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Man closing his eyes, holding his hands to his head from a migraine triggered by food and drinks. An illustrated sandwich and cup are below.

January 13, 2023 • read

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Food and drink triggers for migraine headaches

Getting a migraine isn’t like getting a regular headache. While throbbing head pain is part of the package, migraines often come with sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting, and more. If you experience migraines, you know how intense the pain can be, so preventing them from coming on is key.

Maple‘s a convenient way to get help for your migraines. With Canada’s largest online network of doctors and healthcare providers, our migraine specialist is available for appointments at a time that works for you, and from the comfort of your home. During your consultation, the doctor will evaluate your symptoms and provide strategies for relief, which may include prescription medication to treat your migraines.

While stress and even the weather can trigger migraines, what you eat and drink can cause them as well. Here are the most common food and drink triggers of migraines, so you know what’s safe and what to avoid (for most people).

What’s a migraine?

A migraine, when mild or moderate, is characterized by a progressing dull pain on one side that intensifies over an hour or so and slowly dissipates by the end of the attack. When symptoms are moderate to severe, the pain can become pulsatile and throbbing in nature, and have accompanying symptoms like headache with light, sound sensitivity, and nausea.

There are different types of migraines, but the majority are without aura — meaning they don’t have a sensitivity disturbance before the onset, like seeing black dots, flashes of lights, wavy lines, and more.

The pain from a migraine is usually on one side of the head and can last anywhere from four to 72 hours — sometimes even longer. Migraines are more likely to affect women, especially those in their 30s and 40s. Migraine pain can be aggravated by physical activity, rapid head movements, straining, or light while doing small daily tasks, Brushing your hair, for example, can become an unbearable task if you have a migraine. Most people with migraines find themselves lying in a dark and quiet room. They can be debilitating and even account for seven million missed work days in Canada.

There’s also a genetic component to migraines. If you have a close relative who experiences them, there’s a good chance you will too.

Are migraines caused by poor diet?

The exact cause of migraines isn’t fully understood and can differ from person to person. Many patients report certain foods, drinks, or food additives trigger their migraines. More research is needed to confirm just how much diet affects the cause of migraines, but it’s thought that certain ingredients and chemicals in foods are common triggers, like tyramine, sulphites, and nitrites and nitrates.

These chemicals can narrow your blood vessels and increase your blood pressure, prompting a migraine. And many patients with migraines have reported eliminating certain foods did help to reduce the frequency of their migraines, so there’s merit to this theory.

How common are food-triggered headaches?

If you experience migraines, you’ve likely tried everything to determine the root cause. And it turns out that many people who get migraines are pretty sure that what they eat is where they start. In a study of over 1,000 patients with the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 26.9% reported that food causes their migraines. With that being said, the most commonly reported reason for migraines was stress (79.7%), hormones in women (65.1%), and skipping meals (57.3%).

How long after eating a trigger food do you get a migraine?

You might notice your migraine begins after eating a particular food or drink in as little as a couple of hours or as many as 24 hours. This window of time is vast since food affects everyone’s migraines differently. If this happens consistently with that same type of food, it may be a migraine trigger for you.

Can certain foods and drinks trigger migraines?

Many foods and drinks are thought to set off migraines, but here are the main culprits on the migraine foods-to-avoid list:

  • Chocolate — cocoa and caffeine found in chocolate may cause changes to the central nervous system
  • Processed meats — nitrites and nitrates found in processed meats have been shown to dilate blood vessels
  • Aged cheese — contains tyramine, which can narrow blood vessels
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) — more research is needed, but many people report that the food additive MSG triggers migraine symptoms. This may be due to the stimulation of nerve cells.
  • Alcohol — particularly red wine, contains histamine and tyramine, which can dilate blood vessels.
  • Caffeinated beverages — including tea, coffee, and soda, the diuretic effect of caffeine overconsumption leads to increased dehydration, along with its effect on reducing magnesium, which can make it a trigger for some people. Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors, so when intake is reduced, it may also cause migraines.
  • Citrus fruits — oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and limes release octopamine, which can cause migraines in those with a sensitivity
  • Artificial sweeteners — such as aspartame and sucralose lower serotonin and dopamine
  • Cold food and beverages — like ice cream or cold water, some people can get migraines due to a cold sensitivity

It’s important to note, however, that not all food labelled a trigger causes migraines in everyone. So, if you get migraines, you might be able to tolerate common trigger foods like cheese and chocolate.

Additionally, food behaviours can affect how many migraines you get. Skipping meals, caffeine withdrawal, dehydration, and some medications can trigger migraines.

What foods can help with migraines?

On the flip side, some foods may help provide relief when you have a migraine or could prevent one from starting. One study showed that eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, and lower in omega-6 fatty acids — think fried foods like french fries which also contain trans fats — may help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.

Spinach or seeds like pumpkin and chia are also thought to fight off migraines thanks to high levels of magnesium. While more proof is needed, researchers believe that taking a magnesium supplement may reduce the frequency of migraine attacks.

Caffeine, which has also been labelled a migraine trigger, is actually known to relieve migraine pain thanks to its ability to constrict blood vessels. However, people with migraines should drink no more than 200mg daily.

Finally, water is a really good way to help prevent migraines. Dehydration can be a trigger for many, and drinking water has been shown to reduce pain severity, frequency, and duration of migraines.

Are there any diets that can help with migraines?

Along with incorporating the “good” foods listed above, you can also keep a food journal while eliminating items over a few weeks or months to know which foods and drinks are triggering your headaches. This doesn’t mean eliminating entire food categories, like whole grains, for example. If you need to remove many foods from your diet, consider working with a dietitian to make sure your nutritional needs are met during elimination. Keeping track of the foods you eat before a migraine attack, along with other triggers like stress, missed meals, and not getting enough sleep, exercise, or water, is also helpful.

Common foods and drinks to avoid or limit include:

  • Caffeine (including coffee, soda, and energy drinks — keep consumption to less than 200mg per day)
  • Cheese (specifically aged cheeses)
  • Yogurt
  • Chocolate (milk or dark)
  • Citrus fruits
  • Avocado
  • Bananas
  • Dried fruits
  • Red wine
  • Ketchup
  • Processed foods
  • Nuts
  • Baked goods less than a day old
  • Soy
  • Aspartame

Research has also shown that focusing on a diet of low-fat, plant-based foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables followed by an elimination diet can reduce the intensity and pain of headaches, while another study showed that a low-glycemic diet could be an effective method to reduce migraine attacks.

How Maple can help with your migraines

Finding your food and drink triggers can help limit painful migraines. But, with so many choices and more research needed, it’s not always easy to protect yourself from throbbing head pain by avoiding certain foods.

Maple’s migraine specialist is a general practitioner who specializes in treating and preventing migraines and severe headaches. During your consultation, the doctor will evaluate your symptoms and provide strategies for relief. This might include prescription medication like topiramate (Topamax) or sumatriptan (Imitrex).

No referral is needed for your appointment, and it takes place over your phone, tablet, or computer, so you don’t have to leave home. If the doctor prescribes medication, you’ll have the option of getting it sent to the pharmacy of your choice or delivered to your door at no additional cost.

Migraines and severe headaches can seriously affect your quality of life. Talk to a migraine specialist online today so you can tackle your migraines head-on.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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