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What common foods can trigger migraines?

Stephen H. Atkins, PhD
Integrative Medicine

Certain foods are notorious migraine triggers. In this video, Dr. Stephen Atkins, an integrative medicine specialist, discusses the numerous foods that can cause colossal pain in the heads of migraine sufferers.

Howard S. Smith
Pain Medicine
Food scientists have identified chocolate, some types of cheese and dairy products, monosodium glutamate (MSG), nuts, citrus foods, meats, and alcohol (usually red wine) as possibly triggering migraine headaches. If you suffer with migraine headaches, I’m sure you’re aware of this strong link between the food you eat and the onset or intensity of the migraine. Although the exact connection is unclear, it’s thought that chemical sensitivities cause reactions in blood vessels and nerves increase the diameter of the blood vessels in the brain. These actions result in the pounding headache and other symptoms you feel.
Foods and additives that sometimes trigger a migraine headache include:
  • alcoholic beverages
  • avocados
  • bananas
  • beans (except green or wax)
  • caffeinated beverages (tea, coffee, cola, etc.)
  • cheeses, aged and unpasteurized (brie, camembert, cheddar, gruyere, stilton, etc.)
  • chicken livers
  • chocolate
  • citrus fruits
  • fermented, pickled, or marinated foods
  • herring
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • nitrates (found in cured meats)
  • nuts and peanut butter
  • onions
  • peas
  • pork
  • sour cream
  • vinegar (except white)
  • yogurt
For those who suffer from migraines, watching what you eat may be part of your prevention plan.

Here are some of the most common food-related migraine triggers:
  • Aged cheese (blue, brie, cheddar, parmesan, Swiss)
  • Pickles and olives
  • Alcohol (especially red wine)
  • MSG (soy sauce, packaged foods, seasoned salts)
  • Food additives (nitrates and some food colorings)
  • Excessive caffeine (more than two to three cups of coffee daily).
If you aren't sure what triggers your headache, your health-care provider may suggest you keep a headache diary: Recording what you eat and when symptoms appear may help to pinpoint triggers. And while certain foods can be headache triggers, skipping meals can bring on headaches, too.
Cold foods or beverages, caffeine, including chocolate, alcohol, and food additives can all trigger migraines. The food additives most commonly causing migraines are nitrates, so read the label. In addition, aged foods like cheeses can cause migraines as well. Keep a journal of what you eat so that you can see what triggers the migraines for you.
Jacob Teitelbaum
Integrative Medicine
Most migraine patients get marked improvement by avoiding certain foods. But most people with migraines are not aware of which foods are triggering their headaches. Food sensitivities are an even bigger problem in children with migraines. To determine whether foods are playing a role in causing your headaches, try following an elimination diet. This can make it easier to tell whether food allergies/sensitivities are present, because your migraines will be triggered when you reintroduce certain foods into your diet.
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Migraines can be set off by foods containing tyramine, phenathylamine, monosodium glutamate, or sodium nitrate. Common foods that contain these are chocolate, aged cheeses, sour cream, red wine, pickled herring, chicken livers, avocados, ripe bananas, cured meats, and many Asian and prepared foods.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.