There are different factors that can trigger a migraine — including what we eat and drink. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, it’s thought that food triggers combined with other migraine-causing triggers are most impactful. But this combination is highly individualized so it makes research difficult.
There is no such thing as a universal migraine trigger. But there are some common triggers that can cause or contribute to migraines in some people.
Too much caffeine and having caffeine withdrawal (or not having enough) can cause migraines. But according to the American Migraine Foundation, caffeine can actually help stop oncoming migraines. It can also offer headache relief with occasional use.
Foods with caffeine include:
Many processed foods contain artificial sweeteners. They’re used as sugar alternatives for those with diabetes. But these sweeteners can cause migraines. According to the Mayo Clinic, aspartame in particular is thought to trigger migraines.
Alcohol is one of the more common products thought to trigger migraines. Red wine and beer are thought to be triggers for about 25 percent of people who get regular migraines. Alcohol can cause dehydration, which is a significant contributor in developing headaches.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, chocolate is thought to be the second most common trigger for migraines after alcohol. It affects an estimated 22 percent of people who experience migraines. It contains caffeine and also beta-phenylethylamine, which may trigger headaches in some people.
Foods containing MSG
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a glutamic acid that naturally exists in our bodies. It is also in certain foods, and present in many foods as a food additive. It’s considered safe to eat, but some researchers link it to migraines. The American Migraine Foundation notes it may trigger severe migraines in 10 to 15 percent of those who experience migraines. Other preservatives may also trigger migraines in some people.
Cured meats — including deli meats, ham, hot dogs, and sausages — all contain preservatives called nitrates, which preserve color and flavor. These foods can release nitric oxide into the blood, which is thought to dilate blood vessels in the brain. There is evidence that nitric oxide can cause or contribute to migraines.
Aged cheeses contain a substance called tyramine. It forms when a food’s aging causes the breakdown of proteins. The longer the cheese has aged, the higher the tyramine content will be. Tyramine is linked to migraines. Common cheeses that are high in tyramine include:
- blue cheese
Pickled and fermented foods
Like aged cheeses, pickled and fermented foods can contain high amounts of tyramine. These foods include:
- kombucha (which can also have alcoholic content)
- pickled okra
- pickled jalapenos
Eating frozen foods and drinks like ice cream or slushies can trigger severe, stabbing pains in the head. You’re most likely to experience headaches that become migraines if you’re eating cold food quickly, after exercise, or when overheated.
Salty foods — especially salty processed foods that may contain harmful preservatives — may trigger migraines in some people. Consuming high levels of sodium can increase blood pressure, causing headaches or migraines.
Treatment for migraines can involve a combination of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications and alternative remedies.
For occasional headaches, you can take OTC medications like Excedrin Migraine to relieve pain. Your doctor may also prescribe triptan medications to relieve pain. If you experience regular migraines, your doctor will likely prescribe preventative medications. These may include beta-blockers, which can lower blood pressure and reduce migraines. Antidepressants are also sometimes prescribed to prevent migraines, even in those without depression.
There is evidence that some alternative remedies can help treat migraines. These include:
Outlook and prevention
Migraines are painful and can interrupt your life. Fortunately, there are some lifestyle changes you can make and habits to adopt that can help you prevent them. These include:
- eating regularly, and never skipping meals
- limiting your caffeine intake
- getting plenty of sleep
- reducing the stress in your life by trying yoga, mindfulness, or meditation
- limiting the amount of time you’re looking at bright lights, or are in direct sunlight, which can both cause sensory migraines
- taking frequent “screen breaks” from television, the computer, and other screens
- trying an elimination diet to help you identify any food allergies or intolerances that may be headache triggers