You might already know about common migraine triggers like stress, lack of sleep, and even exercise (no, seriously), but did you know that what you’re eating could also be giving you headaches?
That's right—even if your migraine attacks are typically triggered by visual stimuli like flashing lights, avoiding the foods below could help reduce the frequency or severity of your attacks.
Does food really trigger migraine attacks?
Of course, the relationship between food and migraine isn’t clear-cut, and unfortunately, no single factor can be directly tied to your attacks. That said, there's scientific evidence that suggests attacks may be triggered by certain foods. Additionally, 27% of those who experience migraine believe that particular foods are personally triggering.
According to Dr. Sara Crystal, clinical neurologist and Cove Medical Director, certain foods and additives are more likely to trigger headaches in a higher percentage of migraineurs, but even among individuals, other factors like stress, hormonal changes, and lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of an attack after consuming a known trigger.
So, without further ado, here’s a list of the most common food triggers for migraine sufferers, in no particular order.
10 Migraine-Triggering Foods
1. Excessive coffee
We know that some of you are probably groaning when you see this, but research shows that excessive caffeine consumption can trigger migraine attacks, and both a 2016 study and a 2019 study suggest cutting back on coffee can help reduce migraine frequency.
Now, if you can’t start your day without coffee, note the use of the word “excessive.” We know that the caffeine boost can feel like a lifesaver at times, and if that’s the case, drink it! But try to limit yourself to less than two cups per day.
2. Red wine
Nope, it’s not just you. Studies confirm that alcoholic beverages are a common trigger, with certain chemicals in alcohol like tyramine and histamine believed to be the problem. Red wine, a commonly-reported trigger, contains a lot of histamine.
3. Aged cheeses
Unfortunately for cheese lovers, this delicacy can also be a trigger for migraine symptoms. Again, the culprit is tyramine. Blue cheese, brie, cheddar, swiss, feta, mozzarella, and most other common cheeses are good to avoid.
We hate to (continue to) be the bearers of bad news, but chocolate can also sabotage your chances of avoiding migraine attacks. One study found that, compared to a placebo, chocolate triggered an attack in 42% of its subjects.
5. Citrus fruits
While eating lots of fresh fruit is a great way to avoid attacks (and stay healthy!), you might want to be careful with citrus fruits. While some people say oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes give them headaches, they’re not as common a trigger as some of the other foods on this list. Try tracking your migraine to see if avoiding these fruits makes a difference for you.
6. Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, listen up: Research suggests that artificial sweeteners like aspartame commonly found in Diet Coke and other calorie-free drinks may increase the risk of migraine headaches.
Foods that contain yeast—like sourdough bread and fresh-baked goods such as donuts, cakes, and breads—have been known to trigger migraine attacks. The sneaky ingredient is (you guessed it) tyramine, the same culprit found within alcohol and cheese.
8. Monosodium glutamate (a.k.a. MSG)
MSG is a flavor enhancer used in a variety of processed foods, like frozen or canned foods, soups, snacks, seasoning, and more. A 2016 review of the available science concluded that MSG is no more likely to cause a headache or migraine than placebo, but many migraine sufferers say MSG is a trigger for them.
9. Processed and cured meats
Cured and processed meats (think: bacon, sausage, ham, and deli meats) often include nitrites and nitrates, known migraine triggers used to preserve their color and flavor. One study found that 5% of subjects with migraine history were statistically more likely to experience head pain on days they consumed nitrites, so make sure you check the ingredients you leave the grocery store with that pack of bacon.
10. Nuts and certain seeds
Addicted to almond butter? Prepare for some bad news: almonds, peanuts, and many other nuts and seeds contain tyramine, and you know what that means. Like all triggers, not all migraine sufferers are sensitive to nuts, so a trial and error may be the key to figuring out if you are.
A few more potential trigger foods
Even though we’d hate to take the fun out of even more of your favorite foods, we should let you know about these other potential trigger foods. According to the Cleveland Clinic, these foods are commonly reported as migraine triggers, but there’s no scientific evidence that they really cause them, so don’t clean out your fridge just yet. Instead, turn to a migraine tracker to see if any of these might be causing you pain.
- chicken livers and other organ meats
- dairy products like buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt
- dried fruits like dates, figs, and raisins
- most beans including lima, fava, navy, pinto, garbanzo, lentils, and snow peas
- pickled foods like olives, sauerkraut, and, of course, pickles
- potato chips
- some fresh fruits like ripe bananas, papaya, red plums, raspberries, kiwi, and pineapple
- smoked or dried fish
- tomato-based products (including pizza!)
How do you identify your triggers?
So how do you know which of these foods (if any) are actually triggering your attacks? Since food affects all migraine sufferers differently, the best thing you can do is examine your eating habits and identify patterns that could be potential triggers. By slowly eliminating foods one-by-one, you can start to recognize what spurs your headaches. Food allergy testing can also be helpful, though you should still be wary of certain foods even if you aren’t allergic to them.
To keep track of your habits, Dr. Crystal recommends keeping a careful food diary for at least one month to record what you do and don’t eat. If something is a trigger, an attack will likely hit 12 to 24 hours post-consumption. You’ll be able to trace the pain back to the source—or at the very least, narrow it down.
We know reading this might make you feel like you’ll have to start living off of nothing but water if you want to avoid debilitating pain, but it’s important to remember that not all of these foods are triggers for every sufferer (and for many sufferers, hunger can be a bigger trigger than any specific food). Migraine is personal, and the only way to learn your specific triggers is to track your migraine, make one adjustment at a time, and see what helps.
And, of course, not all foods are your enemy. Check out this article for a list of migraine-safe foods or this roundup of migraine-safe recipes.
Rather not change your whole diet to avoid migraine attacks? Cove offers a variety of dietary supplements you can purchase without a prescription at our Wellness Shop, or you can connect with a doctor who specializes in migraine today to discuss other options.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.