How your diet affects migraines: foods to avoid, foods to eat

Millions of people around the world experience migraines.

While the role of diet in migraines is controversial, several studies suggest that certain foods can cause them in some people.

This article discusses the possible role of migraine triggers in the diet, as well as supplements that can reduce the frequency and symptoms of migraine.

What is a migraine?

Young woman with headache

A migraine is a common disorder characterized by recurrent and throbbing headaches that can last up to three days.

Several symptoms distinguish migraines from normal headaches. In general, they only involve one side of the head and are accompanied by other signs.

These include nausea and hypersensitivity to light, sounds and smells. Some people also experience visual disturbances, known as auras, before contracting a migraine (1).

In 2001, an estimated 28 million Americans experienced migraines. Research has shown more frequency in women than in men (2, 3).

The underlying cause of migraines is unknown, but hormones, stress and dietary factors may play a role (4, 5, 6).

About 27-30% of people with migraines believe that certain foods trigger their migraines (6, 7).

Since the evidence is usually based on personal accounts, the role of most of the triggers of the diet is controversial.

However, studies suggest that some people with migraines may be susceptible to certain foods.

Below are 11 of the most frequent dietary migraine triggers.

1. coffee

Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world.

It has a high content of caffeine, a stimulant that is also found in tea, soft drinks and energy drinks.

The connection of caffeine with headaches is complex. It can affect headaches or migraines in the following ways:

  • Migraine Trigger: High caffeine consumption seems to trigger migraines in certain people (8).

  • Migraine treatment: Combined with aspirin and Tylenol (paracetamol), caffeine is an effective treatment for migraine (9, 10).

  • Headache due to caffeine withdrawal: If you drink coffee regularly, skipping your daily dose may cause withdrawal symptoms. These include headache, nausea, moodiness and poor concentration (11, 12).

Headaches from caffeine withdrawal are often described as throbbing and are associated with nausea, symptoms similar to those of a migraine (13).

It is estimated that 47% of habitual coffee users experience headache after refraining from drinking coffee for 12 to 24 hours. Gradually it gets worse, reaching a maximum of 20 to 51 hours of abstinence. This can last from 2 to 9 days (14).

The likelihood that caffeine withdrawal headaches will increase as daily caffeine intake increases. Even so, as little as 100 mg of caffeine per day, or about one cup of coffee, is enough to cause headaches upon withdrawal (12, 15).

If you have headaches due to caffeine withdrawal, you should try to maintain your coffee schedule or gradually decrease your caffeine intake over the course of a few weeks (11).

Limiting caffeine intake or stopping drinks with high caffeine content may be the best option for some (8).

Summary Abstinence from caffeine is a known trigger of headache. Those with migraines who regularly drink coffee or other highly caffeinated beverages should try to maintain their regular intake or gradually reduce their intake.

2. Aged cheese

About 9-18% of people with migraines report sensitivity to aged cheese (16, 17).

Scientists believe that this may be due to its high content of tyramine. Tyramine is a compound that forms when bacteria break down the amino acid tyrosine during the aging process.

Tyramine is also found in wine, yeast extract, chocolate and processed meat products, but cured cheese is one of its richest sources (18).

Tyramine levels appear higher in people with chronic migraines, compared with healthy people or with other headache disorders (19).

However, the role of tyramine and other biogenic amines in migraines is debated, since studies have provided mixed results (11, 20).

The aged cheese may also contain histamine, another possible culprit, which is discussed in the next chapter (21).

Summary Aged cheese may contain relatively high amounts of tyramine, a compound that can cause headaches in some people.

3. Alcoholic beverages

Most people are familiar with hangover headaches after drinking excessive amounts of alcohol (22).

In certain people, alcoholic beverages can trigger a migraine within three hours of consumption.

In fact, approximately 29-36% of people with migraines believe that alcohol can trigger a migraine attack (11, 23).

However, not all alcoholic beverages act in the same way. Studies in people with migraines found that red wine was much more likely to trigger a migraine than other alcoholic beverages, especially among women (24, 25).

Some tests indicate that the content of histamine in red wine can play an important role. Histamine is also found in processed meat, some fish, cheese and fermented foods (11, 26).

Histamine is also produced in the body. It is involved in immune responses and functions as a neurotransmitter (27, 28).

Histamine intolerance in the diet is a recognized health disorder. Apart from headaches, other symptoms include hot flashes, wheezing, sneezing, skin itching, rashes and fatigue (29).

It is caused by reduced activity of diamine oxidase (DAO), an enzyme responsible for breaking down histamine in the digestive system (30, 31).

Interestingly, the reduced activity of DAO seems to be common in people with migraines.

One study found that 87% of people with migraines had reduced DAO activity. The same applies to only 44% of people without migraines (32).

Another study showed that taking an antihistamine before drinking red wine significantly reduced the frequency of headaches among people who experience headaches after drinking (33).

Summary Some alcoholic beverages, such as red wine, can trigger migraines. Researchers believe that histamine may be to blame.

4. Processed Meat

About 5% of people with migraines can develop a headache hours or even minutes after consuming processed meat products. This type of headache has been termed "hot dog headache" (34, 35).

Researchers believe that nitrites, a group of preservatives that includes potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite, may be the reason (36).

These preservatives are often found in processed meat. Prevent the growth of harmful microbes like Clostridium botulinum. They also help to preserve the color of processed meats and contribute to their flavor.

Processed meats containing nitrites include sausages, ham, bacon and sausages such as salami and bologna.

Hardened sausages can also contain relatively high amounts of histamine, which could trigger migraines in people with histamine intolerance (21).

If you get migraines after eating processed meat, consider eliminating them from your diet. In any case, eating less processed meat is a step towards a healthier lifestyle.

Summary Some people with migraines may be sensitive to nitrites or histamine in processed meat products.

5-11. Other possible triggers of migraine

People have reported other migraine triggers, although the evidence is rarely robust.

Here are some notable examples:

5. Monosodium glutamate (MSG): This common flavor enhancer has been implicated as a trigger of headache, but little evidence supports this idea (37, 38).

6. Aspartame: Some studies have associated the artificial sweetener aspartame with a higher frequency of migraine headaches, but the evidence is mixed (39, 40, 41).

7. Sucralose: Several case reports suggest that the artificial sweetener sucralose may cause migraines in some groups (42, 43).

8. Citrus fruits: In one study, approximately 11% of people with migraines reported that citrus fruits are a trigger for migraine (44).

9. chocolate: Anywhere from 2 to 22% of people with migraines report being sensitive to chocolate. However, studies on the effect of chocolate are inconclusive (11, 44).

10. Gluten: Wheat, barley and rye contain gluten. These cereals, as well as the products made with them, can trigger migraines in people with gluten intolerance (45).

11. Fasting or skipping meals: While fasting and skipping meals can have benefits, some may experience migraines as a side effect. Between 39 and 66% of people with migraines associate their symptoms with fasting (46, 47, 48).

Studies also suggest that migraines may be an allergic response or hypersensitivity to certain compounds in foods, but scientists have not yet reached consensus on this (48, 49).

Summary Several dietary factors have been associated with migraines or headaches, but the evidence behind them is often limited or mixed.

How to treat a migraine

If you experience migraines, visit your doctor to rule out any underlying conditions.

Your doctor may also recommend and prescribe painkillers or other medications that may work for you.

If you suspect that certain foods trigger your migraines, try eliminating them from your diet to see if that makes any difference.

For detailed information on how to follow an elimination diet, see this article. Also, consider keeping a detailed food diary.

Some research supports the use of supplements to treat migraines, but the evidence on their effectiveness is limited. Below are the summaries of the main ones.


Some people use an herbal supplement known as butterbur to relieve migraines.

A few controlled studies have shown that 50-75 mg of butterbur can significantly reduce the frequency of migraines in children, adolescents and adults (50, 51, 52).

The effectiveness seems to depend on the dose. One study showed that 75 mg was significantly more effective than a placebo, while 50 mg was not effective (52).

Keep in mind that unprocessed butter can be toxic because it contains compounds that can increase the risk of cancer and liver damage. These compounds are removed from commercial varieties.

Summary Butterbur is an herbal supplement that has been shown to reduce the frequency of migraines.

Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is an antioxidant that plays an essential role in energy metabolism.

It is produced by your body and is found in several foods. These include meat, fish, liver, broccoli and parsley. It is also sold as a supplement.

One study found that CoQ10 deficiency may be more common in children and adolescents with migraines. It also showed that CoQ10 supplements significantly reduced the frequency of headache (53).

The effectiveness of CoQ10 supplements has also been confirmed by other studies.

In one study, taking 150 mg of CoQ10 for three months reduced the number of days of migraine by 61% in more than half of the participants (54).

Another study showed that taking 100 mg of CoQ10 three times a day for three months had similar results. However, the supplements caused digestive and skin problems in some people (55).

Summary Coenzyme Q10 supplements can be an effective way to reduce the frequency of migraine.

Vitamins and minerals

Some studies have reported that vitamin or mineral supplements can affect the frequency of migraine attacks.

These include the following:

  • Folate: Several studies have associated low folate consumption with a higher frequency of migraines (56, 57).

  • Magnesium: Inadequate intake of magnesium may increase the risk of menstrual migraines (58, 59, 60).

  • Riboflavin: One study showed that taking 400 mg of riboflavin daily for three months reduced the frequency of migraine attacks by half in 59% of the participants (61).

More evidence is needed before we can make solid claims about the role of these vitamins in migraines.

Summary Inadequate intake of folate, riboflavin or magnesium may increase the risk of migraines. However, the evidence is limited and more studies are needed.

The bottom line

Scientists are not completely sure what causes migraines.

Studies show that certain foods and beverages can trigger them. However, its relevance is discussed and the evidence is not completely consistent.

The commonly reported migraine triggers in the diet include alcoholic beverages, processed meat and aged cheese. It is also suspected that caffeine abstinence, fasting and some nutrient deficiencies play a role.

If you have migraines, a health professional can recommend a treatment, including prescription medications.

Supplements such as coenzyme Q10 and butterbur can also reduce the frequency of migraines in some people.

In addition, a food diary could help you discover if any of the food you eat is related to migraine attacks. After identifying possible triggers, you should see if eliminating them from your diet makes a difference.

The most important thing is to try to maintain a healthy lifestyle, avoid stress, sleep well and eat a balanced diet.

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