10 Common Foods That Trigger Migraines

Alcohol, cured meats, aged cheese, and food preservatives are some of the common foods that tend to trigger migraines – if you are susceptible to migraines, do take note of what you should avoid in your diet!

by Nathasha Lee

There are several factors that we could list down as migraine triggers – stress, lack of sleep, or sensory stimuli like bright lights. Have you ever considered that perhaps your diet could also have a part to play in triggering those splitting migraines? Certain types of foods and drinks can be a factor in triggering these splitting headaches. 

What is a migraine?

A migraine is a severe headache that is accompanied by a collection of other symptoms like extreme nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. Migraines are considered a brain condition and are often diagnosed through a set of symptoms. Before a migraine episode happens, one might experience the following signs:

  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Insomnia
  • Seeing an “aura” of light around objects and people
  • Sudden food cravings
  • Unexplained anxiety

Migraines are often recurring and may become more frequent or severe in response to certain trigger factors. Lack of sleep, stress and bright lights are common factors which could make your migraines worse. Below we’ll be talking about how diet can be another trigger and types of foods you should avoid to control your migraines.  

10 common foods that trigger migraines

There is no one food that has been conclusively identified as a universal migraine trigger. Nonetheless, there are several types of food and drinks that have been known to potentially trigger migraines.

Alcohol

close-up photo of liquor bottles in rack

According to a scientific study done in America, alcohol is the most common food trigger for migraines with 36% of people with migraines reporting that it makes their migraines worse. Many people with migraines report that they experience migraine episodes within a few hours after consuming alcohol. Alcohol is rich in histamines which can trigger allergic reactions if consumed by people who are naturally sensitive to these substances. Be careful about foods like tiramisu and even medicines, like the NyQuil found in popular medicinal ointments which can contain alcohol.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose have a chance of triggering headaches in some people with migraines. Such substances contain amino acids which have been found to aggravate migraines by causing changes in one’s blood vessels. These artificial sweeteners can be found in soft drinks, low-calorie fruit juices and sugar-free candy. The onset of a headache is not immediate, as a migraine might occur anywhere between 24 to 48 hours after consuming foods with artificial sweeteners. Nonetheless, frequent consumption of these foods might lead to more frequent headaches in the long run. 

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Caffeine

brown coffee beans on gray surface

Caffeine causes blood vessels to dilate and increase blood flow, which can lead to more frequent headaches and migraines. Caffeine is not just found in coffee, but other beverages like black tea and certain soft drinks like Coca-Cola. The effect of caffeine on migraines can differ between individuals. Some people find that drinking caffeine-rich beverages causes their migraines to happen more frequently, while others find that it reduces the frequency of their migraines instead. Nevertheless, it would be best to avoid caffeine if you are concerned that it might encourage the onset of your migraines. Try to limit your coffee consumption to not more than two cups a day. 

Citrus fruits

Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits and lemons contain a substance known as octopamine that can make migraine episodes more frequent. People who are sensitive to the octopamine found in citrus fruits might have more frequent or severe migraine episodes when they eat fresh citrus fruits or drink products containing citrus fruits like lemonade or orange juice. Other acidic foods like balsamic vinegar contain amino acids that can cause changes in one’s blood vessels that lead to the onset of migraines. 

Chocolate

chopped chocolate

According to the American Migraine Foundation, chocolate was the second-most commonly reported food trigger of migraines with 22% of people with migraines saying that it made their migraines worse. Chocolate contains xanthines which can stimulate the nervous system and might contribute to a higher migraine frequency. Chocolate also contains a chemical called serotonin, which normally acts as a neurotransmitter that helps us regulate our mood. However, serotonin can also be responsible for affecting chemical signals in the brain in a way that can lead to migraines. Dark chocolate contains the highest concentration of these amino acids compared to milk and white chocolate. 

Kimchi

cooked food on stainless steel bowl

Kimchi consists of fermented vegetables which are rich in probiotics. Probiotic-rich fermented foods including sauerkraut and the fermented tea kombucha, contain substances called amines that can trigger reactions in some people. Amines affect the nervous system which can cause blood flow to increase or decrease which can physically affect our bodies. While amines like histamines are known for causing food allergies, they can also trigger migraines. 

Processed meat

Processed meats include high levels of nitrates which are known to be headache triggers. Examples of processed meat include salami, sausages, ham, bacon and other meats that have been smoked or cured. Preserved foods that have been aged for a long time, including aged cheeses like brie and cheddar, contain an amino acid called tyramine that can activate receptors in the brain and cause the onset of migraines. Tyramine levels increase in food that has been left over from a previous meal, so people who often get migraines should be careful of consuming leftovers. 

Soy sauce

person dripping black liquid from small white ceramic bowl to big white ceramic bowl

This unassuming condiment used in everyday Asian cuisine might be a potential trigger of your migraines. Soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans, which are also high in tyramine. Soy sauce can sometimes contain monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is known to sometimes trigger cramps, headaches and diarrhoea. The high salt content in soy sauce can also lead to dehydration which is another known cause of headaches. 

Snow peas

Snow peas and other types of beans like broad beans and fava beans are high in tyramine. Being rich sources of protein, they also contain naturally high amounts of nitrates which are another known migraine trigger. While beans can be a good source of protein for vegetarians, someone who is prone to migraines must be careful about consuming them too much

Tofu

person holding white and blue ceramic plate with rice and sliced cucumber

Like soy sauce, tofu is made out of soybeans which have high levels of tyramine. Processed soy products like tofu and miso also contain high amounts of MSG and should be avoided by people who frequently have migraines.

Just because the foods above are known triggers does not mean you must avoid them completely. Having a little soy sauce in your congee or a slice of ham in your sandwich is unlikely to significantly increase your risk of having a migraine. However, regular consumption of these foods could trigger more migraines in the long run, so it is best to eat them in moderation. 

How to identify and avoid food triggers

Here are some steps you can take to know if certain foods are responsible for triggering your migraines, and how you can avoid these triggers:

Keep a headache diary

To control your migraines, it’s important that you understand the current trend of your migraines and what might cause them to happen. To determine when your migraines are occurring and how severe they might be, it would be a good idea to keep a headache diary in a physical organiser or on a notes application on your phone. Take note of when you get migraines, how often and how severe each episode is, and potential factors surrounding the episode that might have contributed to it. This can make it easier for you to identify whether your migraines have been getting more or less severe in response to certain factors. 

Note the pattern of your migraines

Sometimes, a specific trigger can be difficult to identify. For example, if you are low on sleep and decide to drink a cup of coffee to keep awake, it can be difficult to determine if a migraine that happens afterwards was caused by the caffeine or the lack of sleep. It’s useful to think about the pattern of your headaches to try to isolate certain triggers. If you’re unsure about whether it was the lack of sleep or caffeine that is causing the migraines, trying to control one factor like limiting caffeine consumption can help to determine the root trigger. 

Stay away from suspected food triggers for four weeks

To identify what your food triggers are with more certainty, you can try to stay away from suspected triggers for four weeks. You need to avoid the triggers for a long enough period of time that you can observe any effects on your migraine frequency. 

Try to cut known triggers out of your diet

Once you’ve identified known food triggers, you should try to remove them from your diet wherever possible. For example, if you often flavour your food using soy sauce, you could try using fresh herbs as seasoning instead. Having a diet that is low in sources of tyramine can help to significantly reduce the frequency of migraines. Instead of pickled vegetables, you can try eating more fresh leafy greens. Processed meats can be replaced with sources of protein like chicken breast that are cooked and consumed within a shorter time frame. You should also limit the amount of salt in your diet and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. 

Prevention is better than cure

Migraines can be a symptom of something bigger and more serious. If your migraine persists for a long period of time, it is advisable to consult a doctor or go for a health screening. 

If you or a loved one has been suffering from migraines and you would like to get medication without having to travel to the clinic, you can arrange for a teleconsultation and medicine delivery with Homage. Book your teleconsultation with one of our doctors vis the Homage app, and you can get the prescribed medication delivered to your home.

Other services we can provide include simple health screenings as well as providing medical escort services to help you receive urgent medical care.   

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References
  1. Brady, S. (2021, September 8). Frequently Asked Questions About Migraine Symptoms. American Migraine Foundation. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-symptoms-faq/
  2. Logan, A. (n.d.). Diet and Headache Control. American Migraine Foundation. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/diet/
  3. Migraine Food Triggers | Sutter Health. (n.d.). Sutter Health. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from https://www.sutterhealth.org/health/migraines-headaches/migraine-food-triggers
  4. Mohammed, M. (2019, November 13). Kombucha, kimchi and yogurt: how fermented foods could be harmful to your health. The Conversation. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/kombucha-kimchi-and-yogurt-how-fermented-foods-could-be-harmful-to-your-health-126131
  5. Nowaczewska, M., Wiciński, M., Kaźmierczak, W., & Kaźmierczak, H. (2020). To Eat or Not to Eat: A Review of the Relationship between Chocolate and Migraines. Nutrients, 12(3), 608. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12030608
  6. Foods That Can Trigger Headaches. (n.d.). Penn Medicine. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/neuroscience-blog/2015/november/foods-that-can-trigger-headaches
  7. Onderwater G.L.J., van Oosterhout W. P. J., Schoonman G. G.,Ferrari M. D. Terwindt ,G. M. (2018) Alcoholic beverages as trigger factor and the effect on alcohol consumption behavior in patients with migraine. European Journal of Neurology, 26 (4). https://doi.org/10.1111/ene.13861
  8. Sweeteners, Headaches and the Unpredictability of Triggers. (n.d.). UC Health. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from https://www.uchealth.com/en/media-room/articles/sweeteners–headaches-and-the-unpredictability-of-triggers
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About the Writer
Nathasha Lee
Nathasha Lee is a final-year Anthropology major at Yale-NUS College. She hopes her writing can make a positive difference in the lives of readers, no matter how small. In her spare time, she enjoys making art, listening to podcasts, and drinking lots of tea.
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