My 4 Strategies for Managing Dietary Migraine Triggers:
Identifying and avoiding my dietary migraine triggers has been one of the single most effective treatments in my vestibular migraine recovery. In this post, I’ll be talking about how I was first introduced to the migraine trigger avoidance diet, and the four steps I took to learn about the diet, identify my triggers, and get my abnormal brain activity back under control.
Me & The Migraine Trigger Avoidance Diet:
Identifying and avoiding my dietary migraine triggers has been one of the single most effective treatments in my vestibular migraine recovery.Kelley Nunn, Vestibular Migraineur
The ENT/otolaryngologist who was finally able to diagnose me with vestibular migraine strongly recommended I try the migraine trigger avoidance diet to reduce my migraine and POTS symptoms. His suggestion, based on how profoundly affected I was by these illnesses, was to eliminate every food on the trigger list, and then add the foods back in once I gained symptom control. He said that anything from cheap food buffets down to a slice of lemon in my glass of water could be triggering my vestibular migraines, depending on my sensitivities.
He handed me two tiny sheets of paper — one containing a list of foods that were considered migraine-safe, and another of potential migraine trigger foods — and sent me on my way. I left the appointment feeling absolutely terrified; I didn’t want to eat anything! How in the world was I supposed to avoid ALL of these foods?? And why did I have to avoid them in the first place? Some of the items on the list just didn’t make sense to me: bananas, citrus, nuts? These are healthy foods, how can they be triggers?
Strategy #1: Read The Heal Your Headache Book
Thankfully, at the bottom of one of the sheets of paper given to me by my ENT was a reference to the Heal Your Headache book by Dr. David Buchholz, which goes into great detail about why certain foods can be triggers, the importance of avoiding triggers to stay below your migraine threshold, among many other topics of critical importance to vestibular migraineurs, migraineurs, and headache sufferers alike.
The most important takeaway from the book regarding the migraine trigger avoidance diet is WHY certain foods have the potential to be triggers in some people. Dr. Buchholz divides the foods from my doctor’s trigger list into categories: foods that contain tyramine, hystamine, phenylethylamine, MSG, aspartame, etc. and how these chemicals can cause vascular or changes in the brain. Reading this book allowed me to see the patterns in the “migraine trigger foods” list that was given to me by my doctor. And once I understood why these foods were triggers, I was able to start identifying and avoiding my dietary triggers.
Strategy #2: Identified My Dietary Triggers
Armed with the understanding of dietary migraine triggers I gained from the Heal Your Headache book, I started keeping a migraine symptom journal.
Every night before bed, I would rate the severity of my top five or ten symptoms on a 1-10 scale: anything over a “5” meant that my quality of life had been impacted by the symptom that day. Beneath the list of symptoms, I would write down everything I had to eat that day. If at any point I went from feeling ok to dizzy or dizzy to terrifyingly dizzy, then I knew I must have encountered a behavioral, environmental, hormonal, or chemical (dietary) migraine trigger within the past 0-72 hours. If I thought a food was to blame, I’d look back at my symptom journal and see if there were any standout offenders in the list of foods I had eaten.
SIDE NOTE: For me, I had to remove all of the major dietary triggers (alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, bananas, yogurt, cheese, onions) from my diet before I was able to see any pattern at all. My symptom load was just too high to sort it all out until I removed these potentially potent trigger foods.
Strategy #3: Traced My Triggers To A Chemical Source
When I was able to identify a trigger from my symptom journal, I would do some research to figure out which chemical within that food was problematic. Then, I’d be cautious about other foods within that “trigger family.”
Here’s an example: One night about a month or so into starting the diet, I ate some mozzarella cheese with dinner. At 5:00 am the next morning, I woke up to the sensation that my bed was rocking. I opened my eyes and saw that the room was violently spinning around me; one of only a few episodes of nystagmus that I’ve experienced.
I did some reading and found that mozzarella cheese, like other cheeses but to a lesser extent, contains tyramine. Tyramine is a chemical that accumulates as food ages or ripens, with higher concentrations found in anything overripe, smoked, aged, fermented, or pickled.
Looking back through my symptom journal, I noticed that eating raisins in my morning oatmeal had made me go from feeling clear-headed to totally dizzy within an hour. When I realized the connection between tyramine and my vestibular migraine symptoms, I started to put it together that most of my dietary migraine triggers — cheese, raisins/dried fruits, yogurt, sour cream, cherries, etc. — were high in tyramine! Now I know to be cautious when eating other foods that are known as high sources of tyramine.
Most people ask me what my dietary triggers are. It’s taken a while to figure out, but I can confidently say that I become symptomatic in response to:
- Tyramine (cheeses, raisins, cherries, yogurt, sour cream, anything that isn’t fresh)
- Hystamine (leftovers)
- Onions (especially raw, also cooked, or even in the form of “onion powder” as the last ingredient on the label)
- Artificial Preservatives, Dyes, and Additives like calcium hydroxide, MSG, aspartame, and BHT
Strategy #4: Found Patterns Between Triggers & Symptoms
For me, the relationship between food and symptom is often this clear-cut. Here are some basic trends I’ve noticed about my dietary triggers and the symptoms they provoke:
- If I eat a dietary trigger in my breakfast, I’ll be dizzy and have difficulty walking within an hour.
- If I eat a major trigger before bedtime, I’ll wake up with the room spinning.
- If I eat a trigger multiple times throughout the day, or on concurrent days, my symptoms will become progressively worse each time I’m exposed to it.
- For example, I tried some organic tortilla chips that were processed with calcium hydroxide. I had a handful with lunch and felt mildly dizzy. I used some more in my taco bowl at dinner, and became dizzier and disoriented. I then proceeded to eat a few handfuls of the chips before bed, and woke up with the room spinning.
- I had an almost identical experience with the BHT in Chex cereal.
- If I’ve been triggered by food, the best thing I can do to help myself and reduce the dizzy aftermath is to eat something I know doesn’t trigger me, like a basic sunflower butter and jelly sandwich on gluten free bread. That one’s my go-to.
The Takeaway Message:
Dietary triggers aren’t a major factor for every vestibular migraineur, but for me, they play a major role in my overall symptoms. Identifying and removing my food triggers from my diet has been the most effective treatment in my vestibular migraine recovery, and has taken me from being bedridden and unable to walk, drive, work, or socialize for 10 months to working full time and feeling almost normal.
If you’re interested in managing your dietary migraine triggers, try applying these strategies! I’d love to hear how you’re able to apply these strategies to your own migraine journey! If you have any questions or comments about what I’ve written here, please leave a comment below, contact me through our contact form, or comment on the My Migraine Brain Facebook Page.
More Migraine Trigger Avoidance Diet Resources:
- I highly recommend reading the Heal Your Headache book by Dr. David Buchholz. It’s a tremendous resource for every aspect of life with migraine, and helps to provide the knowledge and understanding migraineurs need to gain control over their symptoms.
- Connect With Other People On The Migraine Diet! There are a few truly wonderful communities of migraine diet fans on Facebook, which are private, closed groups that you can request to join. My favorite is the “Heal Your Headaches: Migraine Diet” group, though I’m also a fan of the “Migraine/MAV Diet Thinktank.“
- Read, download, or print out my Migraine Trigger Food List PDFs by clicking on the images below: