What are some triggers for migraine headaches?

Dr. James D. Hudson, MD
Family Practitioner

Migraine headaches are triggered by a combination of things. Dehydration, weather changes or two drinks instead of one can have potentially ill effects when it comes to migraine, but often it’s more than just one trigger. Other migraine headache triggers include:

  • the time of the month
  • inadequate sleep
  • skipping a meal
  • foods high in MSG, like Chinese food
  • preserved meats containing nitrites or nitrates, like hot dogs, deli meats, sausages and ham
Donna Feldman
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

If you are uncertain about whether a food triggers a migraine, a food/headache log is your best investigative tool. Depending on how often you get migraines, and how diverse your diet it, you may need to keep this log for 1 to 4 weeks. You should write down:

  • everything you eat and drink, including any herbs or supplements you take
  • migraine occurrence, including time, duration and severity

Keep in mind, a trigger food may take several hours to cause a reaction. A written log allows you to look back and see if a particular food was eaten before you experience a migraine.

The investigation can be complicated by reaction to food additives. For example, some people suspect MSG causes them problems, but if you list "soup" or "fried rice", you might miss the fact that both these foods contained MSG. If you use many prepared foods, keep the labels. The ingredients' lists can help you sort this out. If you eat restaurant food, many fast food and chain restaurants now have nutrition and ingredients information on their websites.

Another additive suspected of triggering headaches is nitrite, found in many cured and processed meat products. Certain groups of foods contain molecules called amines which may also cause headaches. Examples are aged cheeses, sauerkrauts, cured meats/fish and chocolate.

While some people are sensitive to any amount of a trigger food, others may tolerate small servings. Migraines are only triggered when large amounts of offending foods are eaten at one time. So if you haven't found any one obvious food trigger, look at your whole meal. If you have meals that contain lots of MSG, nitrite or amine foods, you may react to high doses of these.

If you still can't find any clues in your food log, a registered dietitian with expertise in food allergies may be able to analyze it for you.

To determine which foods, if any, trigger migraine attacks, keep a diary of what you eat. Depending on how often your attacks occur, you may need to keep the diary for several weeks.
If you're diagnosed with migraine headaches and you feel you're susceptible to food triggers, a registered dietitian can recommend appropriate food substitutes.

Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Administration Specialist
The most common triggers that stimulate migraines are stress, weather changes, alcohol, changes in dietary or sleep patterns, and hormonal fluctuations, which cause "menstrual migraines" in some women. Other factors, such as caffeine, aged cheese, bright lights, exertion, smoke, and noise, are also triggers for some people. Triggers can be difficult to identify because it may be twenty-four to forty-eight hours between the trigger and the headache. Also, a particular factor may trigger a headache at some times but at other times may not. Many women have migraines when they are premenstrual but have them less often at other times.
Various triggers can trigger a headache in an individual who is predisposed to migraine. Actually the triggers would likely trigger a headache in anyone under extreme circumstances. But migraineurs get headaches that are easily triggered. The large variety of triggers often involve a CHANGE is a normal routine, such as change in stress, change in weather, change in hormones, and change in diet. If one can identify treatable triggers, they would be minimized and would expect some reduction in the number of attacks.

In this video, Mark Green, MD, discusses triggers for migraines and how they can be controlled.

The biological mechanisms that cause headaches are not fully understood. Common triggers that can lead to headaches are associated with different types of headaches. Stress, for instance, is a common trigger for migraine headaches. Changing hormone levels in the body are another known trigger, which is one of the reasons that women are three times more likely than men to experience migraine headaches.

Many factors that cause tension headache—such as stress, lack of sleep, or missing a meal—can also trigger migraine headaches. But for some migraine sufferers, alcohol or a particular food may prompt an attack. The list is long, but foods known to cause migraine headaches include chocolate and aged cheeses, as well as additives like nitrates, found in most cured meats, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), an ingredient in some canned, processed, and Chinese foods (check the nutrition facts panel on food labels). Of course, if you can identify such a trigger, your prevention strategy is simple: avoid it.

Dr. Steven A. Meyers, MD
Diagnostic Radiologist

Migraine triggers are unique from person to person. What triggers a migraine in one person may not in another. Many different foods may trigger migraine is some persons. Common food triggers include alcohol, aged meats, cheese, caffeine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and chocolate. Many other foods have also been implicated in triggering migraine.

Other common triggers include stress, weather changes, altered sleep patterns, missing meals, and in women, hormonal fluctuations associated with the menstrual cycle.

Identifying and eliminating triggers when possible can significantly reduce the frequency of attacks. Many migraine sufferers have no identifiable triggers.

Debra Fulghum Bruce PhD
Healthcare Specialist

Different problems inside your head can cause headaches. A common concern you may have is that there may be a brain tumor. Headaches are the first sign in only a third or less of brain tumors. There are usually other signs your doctor will find upon examination. Infections, injuries to the head, inflammation of the nerves and arteries, and diseases of the eye, ear, nose or teeth are possible causes of headaches, but they are not as common. You may be concerned that your severe headache is a sign of a stroke, but this is a very uncommon cause of chronic headaches.

Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum
Integrative Medicine Specialist

Food allergies are a common trigger for migraines. Allergies to sugar or chocolate, for example, frequently set off migraines. Because of this, many people find that their headaches decrease when they stop eating sugar and chocolate in particular. Why and how these foods trigger allergic migraines is unknown.

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Any food, food additive or chemical added to foods can trigger a migraine.

Some of us develop rashes or problems with our digestive system or even breathing when we have a food allergy.

Others of us may have an internal reaction instead where the substance affects our blood vessels and nerves and triggers a migraine.

Some of the most common offenders are dairy products, sugar, chocolate, eggs, citrus fruits, meat, wheat, nuts, tomatoes, onions, corn , apples and bananas. Also caffeinated drinks, alcoholic beverages, and chemical additives like nitrates and NutraSweet.

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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.