Dear Diary: What Food Triggered This Migraine?

Track what you eat if you have migraines

Track what you eat if you have migraines

If you’re one of the more than 35 million Americans who suffer from migraine headaches, you’re painfully aware that no one knows for sure what can trigger them. Especially when it comes to foods.

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Certain foods are considered potential triggers from anecdotal evidence supplied by migraine sufferers. Figuring out which culprits cause your own headaches can be tough.

That’s why if you do get migraines, many headache experts say it’s essential to keep a daily headache diary of what you eat.

Different people, different triggers

Registered nurse Jane DeMattia, who treats patients at Cleveland Clinic’s Headache and Facial Pain Clinic, says foods can have a significant association with headaches, but admits that food triggers can be difficult to identify, particularly for those who suffer with chronic headaches (more than 15 days per month).

Response to foods is different in each person. What may cause no reaction in one person may trigger a severe headache in another.

“The most important factor is the chemical makeup of the patient,” says Ms. DeMattia — not the food itself.

Triggers cause chemical reactions

Though not known for sure, the belief is that there is a chemical reaction that takes place in the area of the brain known as the hypothalamus. When exposed to a trigger — whether it’s a certain food, a particular perfume, stress or an atmospheric pressure change — a reaction takes place in which messages are sent along the nerve pathways, which in turn is perceived as pain. 

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Secondary to this is a vascular response in which there is inflammation and dilation of blood vessels that causes that painful throbbing in your head.   

What may cause this response in one person may be different from that in another, supporting the connection with a person’s individual DNA makeup and their chemical response.

A headache diary can establish a connection

Ms. DeMattia says keeping a daily headache diary can establish a pattern of the foods you eat in relation to the occurrence of your headaches. “Tracking is huge,” she says.

As you maintain your diary, keep in mind these ingredients in food that been anecdotally associated with migraines:

Tyramine. This substance is found in some foods, forming as the food ages. The longer it ages, the higher the tyramine content. Foods high in tyramine include:

  • Aged cheeses (including cheddar, blue, Brie, Stilton, Parmesan)
  • Red wine (the alcohol in red wine is also considered a trigger)
  • Cured meats
  • Ripened foods

Caffeine. Ms. DeMattia says caffeine is tricky because not only can it be a trigger itself — but suddenly stopping caffeine intake can cause headaches too, she says.  More confusing, caffeine is sometimes used as a treatment for migraines, found in several over-the-counter medications. Remember, though, that too much caffeine can lead to rebound headaches, so the general rule is, “Caffeine in moderation (200 mg or less/day) or none at all.”

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Alcohol. Alcohol increases blood flow to the brain, but some experts blame the headache on impurities or by-products produced as your body metabolizes alcohol. Alcohol causes dehydration, too, which may also cause migraine. Red wine, beer, whiskey, Scotch, and champagne are the most commonly identified headache triggers.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG). The food enhancer found in soy sauce, Asian foods, meat tenderizer and a variety of canned and packaged foods has been anecdotally linked to headaches among other symptoms like flushing, sweating and chest pain. Ms. DeMattia warns to be careful at the salad bar: MSG is found in many of the offerings there as a preservative.    

Food preservatives. Nitrates and nitrites can dilate blood vessels, causing headaches. Keep track of your intake of:

  • Hot dogs
  • Sausage
  • Bacon
  • Lunch meats and deli-style meats
  • Pepperoni

If you keep a headache diary, work with a headache expert or nutritionist who can help you interpret the data you collect — and figure out the foods that are must to avoid. 

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