Food Triggers: Hidden and Elusive


The problem with all triggers is that they can be compounding. It can be more than one trigger that actually triggers a migraine attack. Like reaching a tipping point. Then Bam. The problem with food triggers is that they can actually be from food you ate two days prior, so elusive to say the least. Like all triggers they are quite variable. What triggers your migraines may not trigger someone else’s. What triggers your migraine today, may not tomorrow.

Typical food triggers:

Alcohol: Alcohol is a well-known food trigger. Wine is particularly mentioned. For example, I cannot even have a sip of wine. Before I even knew I had migraines I could not touch wine without getting a massive ‘headache’. So obviously I do not touch wine. It is the sulfites and preservatives in red wine specifically that have been linked to migraine headaches. Alcohol on the other hand increases the blood flow to our brains and can result in dehydration, and both of these can trigger a migraine.

Caffeine: Now caffeine can both be beneficial and detrimental. Basically caffeine can be added to painkillers or even abortives because it increases the effectiveness. However, too much caffeine can be a migraine trigger. One neurologist suggested that it was when we fluctuated our intake. If our intake was consistent and moderate it might not be a trigger for us, however, if we had a variable amount each day or in excess then it could be a trigger. Some recommend around 8 ounces of coffee or four 12 ounce cans of pop. As you can see, even specialists differ on this. Sometimes it benefits us to stop it altogether and see what happens after six months. I gave that a go and it made no difference in me at all. So I tend to keep my intake consistent and moderate and with a lot of water in there as well to keep me hydrated.


Chocolate: Chocolate has often been cited as a migraine trigger but in fact it could be that in the prodrome we get cravings, sometimes for sweet things, like chocolate… shortly after we get a migraine and blame it on the chocolate. Often the same can be said for hormonal migraines where we can often crave things like chocolate. Either way recent studies suggest it does not play a significant role in triggering migraines. Then again, if you track your migraines and it seems to trigger them for you, then I would avoid it. For me, I can definitely say it is a craving prior to the migraine.

Tyramine and tannins: Evidences for these as a specific trigger are old and some scientists consider them to be weak. However, they are often cited as food triggers. I often see no issue with cutting them out of the diet to see if there is any difference. From my personal experience I have never had a problem with them but I am told it depends on whether someone is sensitive to tyramine.

Foods/drinks with Tyramine and tannins:

  • Red wine
  • Beer
  • Avocados
  • Overripe bananas
  • Aged cheeses
  • Pork
  • Soy-based foods
  • Certain processed meats
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Apple juice

Food additives and artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners like Aspartame have been blamed for migraine headaches, and much more than that. The same is said for food additives, including nitrates in processed meats and monosodium glutamate (MSG). But the scientific evidence for a connection isn't conclusive. MSG: we are looking at 10-15% of people say it is a migraine trigger for them. I know that for me it doesn’t seem to have an effect, but I know that for many others, additives like artificial sweeteners are an instant migraine trigger. Although the evidence on it is not conclusive it might be that it is a smaller amount of people affected by it. Or it might be again the effect where it can be more than one trigger compounding together causing a migraine.

Often when it comes to diet I recommend a healthy diet, hydration and most importantly eating small, regular meals. Never skip meals! Even if you have no appetite, which I find to be an issue, always have a small snack ready. You can keep a food diary if you believe that you have food triggers. You can also try an elimination diet. If you choose to try an elimination diet you should definitely do so under the guidance of your doctor. Dramatic changes to your diet are not to be fooled around with. It is important to not stress about your food. It has been said that food triggers are less common that other triggers. They can also be very elusive and difficult to uncover. I tend to avoid the main ones, keeping my diet simple, balanced and eat consistently. However, if you find something to be a trigger, evidence to the contrary or not, then it is a trigger for you and you should cut that from your diet.

Nikki, Brainless Blogger