Researchers suspect multiple factors contribute to migraine attacks. In some cases, what you eat may be involved. Although no specific diet is proven to completely eliminate migraine symptoms, many people find that dietary changes reduce their migraine symptom severity and frequency. The recommendations for healthy eating with migraine are the same as for the general population: choose whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while limiting sodium and saturated or trans fats.
Experts estimate that about 20 percent of people who get headaches — a common migraine symptom — are considered food-sensitive. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to learn how your body reacts to different foods.
MyMigraineTeam members often share their experiences with diet. One member wrote, “I thought food triggers were a hoax until I seriously tested it recently. Now I know that tree nuts (or tree nut butters), lunch meats, and any leftovers older than two to three days will give me a nearly instantaneous headache. Other supposed dietary triggers, like olives, cheese, avocados, and coffee, don’t seem to bother me.”
After evaluating what you eat when you get a migraine attack, you can start the journey to exploring potential food triggers and how they may affect your migraine symptoms.
A wide range of dietary factors have been studied as potential triggers for migraine attacks, although there is no conclusive evidence that any one food triggers or prevents migraines for everyone. Some of the most commonly examined ingredients include:
Fasting is also a suspected trigger that may impact as many as 44 percent of people who have migraine. Plan to eat on a regular schedule and avoid skipping meals. If fasting seems to trigger your migraine attacks, be sure to keep a healthy snack on hand for when you’re unable to sit down for a meal.
Members of MyMigraineTeam have tried a wide variety of diets in an effort to reduce their headaches, including ketogenic (keto) diets, anti-inflammatory diets, the paleo diet, gluten-free diets, and vegetarian diets. Some of their comments about food have included:
If this list seems a bit scattered, it’s because the connection between migraine and diet hasn’t been fully established. Not everyone responds to food the same way, and conclusive data is limited. Some research suggests a genetic component in different types of migraine that may be influenced by diet. Others suspect a link between gut bacteria and migraine, which may respond better to certain ways of eating.
Tyramine is produced by the body from the amino acid tyrosine. A low-tyramine diet is popular among people with migraine because of tyramine’s ability to widen blood vessels, which is believed to trigger migraine attacks. Tyramine levels increase as food is stored or aged. As a result, tyramine is found mostly in aged, fermented, or preserved foods, including:
People on a low-tyramine diet are advised to avoid foods with added preservatives, including nitrites or nitrates. Choosing fresh foods and immediately freezing leftovers that you don’t plan to eat within three days can help reduce your intake of tyramine. While a low-tyramine diet may be effective for some people with migraine, it can be needlessly restrictive for others. Always talk to your health care provider for more information before adjusting your diet.
Alcohol is estimated to be a trigger for about 27 percent of people with migraine. The worst culprits tend to be dark and heavy drinks. Vodka is typically considered the easiest alcohol to tolerate for people who get headaches, but it’s best to avoid alcohol completely when trying to get a handle on severe migraine symptoms.
The American Migraine Foundation encourages people with migraine to pay attention to the amount of caffeine they’re consuming from food, beverages, and over-the-counter medications. Although the occasional caffeine dose can help treat headaches, overuse of caffeine can make symptoms worse. Experts advise people with episodic migraine attacks to stick to no more than 200 milligrams of caffeine per day (about two cups of coffee). People with regular headaches are encouraged to eliminate caffeine consumption altogether by cutting it down by 25 percent each week as a gradual, stepwise way to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
A food allergy test is one way to determine if you should steer clear of specific ingredients, but it doesn’t always shed light on migraine triggers. While food allergy tests check for an immune system response to food, migraine attacks may be triggered by food intolerances or sensitivities that don’t show up in an allergy test.
One way to identify food sensitivities is through an elimination diet. As one MyMigraineTeam member said, “I did an elimination diet a couple of years ago. It helped me to better recognize what foods/ingredients were problematic for me. It can take some time, since a trigger can take up to 72 hours to hit, but it was worth it for me. Now, I monitor to see if anything has started to have any impact, just in case.”
A registered dietitian can guide you through an elimination diet by helping you pinpoint specific items to avoid and reintroduce while watching for symptoms. Elimination diets are strict, but are intended to be short-term (typically about four to eight weeks).
Before starting an elimination diet, you could try a less rigid approach to increase your awareness about your migraine symptoms. For instance, drinking plenty of water and getting high blood pressure under control are important initial migraine prevention strategies. Keeping a daily log where you write down what you’re eating and drinking, along with any environmental triggers (such as stress or lack of sleep) can help you figure out what — if anything — may be contributing to your migraine attacks.
MyMigraineTeam is the social network for people with migraine and their loved ones. On MyMigraineTeam, more than 72,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with migraine.
Do you see a correlation between what you eat and migraine symptoms? Are there any specific foods that make your migraine attacks worse? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.