Migraines are far more than just a bad headache. Experts believe migraine headaches are caused by abnormal brain activity, including dilation and constriction of the blood vessels within the brain. An attack can last from several hours to several days and affects a person’s ability to function at home and at work. A migraine can generate feelings of nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, throbbing head pain, aura, and visual distortion, causing a person to want to withdraw and seek immediate relief. If you have never experienced a migraine headache, consider yourself lucky, but for those who do, finding a way to manage the pain and lessen the frequency is priority one.
Knowing what triggers your migraine headaches is the best defense in avoiding them. For many, dietary triggers can be a major contributor. Keeping a detailed migraine journal for several weeks listing the foods that you ate before and after migraines occur may sound tedious, but the effort you put in will be well worth it. With some careful recording, a pattern should be detected. Doing this, along with a thorough physical exam to look for possible nutritional deficiencies (migraine sufferers tend to be deficient in magnesium, vitamin B (riboflavin), vitamin D, and CoQ10), and a detailed discussion with your physician or migraine specialist will put you well on your way to regaining the quality of life you have lost. In general, the following food guidelines will benefit most migraine sufferers:
Food to Avoid
Red wine, beer, and whiskey in particular have been cited in numerous studies to be triggers for migraines. Alcohol is the most frequently reported trigger by those suffering with migraines, with most studies finding a prevalence rate between 29 and 36 percent.
Wheat flour, found in most traditional baked goods, contains the protein gluten. If you are sensitive to gluten (approximately 6 percent of the population is) or if you have the autoimmune disorder celiac disease (it is suspected that there are more people with undiagnosed celiac disease than diagnosed), even small amounts of gluten can set off an inflammatory response in your body. While celiac disease can be diagnosed through specialized testing by your physician, there are no specific tests for gluten intolerance. Eliminating all gluten from your diet for at least two weeks and monitoring your symptoms is the only reliable way to make the diagnosis of gluten-sensitivity at this time. Along with intestinal problems, neurological presentations—including migraines—are common to both diseases. If you think gluten may be the cause of your migraine, talk to your physician before you adopt a gluten-free diet for a better understanding of how it will affect your overall health.
In order to maximize the shelf life and flavor of processed meats and fish, such as hot dogs, sausages, bacon, deli meats, and smoked fish, manufacturers add the food preservatives sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. When we consume foods with nitrates and nitrites the result is an increase in nitric oxide, which has been linked to an increase in the occurrence of migraine headaches. Furthermore, a recent and very interesting study found that people whose intestinal microbiome contained a higher level of particular bacteria that facilitates the breakdown of nitrates were more likely to suffer a migraine attack after eating food that contained them.
Cheese lovers, beware! Certain aged cheeses, such as blue, Brie, cheddar, provolone, Gorgonzola, and Parmesan all contain tyramine, a naturally occurring substance found in aged and fermented foods that has long been linked to an increase in migraine headaches.
It’s not just in your Chinese food! Monosodium glutamate, which has a long, proven history with causing headaches and migraines, is a flavor enhancer that can be found in food items from marinades and salad dressings to chips, seasonings, even canned tuna! It has so many aliases, going by natural flavoring, hydrolyzed plant protein, komu extract, that unless you are an expert in food labels, it’s hard to know if you’re eating it or not. The bottom line—if you eat a lot of processed, packaged, or restaurant foods, you’re likely eating a good amount of MSG.
They are found in beverages, baked goods, candies, and scores of other processed foods, and for many, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are a migraine trigger.
It may surprise you to see citrus fruits on this list, but octopamine, a chemical compound found in citrus fruits, can cause migraines for those who are sensitive.
Foods to Eat
Halibut, mackerel, and salmon
Opt for the fattier fishes at the grocery store to make sure you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acids. Diets high in omega-3s and low in omega-6s have been found to lessen the frequency and occurrence of migraine headaches,
Cashews, almonds, and pumpkin seeds
Because of their high magnesium content, cashews, almonds, and pumpkins seeds are the nuts to turn to if you suffer from migraines. Aim for 1 ounce per day.
Drops in blood sugar can be a trigger for many migraine sufferers. To maintain steady blood-sugar levels, eat foods with a low-glycemic index, like steel-cut oatmeal and oat bran.
Popeye ate it for energy and iron, but migraine sufferers will appreciate spinach for its high folic acid and vitamin B content. A 2015 study found participants who increased their intake of folic acid experienced an improvement in their migraine symptoms. A review of 11 studies regarding the role of vitamin-B supplementation to treat migraines found it to be an effective treatment for adults, with few side effects. Other dietary sources of vitamin B include mushrooms, asparagus, and eggs.
Incidentally, spinach is also high in magnesium, doubling its migraine-fighting properties. Whether it’s steamed, fresh, or sautéed, try adding a spinach dish to the menu once a week!
Staying hydrated is one of the most important things you can do for your body in general, and you’ll see that it will help with migraines too. Eight glasses of water each day is recommended, but if you consistently miss that mark make sure to snack on foods with high water content, like cucumbers, apples, and pears!
When considering how you can reshape your diet to improve migraine symptoms, the bottom line is eat fresh, not processed, food. The more work that goes into preparing foods for the consumer, the more likely it is that it will have an additive that may be a trigger for you.