Is Your Food Giving You Headaches?

By Katherine Brooking, MS, RD

More than ten out of a hundred people suffer from migraines, debilitating headaches that can cause blinding, throbbing pain, lasting from a few hours to several days. If you’ve ever had one, you know they are nothing like ordinary headaches. Unfortunately, I am myself one of these migraine sufferers.

Migraines Can Be Triggered by Numerous Factors
Knowing and Avoiding Them Can Ease the Suffering

Migraines are caused by abnormal brain activity, which can be triggered by stress, certain foods, or environmental factors, among countless other things. Although research is advancing, the exact chain of events leading to a migraine attack remains unclear, and so far there is no cure.

My own experience with migraines has taught me a lot about what I can do to reduce their frequency and, once they occur, their duration and severity. Everyone who suffers from migraines is unique, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” list of triggers or remedies. But in my efforts to cope with this condition, I’ve been able to uncover what helps me most.

In terms of finding my migraine triggers, keeping a ‘migraine diary’ has been invaluable. This includes recording detailed information about occurrences, such as what I ate and drank before the headache (going back several days), as well as other environmental changes.

In my case, I know that the certain events can increase the likelihood of an attack, like changes in weather (a nice day that turns into a thunderstorm, for example), lack of sleep, stress, sensory stimuli like bright lights or certain odors (cigarette smoke, strong perfumes, and cleaning solutions, to name a few), remaining seated (particularly in front of a computer) for too long, as well as some foods and beverages.

When it comes to eating, I have some triggers in common with many other migraine sufferers. Drinking alcohol of any kind (even a little, like a half glass of wine) will almost certainly bring on a migraine. Same for nitrates and sulfites often found in processed foods like hot dogs. The frequency of my meals is also a factor. Going for more than four or five hours without eating can become a trigger. Ditto for hydration. If I don’t drink enough fluids – yep, you guessed it – that can bring on a migraine.

As horrible and disruptive as migraines can be, in my case they have been both a curse and a blessing. I often joke that I should live in a bubble or some type of environmentally pure contraption, because my body seems to be sensitive to so many things. But, like everyone else, I have to live in the real world. So to reduce the frequency of my migraines, I am kind of forced to live a fairly healthy lifestyle.

Drinking alcohol and smoking are out of the question. Fortunately, I never had a taste for either, so I don’t feel I’m missing out here. I also have to get adequate sleep, exercise, and devote a portion of my day to relaxation. Believe me, this is not as easy as it sounds. But when I don’t get enough of any of these, I know I will have to pay for it with a debilitating headache. I do have a prescription medication, Relpax, to take when I can’t avoid a migraine, but there are definite side effects, despite the relief it provides.

A healthy diet is a must. From my journal I’ve noticed that high sodium foods are a likely trigger, nearly as much as alcohol and nitrate-containing foods. So the less salt I take in, the better off I am. If I stick with a low-sodium, relatively unprocessed, and mostly plant-based diet, I am usually ok.

If you have migraines, or think you do, there are things you can do. Consider the following:

• Speak to a physician who takes your condition seriously. It took me years before I found a great neurologist who was willing to listen and work with me to get the right treatment.

• Keep a migraine log. This is essential for getting a handle on your potential triggers. It should include a record of everything that could be related to the onset of your migraine as well as the migraine itself. Food, stress, work, weather, hormonal changes, sensory stimuli like lights, noise, and physical exertion should all be taken into account.

• Get regular exercise. For some people (I am one of them) extreme physical exertion can be a trigger. But lighter activities like walking, yoga, or swimming are a big benefit.

• Reduce stress. I know, this can be tough, given the hectic pace of modern life, but it can be key. I have found that yoga and meditation can sometimes (not always) help me avoid a migraine if I catch it early enough.

• Pay particular attention to common trigger foods. Everyone is different, but here are some potential foods you should monitor to understand how they affect you. A good way to do this is to eliminate all potential culprits, and then add them back on one by one, so you can find out which ones you better stay away from.

Common migraine trigger foods include:
• Chocolate (anything made with cocoa)
• Aged or fermented cheeses
• Yogurt
• Caffeine
• Sour cream
• Soy products
• Soy sauce
• Alcohol
• Vinegar
• Sauerkraut
• Processed meats (smoked, cured, aged, canned, and pickled)
• Citrus fruits
• Baked goods with yeast extracts
• Additives including MSG

Katherine Brooking, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian, writer and expert contributor to numerous television programs. She has appeared on The TODAY Show, Live with Regis & Kelly, The Early Show on CBS, Good Morning America Health, and many others. She covers health and wellness topics in SELF Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and New York Daily News. For more information go to

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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