such as altering the release of serotonin, causing constriction (narrowing) or dilation (widening) of blood vessels, or by directly stimulating neuronal pathways in the brain.

Alcohol

There are a number of possible mechanisms that may explain the link between alcohol and migraines, including alcohol's effect on the blood vessels in the brain, inflammation, and neurotransmitter interaction. Alcohol is among the most commonly reported migraine triggers.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a potent vasoconstrictor (something that narrows blood vessels) and it interacts with neurotransmitters that modulate pain. Often, it is caffeine withdrawal that causes migraines, but some people are very sensitive to caffeine and can experience migraines as a result of the caffeine itself.

Nitrates

A preservative that destroys bacteria, nitrates are used to make processed meats last longer; they add a pink color as well. They can produce vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) and may also directly stimulate the brain's neuronal pathways, inducing pain.

Tyramine

A substance that is naturally present in many foods, tyramine can alter the neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, which modulates pain and mood. Keep in mind that if you take an antidepressant in the monamine oxidase inhibitor class, you need to avoid tyramine in your diet.

Phenylethylamine

A natural chemical found in some foods that can alter neurotransmitter function in the brain, phenylethylamine has been recognized as a migraine trigger.

Histamine

A natural component of several foods, histamine can cause a migraine by triggering inflammation.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Sometimes added as a flavor enhancer in Chinese food, MSG is also found in commercial soups, soy sauce, salad dressings, frozen dinners, soup mixes, croutons, stuffing, and snack chips.

On food labels, MSG may be called by other names such as sodium caseinate, hydrolyzed proteins, or autolyzed yeast. MSG may induce vasodilation or directly stimulate nerve receptors, both of which can trigger a migraine.

Aspartame

An additive component of artificial sweeteners, aspartame may interact with serotonin.

Yeast

Some reports suggest that yeast in baked goods may contribute to migraines, although the mechanism is unclear and the link is not as consistent as the other dietary migraine triggers.

Migraine-Inducing Foods

Foods that contain MSG or aspartame generally have these additives on the label. You would generally know if you are drinking something that contains alcohol, too. But some migraine-inducing foods aren't as obvious because their ingredients may be harder to determine.

Some common migraine-inducing components are present in foods that are typically not packaged and don't usually come with a nutritional label.


Caffeine is present in coffee, as well as other food and drinks, including:

  • Tea
  • Soft drinks
  • Hot cocoa
  • Chocolate
  • Chocolate containing snacks and desserts

Nitrates are found in some types of meats, including:

  • Hot dogs
  • Cold cuts
  • Artificial meat substitutes (often as a color additive)

Tyramine is found in higher concentrations in foods that have been fermented, such as:

  • Aged or blue cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Smoked, cured, or pickled meat or fish
  • Red wine or beer
  • Soy sauce, miso, tempeh

Foods containing phenylethylamine include:

  • Cheesecake
  • Yellow cheeses
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus fruit
  • Cocoa
  • Berry pie filling or canned berries
  • Red wine

Foods containing histamine include:

  • Banana
  • Beef, pork
  • Beer
  • Cheese, especially yellow ripened
  • Chicken liver
  • Eggplant
  • Fish, shellfish
  • Processed meat, such as salami
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh, tofu, miso, tamari
  • Spinach
  • Strawberry
  • Tomato, tomato sauce, tomato paste
  • Wine
  • Yeast and foods containing yeast
  • Pineapple
  • Citrus fruit
  • Chocolate

A Migraine-Prevention Diet

Simultaneously eliminating all possible trigger foods is not a good idea because of the sheer number of potential triggers. Most people would find that type of diet too restrictive and difficult to adhere to. It would also be unnecessary because most people don't have migraines in response to all of the food triggers.

Instead, keeping a headache and diet diary can help you keep track of when your symptoms begin and which foods you may have eaten before your migraines started. If you can identify trends that way, selectively avoiding the offending foods may help.

Keep in mind that skipping eating can be a migraine trigger, so eating regular, well-balanced meals is a key component of migraine prevention.

A Word From Verywell

If you think foods may be worsening your migraine symptoms or are considering trying a migraine diet, make sure to talk with your doctor. Delaying standard diagnosis and medical care can have serious consequences.

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