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Pinpointing specific foods that trigger migraines and tailoring your diet accordingly may help prevent headache attacks.

Many environmental factors can trigger migraines — including what you eat and drink. 

“It’s believed that some foods may trigger the brain to release certain chemicals, such as serotonin, which causes blood vessels to narrow and can lead to a throbbing migraine,” explains Abigail Chua, DO, a neurologist at Geisinger. “But everyone who has migraines is different, and what may trigger a migraine attack in one person may not have the same effect in another.” 

Pinpointing specific foods that trigger migraines and tailoring your diet may help decrease your headache frequency. 

Foods that trigger migraines

Food triggers can vary from person to person, and some people may not have any food triggers at all.  However, caffeine and alcohol, especially red wine, are commonly thought to be migraine triggers. Food typically triggers a migraine within 24 hours of the time it’s consumed. 

Fermented alcohol like red wine contains histamines and the amino acid tyramine that can trigger a migraine. Alcohol also can lead to dehydration, which is a contributor to migraine headaches.

In addition, excessive caffeine intake can raise your risk of migraine headaches and that includes more than just your morning cup of Joe. Caffeine also can be found in chocolate, soda and tea. 

“Caffeine is a drug and frequent use can cause the brain to become dependent, and when it’s not delivered, a painful withdrawal migraine can ensue,” says Dr. Chua. “That’s why suddenly skipping your morning coffee or glass of red wine with dinner sometimes triggers a migraine. Instead, if you want to cut back on caffeine or red wine, do it gradually over time.”

Other common foods that trigger migraines include:

Aged cheeses and pickled or fermented foods like blue cheese, feta, Parmesan, smoked fish, pickles, kimchi and soy sauce. These foods also contain tyramine, which can trigger migraines. The longer a cheese is aged or a food is pickled, the higher the level of tyramine.

Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame. Sugar alternatives can be found in many foods and drinks, from sodas and teas to sugar-free candies and desserts.

Cured meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage, pepperoni and deli meats. They contain nitrates, a preservative, that can trigger a migraine. 

Food additives or enhancers, like MSG, found in some processed foods and restaurant dishes.

Frozen foods and drinks that are extremely cold can lead to “brain freeze” and could bring on a migraine.

“Skipping meals, dehydration or fasting also can cause a migraine headache due to fluctuations in blood sugar levels,” says Dr. Chua. “Eating at regular intervals and making sure you don’t skip meals can help.”

How to manage diet-related migraines

Eliminating all these trigger foods from your diet is unrealistic. However, by identifying which foods may be causing your pain, you can develop a migraine-friendly diet plan to help keep symptoms at bay. 

Headache diary: Is food triggering your migraines?

Migraine triggers are highly individualized. So, one of the best things you can do is learn your personal triggers. A good place to start is with a headache diary. It’s helpful in tracking your migraine symptoms and activities before and after the headache comes on. 

The next time you get a migraine, jot down your symptoms, along with any activities and foods and drinks you consumed about 24 hours before the pain started. Over time, the headache diary can help you spot patterns and learn possible triggers that you can avoid in the future to keep pain at bay. 

“A headache diary also can be helpful when you’re discussing a custom migraine treatment plan with your doctor,” says Dr. Chua.

Preventing migraines through an elimination diet

Once you identify trigger patterns, you can try an elimination diet to better pinpoint what’s causing your pain.

To get started, eliminate one or two food items from your diet for about two to four weeks. Then, reintroduce them into your daily diet one at a time and use your headache diary to track the outcomes. If symptoms increased after adding back in that certain food, you can assume it may be a migraine trigger and try to avoid it. 

How to create a migraine diet plan

The best approach to managing migraines is preventing them in the first place. Eating a healthy diet chock full of fresh fruits, vegetables and lean proteins can go a long way in preventing migraines. 

“Often the chemicals used to cure or preserve packaged foods irritate the nervous system and can trigger migraine attacks,” says Dr. Chua. 

She also recommends:

  • Eating regularly, about every three to four hours, and never skipping a meal 
  • Limiting caffeine and alcohol  
  • Adding protein and fiber to your diet to help keep blood sugar levels stabilized between meals
  • Drinking plenty of water throughout the day 

But since migraine triggers can vary widely among people, it’s essential to approach a migraine diet plan systemically and with guidance from your doctor. 

“Your provider or dietitian can help you develop a personalized diet and lifestyle plan that is specific to your health needs and symptoms,” says Dr. Chua. “Besides food, there are several other migraine triggers, such as stress, lack of sleep and hormonal changes, and migraines are more likely when several triggers are occurring at once. It’s helpful to consider all possible triggers to manage your condition effectively.”

Next steps: 

Learn about headache care at Geisinger
How to stop waking up with a headache
When is a headache more than just pain?

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