Having a headache from time to time is not that uncommon. With migraine headaches, however, the pain is often much more severe. With an estimated 1 billion people suffering from these attacks, migraines are the most common neurological condition in the world.1,2
The foods you eat can have a significant impact on your health and the way you feel. But did you know that your diet can affect your migraines? Research suggests that some foods may actually trigger migraine attacks and that making changes to your diet may prevent migraines and lower the frequency.
Tracking your diet and your migraines in a journal can help you understand how different foods affect your condition. Then you can plan your diet to prevent and relieve migraines.
What Are Migraines?
Migraines are much more than just a bad headache. A migraine is a common neurological condition that can cause debilitating pain that can keep you in bed for days. Migraine symptoms often worsen with physical activity, lights, sounds, or smells. A migraine headache may last four hours or even days.
A headache occurs when you have pain in your head or face and is often described as a pressure that’s throbbing, constant, sharp, or dull. Headaches may differ in the type of pain, severity, and location.
There are more than 150 kinds of headaches categorized by primary headaches and secondary headaches. A migraine is a primary headache, meaning that it isn’t caused by a different medical condition. Primary headache disorders are clinical diagnoses, meaning there’s no blood test or imaging study to diagnose them. A secondary headache is a symptom of another health issue.
Some primary headaches can be caused by lifestyle factors including drinking alcohol, consuming certain foods, using nicotine, lack of sleep, poor posture, or skipping meals to name a few.
Secondary headaches are considered a symptom of a condition and usually subside when the underlying condition is treated. Possible secondary headaches include dehydration headaches, sinus headaches, or medication overuse headaches.
Risk Factors for Migraines
There are several risk factors that can make you more prone to having migraines, including:
- Family history: If you have a family member who has migraines, there’s a good chance you may develop them too. Up to 80% of migraine patients have a first-degree relative with the condition.3
- Age: Migraines can start at any age, but the first one often occurs during adolescence. Migraines often peak in the 30s and gradually decrease in severity and frequency in the following decades.
- Sex: Women are 3 times more likely than men to have migraines.
- Hormonal changes: For women who have migraines, headaches might begin just before or shortly after the onset of menstruation. They might also change during pregnancy or menopause. Migraines generally improve after menopause.
- Stress level: High levels of stress can cause migraines to occur more frequently.
Stages of Migraine Attacks
Migraine attacks can be divided into stages. Not all people experience each phase. It can take about 72 hours to go through each of the 4 stages.
The stages are:
- Prodrome: This stage may last a few hours, or it can go on for days. Many people call this phase the “preheadache” or “premonitory” phase.
- Aura: The aura stage can last anywhere between 5 and 60 minutes. This stage is characterized by a group of sensory, motor, and speech symptoms that usually serve as warning signals that a migraine headache is about to begin. You may not experience an aura, or you may have both the aura and the headache at the same time.
- Headache: The headache lasts for about 4 to 72 hours. The migraine pain can be mild, but usually, it’s described as drilling, throbbing, or you may feel the sensation of an icepick in your head. Often it starts on one side of your head and then spreads to the other.
- Postdrome: The postdrome stage lasts about a day or two. It’s known as a migraine “hangover” and 80% of those who have migraines experience it.4
Migraine attacks are not like regular headaches. They often last longer, are much more painful, and have more physical side effects. During a migraine headache or main attack stage, you might have5:
- Severe throbbing or pounding pain in the head
- Acute sensitivity to lights and sounds
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lack of energy
Understanding Why Some Foods May Help Relieve Migraines — Or Trigger Them
Some scientists believe certain chemicals found in some foods can prompt a migraine attack.6 Migraine patients often claim that certain foods and beverages trigger their migraines.
There is some research that suggests that food may not be the actual culprit, but instead, food cravings and hunger may be the root cause of the migraine. When people have low blood sugar, hunger and cravings often follow, but by the time they eat something, the migraine attack may already be well on its way.7
Certain nutrients might help prevent or relieve migraines, including magnesium, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin D, and omega-3s.8, 9, 10
What to Eat for Migraine Relief
Some foods may prevent or reduce the length and intensity of migraines. Here are 6 of the best foods to eat for migraine relief:
- Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, arugula, turnip, collard, and mustard greens)
Dark leafy greens are rich in magnesium and other nutrients, including B vitamins, anti-inflammatory antioxidants, and fiber. Research shows that foods containing magnesium may provide migraine relief. Other studies have shown that B vitamins (including riboflavin) may reduce migraine symptoms.9, 11
- Non-citrus fruits (avocado, bananas, raspberry, and watermelon)
Many fruits are high in vitamins and minerals, including magnesium and B vitamins. If a headache is due to dehydration, fruits that have a high water content can relieve headaches.8, 9, 11
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts)
Nuts are high in magnesium, which relaxes blood vessels and decreases pain associated with headaches. Nuts also have a good amount of vitamin E. Research shows that vitamin E may decrease migraines caused by fluctuations in hormones.8, 11, 12
- Fatty Fish (mackerel, salmon)
Omega-3 fatty acids might help decrease the severity of migraines and reduce their frequency. While more research is needed, one small study found that participants who took fish oil supplements had significant improvements in their migraine headaches. Eating fatty fish several times a week can increase your omega-3 intake. Research shows that the coenzyme Q10 found in salmon may also prevent migraines.13, 14
- Whole grains (quinoa, whole oats)
Whole grains are complex carbohydrates that are rich in magnesium and fiber. In addition to providing magnesium, the fiber in whole grains helps to stabilize blood sugars. Swings in blood sugar can often trigger migraine headaches, so keeping blood sugars stable may help to prevent migraines.
- Seeds (flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds)
Seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. Increasing intake of omega-3s may help people who suffer from migraines. The fiber in seeds helps prevent fluctuations in blood sugar that can trigger migraines.14
Foods And Drinks to Avoid If You Suffer From Migraines
Specific foods can trigger migraines or make symptoms worse. Avoid these 7 food triggers if you suffer from migraines:
- Caffeine (coffee, tea, dark chocolate)
Caffeine is one of the substances where the dose makes the poison so to speak. Too much caffeine, as well as caffeine withdrawal, can trigger migraines or headaches. However, according to the American Migraine Foundation, when used occasionally and in small amounts, caffeine may actually stop oncoming migraine attacks.15
- Artificial sweeteners
Sugar alternatives may cause migraines in a small percentage of individuals. Research has shown aspartame to trigger migraines in a small group of migraine sufferers.16
Not all migraine patients will be triggered by artificial sweeteners, so if you do consume them, you may want to make note of how they affect you.
Over 35% of migraine patients noted that alcohol was a trigger. Red wine in particular contains sulfites, which are believed by many to cause headaches. Alcohol in general causes dehydration which can trigger headaches.17
- Aged cheeses (feta, bleu cheese, parmesan)
As cheese is aged, a substance called tyramine forms. It develops from the breakdown of proteins. The longer the cheese is aged, the higher the tyramine content. Tyramine is a chemical that has been linked to the onset of migraines.6
- Fermented foods (kimchi, kombucha, pickled vegetables)
Picked and fermented foods also have high levels of tyramine.6
- Cured meats
Cured meats all contain nitrates which are used to preserve color and flavor. These foods can release nitric oxide into the blood which may cause the blood vessels in the brain to dilate. There is some evidence that suggests nitric oxide may trigger migraines.18
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is often found in fast food, snack foods, seasoning blends, frozen meals, soups, processed meats, and instant noodle products. A recent study suggests that MSG could be a trigger for migraines. The study mentioned that there was not enough evidence to conclude that MSG causes headaches, but it may still be a good idea to avoid foods that contain MSG.19
Create a Migraine-Friendly Diet to Prevent Future Attacks
While there are some foods and drinks that are believed to trigger migraines, everyone responds to things differently. To learn which foods trigger your migraines, you should consider tracking your dietary intake.
Food tracking is a valuable tool for anyone looking to prevent future migraine attacks. By tracking what you eat, you can identify how your eating habits affect your migraines. This helps you create a migraine diet that will help you manage your condition. Tracking can also provide insight into what foods work best for your overall health.
Learn More About How Blood Sugar Levels Impact Your Overall Health With Signos
Fluctuations in your blood sugar levels significantly affect your brain. These swings in blood glucose can trigger migraine episodes in those with the condition.
Using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) along with tracking what you eat and drink can be an effective way to prevent migraines and improve your overall a health. Signos CGM sends your glucose data to an app that includes a food log and shows you how different foods affect your blood sugar in real-time.
As you watch your glucose response and log the foods you eat, you’ll learn which foods, how much food, and how food consumed under certain circumstances (after exercise, for example, or when you’re sleep deprived) may impact your blood sugar levels, which can trigger or prevent migraines.
Signos CGM isn’t just good for migraine prevention. Monitoring blood glucose can help with weight loss, stress, sleep, and overall health. Find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz.
Learn which foods can help migraines go away
- Collard, mustard, and turnip greens
- Almonds and other nuts
- Flax seeds
- Fatty fish
Topics discussed in this article:
- The facts about migraine. American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-facts/. Published July 19, 2022. Accessed December 5, 2022.
- Shimizu, T., Sakai, F., Miyake, H. et al. Disability, quality of life, productivity impairment and employer costs of migraine in the workplace. J Headache Pain 22, 29 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-021-01243-5
- Ten things that you and your patients with migraine should know. https://americanheadachesociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Deborah_Friedman_-_Top_10_Things_that_you_and_Your_Patients_with_Migraine_Should_Know-1.pdf. Accessed December 5, 2022.
- The timeline of a migraine attack. American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/timeline-migraine-attack/. Published July 19, 2022. Accessed December 5, 2022.
- Ahmed F. Headache disorders: differentiating and managing the common subtypes. Br J Pain. 2012;6(3):124-132. doi:10.1177/2049463712459691
- Hindiyeh NA, Zhang N, Farrar M, Banerjee P, Lombard L, Aurora SK. The role of Diet and nutrition in migraine triggers and treatment: A systematic literature review. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2020;60(7):1300-1316. doi:10.1111/head.13836
- Goadsby PJ, Holland PR, Martins-Oliveira M, Hoffmann J, Schankin C, Akerman S. Pathophysiology of Migraine: A Disorder of Sensory Processing. Physiol Rev. 2017;97(2):553-622. doi:10.1152/physrev.00034.2015
- Maier JA, Pickering G, Giacomoni E, Cazzaniga A, Pellegrino P. Headaches and Magnesium: Mechanisms, Bioavailability, Therapeutic Efficacy and Potential Advantage of Magnesium Pidolate. Nutrients. 2020;12(9):2660. Published 2020 Aug 31. doi:10.3390/nu12092660
- Marashly ET, Bohlega SA. Riboflavin Has Neuroprotective Potential: Focus on Parkinson's Disease and Migraine. Front Neurol. 2017;8:333. Published 2017 Jul 20. doi:10.3389/fneur.2017.00333
- Ghorbani Z, Togha M, Rafiee P, et al. Vitamin D in migraine headache: a comprehensive review on literature. Neurol Sci. 2019;40(12):2459-2477. doi:10.1007/s10072-019-04021-z
- Kandil M, Jaber S, Desai D, et al. Magraine: Magnesium compared to conventional therapy for treatment of migraines. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2021;39:28-33. doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2020.09.033
- Shaik MM, Gan SH. Vitamin supplementation as possible prophylactic treatment against migraine with aura and menstrual migraine. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:469529. doi:10.1155/2015/469529
- Guilbot A, Bangratz M, Ait Abdellah S, Lucas C. A combination of coenzyme Q10, feverfew and magnesium for migraine prophylaxis: a prospective observational study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):433. Published 2017 Aug 30. doi:10.1186/s12906-017-1933-7
- Sanders AE, Shaikh SR, Slade GD. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and headache in the U.S. population. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. 2018;135:47-53. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2018.06.008
- Caffeine and Migraine. American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/understanding-migraine/caffeine-and-migraine/. Published August 12, 2021. Accessed December 5, 2022.
- Newman LC, Lipton RB. Migraine MLT‐Down: An unusual presentation of migraine in patients with aspartame‐triggered headaches. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2001;41(9):899-901. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.2001.01164.x
- Onderwater GLJ, van Oosterhout WPJ, Schoonman GG, Ferrari MD, Terwindt GM. Alcoholic beverages as trigger factor and the effect on alcohol consumption behavior in patients with migraine. Eur J Neurol. 2019;26(4):588-595. doi:10.1111/ene.13861
- Gruber HJ, Bernecker C, Lechner A, et al. Increased nitric oxide stress is associated with migraine. Cephalalgia. 2010;30(4):486-492. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2982.2009.01964.x
- Obayashi Y, Nagamura Y. Does monosodium glutamate really cause headache? : a systematic review of human studies. J Headache Pain. 2016;17:54. doi:10.1186/s10194-016-0639-4