Migraine Trigger Foods
A migraine isn’t just a headache, and the foods you eat may be triggering your symptoms. This article will discuss specific migraine trigger foods to avoid.
A migraine is a throbbing pain that may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to lights and sounds. It can involve neck or back pain, difficulty thinking or concentrating, flashes of light around your eyes, and a change in strength or coordination. It can also get progressively worse over time. Many of my clients who experience migraines tell me that a migraine can last for days which can compromise their sleep and their ability to function at their jobs.
A good percentage of the time, migraines can be triggered by food sensitivities. Migraine trigger foods are common foods found all around us. If you suffer from migraines, it is important that you identify your migraine trigger foods. One of the ways that you can find out which migraine trigger foods affects you is to eliminate the most common inducers. Below is a list of the primary migraine trigger foods.
Gluten, Dairy, and Migraine Trigger Foods
There are a good percentage of migraine sufferers who react to gluten and to dairy. During the past few years, many scientists have begun to re-evaluate the common perception that gluten sensitivity is solely a disease of the GI tract. Under ordinary circumstances, gluten and dairy can be digested into their various parts and delivered to the muscles and cells to build health. Gluten and dairy naturally contain morphine like compounds such as gluteomorphin and casomorphin. This is why they can become “addictive” foods. When people have gluten or dairy sensitivities, it is hard for the digestive tract to fully break down these substances and the immune system creates an inflammatory process to try to get rid of them. As a result, both the gut and the brain react to them, possibly causing impairments in concentration, motor skills, cognitive reasoning, and headaches. Also, the antibodies directed against gluten and dairy have the ability to cross react with brain tissue.
Even though there is data to suggest that many migraine sufferers react to either gluten or dairy or both, few medical doctors routinely test their patients. A 2003 study indicated that of the 90 patients in the study who were diagnosed with migraines, 4.4 percent had celiac disease as compared to only 0.4 percent of the 23 in the control group. These patients were treated with a gluten-free diet and the symptoms were alleviated. These patients also “showed an improvement in their cerebral blood flow through diagnostic imaging.” (1,2) Another study demonstrated that migraines can be triggered in gluten-sensitive individuals. Ten patients whose migraines were resistant to treatment were tested for gluten sensitivity. All of them were determined to be gluten-sensitive. MRI scans were run and showed that “each had inflammation in their central nervous system caused by gluten-sensitivity.” (3) Nine of the patients went on a gluten-free diet and seven stopped having headaches completely and two had significant relief.
Dairy has also been shown to elicit migraines. In a 1983 double-blind, placebo controlled study, 88 children were suffering from severe and frequent migraines. They were placed on a diet consisting of lamb or chicken, an apple, one cruciferous vegetable, water, and vitamin and calcium supplements for up to four weeks. Those who did not improve were placed on another food elimination diet. By the second diet changes, there was a total recovery rate of 93 percent. After food challenges, the most common foods that triggered migraines were cow’s milk (27 percent), egg(25 percent), chocolate (22percent), orange (21 percent) and wheat (21 percent). (4,5)
Migraine Trigger Foods for an Elimination Diet
As early as 1930, it was established in medical literature that food allergies could cause migraines. According to Alan Gaby, M.D., there was a ground-breaking study of 55 migraine patients who avoided the most common allergenic foods which resulted in remission of migraine symptoms in 53 percent of the patients and a partial improvement in 38 percent.(6) In another study conducted in 1984, and reported in the Lancet, 60 patients with a history of frequent migraines was asked to consume a diet for five days that consisted of lamb and pears. For most, migraines disappeared by the fifth day. The researchers found that the foods that most frequently caused symptoms were “wheat (78 percent); orange (65 percent); tea and coffee (40 percent); chocolate and milk (37 percent); beef (35 percent); corn, sugar, and yeast (33 percent); mushrooms (30 percent); and peas (28 percent).” As much as 85 percent of the patients became headache-free. (7,8)
This food connection was clearly evident when a young man in his early twenties came to see me for weight loss, gastrointestinal issues, and migraine headaches. He had been suffering from migraines every week since he was a teenager. I recommended a food elimination diet that included elimination of all grains, dairy, soy, chocolate, eggs, legumes, avocados, bananas, nuts, seeds, alcohol and caffeine. He followed the dietary recommendations for four weeks. He was only to eat lean protein, fresh fruits, and vegetables. He returned for an appointment and indicated that he hadn’t had a migraine in almost four weeks. In addition, his heartburn and constipation had resolved and he had lost fifteen pounds.
His next step was to undertake a food challenge of all of the foods that had been eliminated from his diet. He added food groups, one by one, back into his diet every four days. When he added gluten he experienced a severe migraine and heartburn. A week later when he added dairy, he again experienced a severe migraine. All of the other foods seemed to cause no migraines or gastrointestinal symptoms. As long as he eliminates both dairy and gluten grains and eats a wholesome diet, he has no migraine symptoms, his bowels are regular, he loses weight and has no digestive symptoms
Dietary Modifications for Food-Induced Migraines
Foods that contain vasoactive amines (e.g., tyramine and phenylethylamine) have been associated with exacerbations of migraine headaches. These are mainly fermented foods with tyramine being the by-product formed by bacterial breakdown of amino acids.
- Chocolate, cocoa. These foods contain large amounts of phenylehtylamine and are a food most commonly associated with exacerbations of migraines.
- Avocados, bananas, figs: These fruits contain large amounts of tyramine, particularly if over-ripe.
- Fermented sausage such as bologna, pepperoni, salami, aged beef, have a high tyramine content.
- Wines generally do not contain tyramine, but many reactions have been reported with Chianti, champagne, and other wines. If taken, it should be used in very small amounts.
- Beer and ale: Major domestic brands do not contain appreciable amounts. Some imported brands have high levels of tyramine. Non-alcoholic beer may contain tyramine and should be avoided.
- Soy sauce contains large amounts of tyramine. Reactions have occurred with teriyaki sauce.
- Dried products contain large amounts of tyramine. Caution is required in restaurants: dried fruit
- Bean curd, fermented bean curds, fermented soybean, soybean paste all contain large amounts of tyramine.
- Miso soup which is fermented may cause reactions.
- Liver. Safe if fresh and from organic meat sources. But, it can possibly and rapidly accumulate tyramine.
- Soups, protein extracts: Avoid liquid and powdered dietary supplements, as they may contain tyramine. Prepared soups generally contain protein extract and should be avoided.
- Yeast extracts. Dietary supplements may contain yeast extracts. Yeast in baked goods is safe.
- Fava beans: These contain dopamine, particularly when over-ripe and must be avoided.
- Ginseng: This does not contain tyramine, but has been associated with headaches.
- Shrimp paste must be avoided as it contains large amounts of tyramine.
- All ripened and fermented cheeses contain tyramine. Unfermented cheese such as cottage cheese and cream cheese is safe, as is yogurt.
- All known “food allergens” and “food sensitivities.” If you are sensitive to certain foods, these can trigger a migraine. The usual suspects are gluten grains (wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt, kamut); cow’s dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, etc.); soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso); eggs. Completely eliminate these foods from your diet for four weeks and see if migraines subside. Other suspects could be: corn, peanuts, and nuts.
- Gabrielli, M. et.al. American Journal of Gastroenterology, July, 2003, 98(7):1674.
- Science Daily, Gluten in the Diet May Be the Cause of Recurrent Headaches, American Academy of Neurology, Feb. 14, 2001, 56(385-388); retrieved June 14, 2011 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/02010213072604.htm
- Egger, J. et.al. Is Migraine Food Allergy? A double-blind controlled trial of oligoantigenic diet treatment, Lancet, 1983, Oct.15, 2:8355, 865-869.
- Gaby, A. The Role of Hidden Food Allergy/Intolerance in Chronic Disease,
Alternative Medicine Review, 1998, Vol.3, No.2:90-100; p.91-92.
- Gaby, A. The Role of Hidden Food Allergy/Intolerance in Chronic Disease,
Alternative Medicine Review, 1998, Vol. 3, No.2:90-100; p.92
- Gaby, A. op.cit. p.92.
- Monro, J. et.al. Migraine is a food allergic disease, Lancet, 1984; 2:719-721.