5 Foods That Cause Migraines

If you’re one of the estimated 30 million Americans who suffer from migraines, the debilitating vascular headaches associated with changes in the size of brain arteries, you know that there are certain foods that cause migraines. However, while research is ongoing, the National Headache Foundation reports that no direct correlation between migraines and food has been proven to exist. Still, most migraine sufferers disagree, and the Cleveland Clinic says sensitivity to certain foods and beverages or to chemicals and preservatives in foods may be responsible for triggering up to 30% of migraines. While scientific studies have yet to validate what migraine sufferers and many doctors suspect to be true, the following five foods are those most commonly reported by patients to cause migraines.

  1. Alcohol is one of the most commonly reported food triggers that cause migraines. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that 33% of migraine sufferers have this sensitivity, although scientists disagree upon why. Some believe that impurities in alcohol or the by-products of metabolizing alcohol bring on migraines, while the American Headache Society suggests that because alcohol increases blood flow to the brain, it may cause the changes in blood vessels associated with migraines. Red wine and beer seem to be particularly troublesome for many patients. However, based on an Italian research study that monitored the alcohol consumption of 307 volunteers, the National Headache Institute reports no correlation between alcohol and migraines.
  2. Cheese is also considered to be a migraine-causing culprit. Aged cheeses contain tyramine, a naturally forming amino acid that forms as protein breaks down when food ages. Tyramine is thought to provoke blood vessel changes, which may in turn cause migraines. The Cleveland Clinic suggests migraine sufferers avoid blue cheese, brie, stilton, cheddar, and parmesan, among others. Tyramine is also found in high concentrations in foods like pickles, onions, olives, nuts, avocados, and red wine. According to the National Headache Institute, more studies have been devoted to the effects of tyramine on migraines than any other chemical trigger, but no definitive connection has been established.
  3. The American Headache Society reports 22% of migraine sufferers report sensitivity to chocolate. While scientific studies have not shown a consistent association between chocolate consumption and headaches, chocolate, like cheese, contains tyramine. However, some speculate that chocolate may not be responsible for causing migraines at all. The US Department of Health and Human Services confirms that both stress and hormonal changes are migraine triggers. Because women tend to crave chocolate during times of stress and hormonal fluctuations–and both are known to bring on headaches–chocolate may be a mere coincidence and not a cause.
  4. Some migraine sufferers believe that food additives cause migraine attacks. The most common are preservatives like nitrates or nitrites and additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG). These additives have been proven to dilate blood vessels, causing headaches in some people. MSG is a particular problem, affecting 10% to 15% of sufferers. Again, no scientific studies have actually linked MSG or nitrites to migraines.
  5. Cold foods may cause migraines. While we’ve all suffered the consequential “brain freeze” that comes from sucking down a Slurpee too quickly, that pain usually subsides in a matter of seconds. For a migraine sufferer, exposure to cold foods may be just the beginning of an hours-long, or even days-long, ordeal. According to the Cleveland Clinic, ice cream, frozen beverages, and other cold substances affect more than 90% of migraine sufferers.


American Headache Society

Cleveland Clinic

US Department of Health and Human Services

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