Exploring the Diet-Migraine Connection

A migraine can be a highly unpleasant and even agonizing experience to deal with for those who suffer from them on a regular basis. They are responsible for a great deal of time away from school and work, loss of quality of life and medication expenses in those who suffer from them. I  am writing this article today for that very reason and also because a friend of mine is a migraine sufferer who is hoping to learn more about the evidence linking dietary habits and migraine symptoms. 

The statistics show that millions of people in North America deal with migraine-related issues, with women much more likely than men to experience them. I also found that certain groups of foods are commonly referenced as migraine triggers. Although these food triggers may differ widely from person to person, research suggests that there is a group of relatively common foods that are most associated with triggering migraine symptoms.

The Diet-Migraine Connection

Whenever you are dealing with a condition that may be worsened by the foods you eat, it becomes important to become a more mindful eater. You should be aware of the foods you are eating because doing so will be the first step towards understanding the foods that trigger your particular migraine symptoms.

Keeping a food diary for a few months would be an even better step to take, as it will allow you to learn a great deal about the connection between your food intake and your symptoms. However, you should also keep the following points in mind:

i. A trigger food may cause a migraine right after it is consumedor it may have an effect that is delayed for hours or days. Being able to decipher the effect of these foods on your migraines may require you to cut out some of the more common migraine triggers for an extended period of time. It will not always be blatantly obvious which foods are causing you to experience symptoms.  

ii. Certain foods may not be a trigger in smaller amountsbut could be in larger amounts.  Be mindful not only of the foods you eat but of the amount you eat them in.

iii. If you plan to try restricting common migraine triggers from your diet, ensure you plan appropriately so that you can still consume a balanced intake of foods and nutrients. Know as well that it may take weeks or months to achieve noticeable reductions in your symptoms. If you do choose to go back to consuming certain foods, re-introduce them into your diet slowly so you can better identify the precise items responsible for triggering your migraine symptoms.

ivCertain foods may not trigger symptoms when consumed alone, but may trigger when consumed alongside other trigger foods. This can complicate matters and underlines the importance of dilligence in whichever approach you take to managing your intake of trigger foods.

With that being said, let’s take a look at the usual suspects:

1. Alcoholic beverages:  Red wine, sherry and beer are commonly reported to trigger migraines.

2. Grapes: Contain a compound known as tanins which is known to be problematic or some migraine sufferers.

3. Aged Cheese:  Such as old cheddar, swiss and blue cheese, brie , parmesan and so on.

4. Citrus Fruits: Oranges, lemons, limes , grapefruits and tangerines.  If you opt to restrict your intake of these foods, I urge you to ensure you an adequate fruit intake from other commonly available fruit varieties. 

5. Water (Not Enough):  Make sure you drink enough water.  At least 9 cups a day for women, 12 for men and more if you are physically active. Dehydration may be a migraine trigger for some people.

6. Processed/Cured meats: Such as hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni, salami and sausages. These foods are extremely unhealthy and so fortunately nothing will be lost by avoiding then. 

7. Fatty/Fried Foods: Fast food meals such as pizza or burgers and fries are trigger culprits in some people. These foods are not particularly healthy to begin with, so going without them is no great loss to the quality of your diet.

8. Chocolate: Unfortunately for chocolate lovers, chocolate is one of the most commonly identified trigger foods for migraine symptoms.

9. Asian Sauces:  Such as soy sauce and teriyaki sauce are problematic for some people. These sauces generally contain MSG and tyramine, two compounds known to potentially trigger migraine symptoms. 

10.Soy Protein Items: Anything of soybean origin such as soy milk, tempeh or tofu may trigger migraine symptoms in some people. 

11. Skipping Meals: Skipping meals or going a very long time without eating ( also known as fasting) is known to trigger migraine symptoms in some people. 

12. Diet Soft Drinks ( or any calorie-free/low calorie food variety such as jam or yogurt):  Anything sweetened with either sucralose or aspartame should be avoided. Diet soft drinks are probably the most common source of these sweeteners but you will need to review the ingredients list of products to be sure if they containthese ingredients. Sucralose is commonly known sold as Splenda, be wary of this if you bake.

13. Caffeine: Having significantly more or less caffeine than you usually do on any given day may contribute to migraine symptoms.

14. Magnesium:  Of the different supplements that have been reviewed in the treatment of migraines, my impression is that magnesium ( ~400-500 mg a day) is the most effective. It may take time to observe the positive effects of magnesium supplementation, but there is evidence to suggest it will help some migraine sufferers. There is also some limited evidence that Enzyme CoQ 10 and Vitamin B2 supplementation may also help. 

This may be an overwhelming list to process. The good news is that, even if every single food on this list is a trigger for you, you can still enjoy a healthy balanced diet without them. Many of the foods on this list are not particularly healthy, but some are and so you must plan appropriately if you decide to try restricting those foods. Please remember that patience and persistence is important in the fight against migraine symptoms. It will take time and effort to determine trigger foods and potentially resolve your symptoms. 

With that being said, I sincerely hope that the dietary strategies discussed today will offer you some benefit in your future fight against migraine symptoms. 

 I wish you the best of luck in that endeavour,


Andy De Santis RD MPH