Top migraine food triggers and how to deal with them

Brain Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Sep 16, 2019

Migraine food triggers are common. While some are obvious, many other food triggers can be quite difficult to determine. For one, when you eat a food, it may not trigger a headache right away — in fact, it can take days before you actually have a headache. 

Before I go into details on food triggers, I first want to take a minute to discuss the common misconception about food allergies being headache triggers. Food triggers are not mediated by the immune system like food allergies. So, food triggers are not the same as food allergies, and therefore, getting tested for food allergies is not helpful when it comes to deciphering migraine food triggers. Now, while we do know food triggers are not allergies, we do not fully know how certain foods trigger a migraine.

Related: 5 surprising reasons why you have a headache

But don’t worry — there’s a lot that we do know about discovering and managing headaches caused by food.

The most common trigger foods

What constitutes a food trigger? Well, anything, technically. However, there are certain foods that tend to be more common triggers. Broadly, the most common triggers people complain about include:

  • Alcohol (mainly red wine, beer and champagne)
  • Chocolate
  • Nitrate or nitrite-containing foods (think: hot dogs and lunch meat)
  • Aged cheeses (think: parmesan, swiss, bleu, mozzarella, etc.)
  • Foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common flavor enhancer
  • Aspartame, a type of artificial sweetener

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the least-known triggers can include:

  • Bananas
  • Citrus fruits
  • Yogurt
  • Sour cream
  • Avocados
  • Soy sauce
  • Snow peas
  • Nuts

Of note, this is not an all-inclusive list. Your specific headache triggers could be very different.

Determining your food triggers

So, how do you figure-out what foods are your triggers? 

Start journaling.

Start keeping a food journal along with a headache journal to help you identify any patterns in the food(s) you ate prior to a migraine attack. 

Try the process of elimination.

If you were unsuccessful in uncovering a potential food trigger with the food/headache diary, you need to move on to step two. In this next step, there are two ways you can try unearthing a food trigger.  While these options will provide the best chance at determining your triggers, unfortunately, neither provides prompt answers. 

Method #1: Eliminate all potential triggers.

The first option involves eliminating all potential food triggers from your diet completely for two months.  (This option often takes longer than 2 months to complete, however, because inevitably in the beginning you will slip up, either unintentionally or intentionally, and then you are back to square one.) 

Once you complete the 2-month elimination, you gradually add back one food item at a time and eat that item daily for a week to see if your headaches worsen. For instance, after completing the two-month “wash-out” period, if you really miss having avocados after eliminating them for two months, start by eating avocadoes every day for a week. If headaches worsen, then, yup — it’s a trigger. If headaches do not worsen, then, yay, you should be able to continue eating them. If you uncover a trigger food, give yourself about a week break before trying to add another food item.  Then, continue adding food items in this manner until you have tried everything you first eliminated. At the end, hopefully you will have a much more abundant diet than during the elimination phase. 

Method #2: Eliminate one food at a time.

The second way you may attempt to discover a trigger food involves avoiding one food item at a time for a month each time. This plan will obviously take much longer to complete but for some, due to the less-restrictive nature, it is easier to follow.

Regardless of which option you choose, upon completion, you will have a better understanding of your individual food triggers, and therefore, may apply this newfound knowledge to better manage your migraines!

Don’t let migraines keep you from enjoying life. Find a doctor today.

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