Let’s start with foods that are suspected to trigger migraines in some people. Some of the most commonly reported triggers are also among our favorite foods and beverages.
Migraine sufferers often say that alcohol (33%) and chocolate (22%) lead to their migraines.1 Other problem foods may include cheese, citrus fruits, lunch meats, dried fruits, onions and nuts.
Also, foods with additives— MSG, artificial sweeteners, nitrates and nitrites— are suspected migraine triggers.
Overall, the research does not conclusively show that food is as strong a trigger for migraines as many have thought. The American Headache Society® Committee for Headache Education (ACHE) reports that while food may be a trigger for a minority of migraine sufferers, the why is not entirely understood.
The Inconsistency of Triggers
Part of the problem is the unpredictability of triggers. Eating cheese, for instance, may or may not be followed by a migraine. This discrepancy leads some researchers to believe that food alone may not trigger a migraine. However, it could be the tipping point that brings someone over their migraine threshold.
Chocolate and Alcohol: Are They off Limits?
Correlation does not equal causation. In other words, just because you suffer a migraine after eating chocolate, it does not mean that your favorite treat caused the headache.
In fact, in a double-blind study in which researchers randomly gave patients either chocolate or carob (a substitute for chocolate), the results showed no link between eating chocolate and migraine occurrence. This evidence led researchers to conclude that even though headache sufferers and their doctors commonly believe chocolate triggers headaches, there is no association between them.2 Now that’s good news for chocolate-loving migraine sufferers!
Want a little wine with your chocolate? There’s also research that supports alcohol may not be a migraine trigger either. The studies followed 307 people who suffered from migraines without aura for 14 months. Participants had to note in a diary every time they consumed alcohol, how much they drank and answer questions about their lifestyle and pain. The findings? “There was no statistical relationship between the consumption of alcohol and migraine attacks. On the other hand, the research established a link between stressful events and the onset of migraine attacks.”3
Other Food Triggers
It turns out that if you are avoiding many of the foods that are commonly thought to trigger migraines, you might be depriving yourself unnecessarily. Research studies have shown that passing up supposed trigger foods does not alleviate bad headaches. One study compared migraine sufferers on two different diets. One of the diets eliminated foods suspected to trigger headaches. The other specifically asked participants to consume those trigger foods. The finding was surprising. On both diets, headache activity eased up.4
Why would two polar opposite diets both improve headache conditions? Researchers theorize that simply following a regulated diet may be helpful.
Given the surprising findings of the research, how should you handle your food intake? Of course, discuss your plans with your doctor before making any changes, but here are some guidelines you might want to consider.
1. Keep a Food and Pain Diary
It’s useful to maintain a diary in which you document your lifestyle, the food and drink you consume, when your migraines occur and your symptoms. In this way, you can start to determine what your susceptibilities might be. Bear in mind that if you are sensitive to a particular food or drink, you should suffer a migraine within 24 hours of consuming it. If you suspect a food or additive as the cause of your pounding headache, eliminate it for a month or so. If this change in diet alleviates your symptoms, then you may have found the culprit. If there is no change in the frequency or severity of your headaches, it’s not likely that this food alone is your trigger.
2. Stay Hydrated
Dehydration is a known cause of headaches from migraines to hangovers, so drink plenty of water and other healthy beverages.
3. Stick to a Regimen with Your Diet
Eat a consistent diet with plenty of fresh foods. You are better off eating more, smaller meals throughout the day. Five or 6 small meals are recommended to ensure you do not suffer a migraine due to hunger.
While there are many foods and drinks suspected to trigger migraines, there is little proof to support some of the top suspected culprits. There’s no need to deprive yourself of everything on the migraine trigger list. So, what’s the best route to a migraine diet that works for you? Keep track of your sensitivities, discuss them with your doctor, experiment with eliminating certain suspected triggers, and eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fresh foods and water.
1,4 Merle L. Diamond, MD and Dawn A. Marcus, MD. “Controversies in Headache Medicine: Migraine Prevention Diets.” http://www.achenet.org/resources/controversies_in_headache_medicine_migraine_prevention_diets/.Accessed December 3, 2015.
2 Marcus DA, Scharff L, Turk D, Gourley LM. “A double-blind provocative study of chocolate as a trigger of headache.” Cephalalgia. 1997; 17(8):855-62.
3 Nicolodi M, Sicuteri F. “Wine and migraine: compatibility or incompatibility?” Drugs Exp Clin Res. 1999;25(2-3):147-53.