The Relationship Between Food & Migraine

The scientific literature regarding dietary migraine triggers is confusing and inconclusive at best, most of which states that food triggers cannot be directly linked to migraine occurrence. If you’re a migraine sufferer, you probably realize that this lack of evidence for dietary migraine triggers doesn’t make sense. Triggers like coffee, chocolate, red wine, etc. are well-known! Thousands of migraine sufferers have linked their symptoms to dietary sources; however, the complexity of the migraine-trigger interaction makes this relationship nearly impossible to study. No trigger will give every migraineur a migraine every single time. As I discuss on the Migraine Threshold page, the relationship between trigger and migraine isn’t that simple. There are dozens of factors (stress, sleep disturbance, mood, weather, and so on) that interact to determine what effect a trigger will have.

How Can Foods Be a Migraine Trigger?

The food we eat– even in it’s most fresh and basic form of fruits, vegetables, etc.– is composed of chemicals and compounds. For example, bananas are known to be full of potassium, citrus fruits contain Vitamin C, and coffee is laden with caffeine. You can eat foods that are high in anti-oxidants like blueberries, nuts, and grapes. All of these substances: potassium, Vitamin C, caffeine, and anti-oxidants are known for the ways in which they interact beneficially with our bodies.

But what you may now know is that some foods in some people in some circumstances can actually cause harm in precipitating migraine symptoms. For example, tyramine is a long-time well-known migraine trigger that’s present in many foods, levels of which increase as foods age, ferment, or decay. It’s present in foods that are aged, canned, cured, fermented, marinated, smoked, pickled, tenderized, preserved, or overripe including cheeses, sour cream yogurt, yeast, beans, etc.

Most migraineurs tend to have 4-6 major dietary triggers which readily give them migraines. (My major food triggers are onions, raisins, cheeses, BHT, calcium hydroxide.) If you can identify which foods easily trigger you, you can decrease the frequency with which you consume them and reduce your chance of breaching your migraine threshold. The best way to identify these triggers (and your additional environmental/lifestyle triggers) is to keep a migraine diary!

Keeping a Migraine Journal / Headache Diary

When I became debilitated, I started keeping an Excel spreadsheet of my symptoms and their severity, so that I could notice any patterns and show the data to my doctors. Once I was diagnosed with migraine disorder, I began to keep a list of the foods that I had eaten, too. This way, if I noticed an increase in my symptoms, I could trace the cause back to a food that I had eaten or some other trigger I had encountered.

You can keep track of your symptoms and the foods you eat in Excel, on Google Forms, on a calendar, or in a notebook. In my migraine/symptom journal, I keep track of:

  • The Date
  • My Symptoms
    • i.e. Dizziness, Fatigue, Head Pressure, etc. on a scale from 0-10
      • For me, 5+ indicates that the symptom reduced my quality of life
  • Did I eat/drink enough throughout the day?
    • Ideally, the # meals = 3+, # water bottle fills = 6
  • How did I sleep the night before?
    • Here, I use my Fitbit to keep track of my time asleep, time awake, and the quality of my sleep (quantified by the number of times I tossed and turned)
  • How active was I?
    • How many steps did I take?
    • Did I do any strenuous exercise?
  • What was my mood/stress-level like?
  • What did I eat?
    • A list of foods that you ate throughout the day
  • If you’re a lady, then consider keeping track of your period in relation to your symptoms
  • Tiny Victories
    • I keep a list of any milestones that I reached that day. For example, driving for the first time, or reaching my daily step goal. I write my Tiny Victories last, so that no matter how the day went, I end my list with something positive that I accomplished.

For me, keeping track of every possible trigger has been very important and productive. For someone with occasional migraines, it may be enough to simply have a migraine score (0-10) and a list of the foods eaten that day.

Migraine Trigger Avoidance Diet

The migraine trigger avoidance diet is a technique used to treat individuals who have reached a level of continuous migraine. The diet involves avoiding all potential dietary migraine triggers until symptoms are relieved (may take months), then adding potential trigger foods back slowly to identify which trigger the patient.

The list of dietary migraine triggers is extensive, and can be rather overwhelming at first. I remember when I first saw the list, I wondered what was left that I could eat. The good news is that not all of these triggers will cause a headache/migraine every time you eat them; however, these foods can contribute to your overall trigger load. If you’re already dealing with hormonal fluctuations, stress, sleep disturbances, or other triggers, avoiding these foods may reduce your risk of developing a migraine.

Below, you’ll find printable PDFs of foods that are known to be common migraine triggers, plus those that are considered to be migraine-free. These lists are based upon chemicals founds in these foods, like caffeine, tyramine, nitrates/nitrites, sulfates/sulfites, aspartame, MSG, etc., which are known migraine triggers. Remember, not every trigger food will be a trigger food for you, nor will ever migraine-free food be safe. It’s up to you to keep track of your symptoms in relation to what you consume, and to identify your personal migraine trigger foods.

Migraine Trigger Foods

Migraine Trigger Foods Handout | A list of foods that are considered to be potential migraine triggers on the migraine trigger avoidance diet

Migraine-Free Foods

Migraine-Free Foods Handout | A list of foods that are considered to be safe on the migraine trigger avoidance diet