Foods that Trigger Migraines

If you're one of 36 million Americans who suffer from migraines, what you put in your mouth may go to your head. For some, certain foods pull the trigger that leads to crippling headaches.

What is a Migraine Trigger?

The American Council for Headache Education says there are specific factors that increase risks for having a migraine. Triggers don't cause migraines. Instead, they're thought to activate processes that cause them in people prone to getting migraines. Not every migraine sufferer has the same triggers and they may not cause migraines every time. 

Many common foods contain substances that trigger migraines. 

1. Tyramine, a byproduct of protein breakdown in certain foods, is a big troublemaker for some migraine sufferers. It increases blood flow to the brain. Tyramine is found in aged cheeses, processed meats, pickles, onions, olives, certain types of beans, raisins, nuts, avocados, canned soups, and red wine.

Watch out for these cheeses:  blue cheeses, cheddar, Stilton, feta, gorgonzola, parmesan, Swiss and processed cheeses (among others).

2. Chemicals, dyes, nitrites and additives in processed foods are common migraine triggers that cause headaches by increasing blood flow to the brain. Headaches associated with additives may be different than classic, one-side-of-the-head migraines. They're more likely to cause pain on both sides of the head and may be accompanied by abdominal discomfort, a burning sensation or pressure in the chest, mouth or throat and dizziness. These types of headaches usually appear within an hour or so after eating.

Stick to whole foods instead of processed to limit the chemical and additive products that may cause migraines.

3. MSG (sometimes found in Chinese food and processed foods) and food coloring are infamous headache triggers. Even seemingly "healthy" choices like juices and soups may contain additives so read labels carefully.

4. Extremely cold foods trigger migraines in some people. Ice cream and ice-cold beverages can cause "brain freeze" in anyone for a few minutes. For people with migraines though, these foods can trigger a full migraine attack.

5. Sometimes it's what you don't eat that triggers migraines. Dramatic blood sugar dives caused by skipping meals can trigger headaches in almost everyone. For people prone to migraines, not eating can lead to disaster.

Eat a balanced diet and don't skip meals. 

Check out The American Council on Headaches' list of common migraine triggers:

  • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and other artificial sweeteners;
  • Meat tenderizers
  • Yeast or yeast extracts
  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate, cocoa
  • Foods containing nuts
  • Alcoholic beverages especially red wine, beer, and sherry
  • Aged, canned, cured, or processed meats such as chicken livers and other organ meats, and sardines.
  • Cultured dairy products such as sour cream or buttermilk
  • Dried fruits including figs, raisins, and dates
  • Breads, crackers and pizza containing cheese including pizza
  • Cheese: Blue, Gouda, Gruyere, provolone, and Stilton
  • Smoked or dried fish
  • Canned soups, or soups made from bouillon or based with MSG

Keep a food diary and note any links between your migraines and your diet.  See your physician and/or a dietician to construct a diet plan to avoid food triggers.  Ask your physician about medications that act as a preventative measure for those "just in case" situations where you don't know what you'll be eating.


The American Council on Headaches, Trigger Avoidance Information

The Mayo Clinic

Migraine Center -