10 Foods That May Trigger a Migraine

Alcohol, cured meats, and aged cheeses all might bring on one heck of a headache.

chocolate migraine
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As if migraines weren't awful enough, it can be downright overwhelming to sidestep all the things that could set off an attack. Problem is, food triggers not only vary from person to person, but much of our knowledge about them comes less from carefully controlled studies and more from observing patients, said Lee Peterlin, DO, founder and director of the Pennsylvania Headache Center.

We've put together a list of common migraine triggers, but before you cut out every one of them from your diet, here's something to keep in mind: Fasting or skipping meals may also cause migraines, particularly in women, said Dr. Peterlin. So, be sure you're eating enough at regular intervals throughout the day.

Also, foods triggers will not set off a migraine attack in every person with migraine, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF). Your personal food triggers can be difficult to figure out.

01 of 10

Alcohol

According to a 2018 study in the European Journal of Neurology, alcoholic beverages were reported as a trigger by 35.6% of participants with migraine. Wine, especially red wine, was reported by 77.8% of participants as having caused migraine, and was the most common trigger among the alcoholic beverages.

The reason is still up for debate, but some experts believe that certain compounds in wine, such as tannins and flavonoids, are the culprits. A 2014 review in the Headache Journal suggested that the flavonoid phenolic compounds, which include tannins, are probably the most likely cause of red wine-induced headache. Wines that contains higher amounts of tannins are big, bold wines like cabernet sauvignon.

Plus, drinking alcohol may lead to dehydration, which can also contribute to a headache, said Dr. Peterkin.

02 of 10

Too Much Caffeine

Caffeine has an ambiguous or complicated relationship with migraine, according to a 2021 review in the journal Nutrients. Caffeine has been linked with migraine for many years, on the one hand as a trigger, and on the other as a cure. The study found insufficient evidence to recommend that all migraine patients stop consuming caffeine. However, it did highlight that caffeine overuse may lead to migraines, and sudden caffeine withdrawal can trigger migraine attacks.

Limit caffeinated beverages to eight to 12 ounces a day, said Dr. Peterlin. Also, since caffeine has a pain relieving effect, consuming a small amount of it during an attack may actually help that "just-kill-me-now feeling" to subside faster—as long as you're not overusing it in the first place.

03 of 10

Aged Cheeses

Gorgonzola. Camembert. Cheddar. Aged cheeses (i.e., all the good ones) are beloved for their rich flavors and textures—and because life isn't fair, they're also commonly cited migraine triggers. Indeed, a 2012 study published in Neurological Sciences identified aged cheese as one of the most commonly reported foods that trigger migraines.

According to the Office on Women's Health, aged cheeses are among the foods that contain a compound called tyramine (along with soy products, fava beans, hard sausage, smoked fish, and Chianti wine). Tyramine may interact with the neurotransmitters in the body and lead to migraines.

04 of 10

Cured or Processed Meats

Hot dogs, sausages, even that turkey sandwich you had for lunch—all of those foods might set off a migraine, Rebecca Traub, MD, a neurologist with University of North Carolina School of Medicine, told Health.

These meats may contain a preservative called sodium nitrate, which the AMF cites among common food trigger for migraines.

05 of 10

MSG

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly know as MSG, is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid, which is naturally present in our bodies and in many foods and food additives.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the addition of MSG to foods to be "generally recognized as safe."

A 2016 study in the Journal of Headache and Pain found that MSG is a potential trigger for migraines, though the study did mention that it was premature to conclude that MSG causes headaches. Research remains inconclusive on whether MSG is a trigger for headaches.

Some people may have sensitivity to MSG. You may consider trying to avoid MSG foods if you experience migraines. MSG is naturally found in tomatoes, cheeses, and in ingredients like hydrolyzed vegetable protein. MSG often serves as a flavor enhancer and may be included in various seasonings and condiments such as ketchup and barbecue sauce.

06 of 10

Citrus Fruits

This food group is still up for debate—some studies have found a link between migraines and citruses, while others haven't. One 2016 study published in the journal Cephalagia noted that citrus fruits were significant potential triggers for migraine with aura but not migraine without aura.

Still, it's possible that citrus fruits might trigger migraines in some sufferers, and they're certainly on experts' radars as being a possible—though much rarer—culprit, said Dr. Traub. To help pinpoint what's causing your migraines, Dr. Traub recommended keeping a headache diary, either on a calendar or in a journal. Log your migraines, the severity of the attack, the foods you've been consuming, and any medications that you're taking, said Dr. Traub.

07 of 10

Aspartame

No stranger to controversy, aspartame is an artificial sweetener that, according to the FDA, is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety.

Aspartame is also suspected of triggering migraines in some people. "It's one of the first items I ask my patients to cut out of their diets," Louise Klebanoff, MD, a neurologist with the Headache Center at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Health. If you want to avoid the low-cal sweetener, read food labels and stay clear of certain "sugar-free" or "light" packaged foods and beverages, including diet sodas, breakfast cereals, puddings, yogurts, and gelatins.

08 of 10

Legumes

Beans, peas, and lentils are also suspected migraine triggers, said Dr. Traub, though they're also less common offenders than, say, alcohol and caffeine. Experts haven't quite pinned down why legumes seem to bother some migraine sufferers, but other research points to the importance of plant foods in warding off these headaches. One 2014 study in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that people who went on a vegan diet experienced less pain during their headaches than they had on their normal diet. Plant foods contain anti-inflammatory compounds, but the researchers also note that their subjects lost weight during the study—and obesity in particular has been linked with migraines, according to some research.

09 of 10

Nuts

This food also falls into the "not well studied, but observed by doctors" category, said Dr. Klebanoff. "I tell people to watch their diets, but don't be obsessive. If every time you eat a handful of nuts, you get a headache in the next four to 12 hours, then it's probably a trigger."

The Association of Migraine Disorders identifies nuts (including peanut butter and all seeds) as a common migraine trigger as they are a phenylalanine-containing food. Phenylalanines are amino acids that can affect vascular tone, which may have a role in migraines, according to the National Library of Medicine.

10 of 10

Chocolate

This one's tricky. The 2012 Neurological Sciences study identified chocolate as one of the most commonly reported foods that trigger migraines.

However, "chocolate hasn't been substantiated as a true migraine trigger," said Dr. Peterlin. While people may believe that chocolate is the culprit behind their headaches, some experts think that the reverse is actually true—that the craving for sweets is a symptom of an oncoming migraine, not the cause of it. In one 2020 review of studies in the journal Nutrients, authors noted that a question arises regarding whether eating chocolate before a headache is a consequence of a food craving or indeed a real trigger. But based on their review of the current literature, there is insufficient evidence that chocolate is a migraine trigger

Chocolate is still on Dr. Klebanoff's list of potential migraine triggers, and something that people who suffer from migraines might add to their lists, as well.

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