Chronic headaches or migraines affect 29.5 million people. Because it is so common, many believe that the environment must play a large role. I would agree. Nutritionally, it seems that many foods can act as suppressants or as triggers. Often individuals can identify potential triggers but may not know what foods can help.

Possible food triggers include:
  • Aged cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Dried fruit
  • Red Wine
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners (splenda, aspartame, etc)
  • Preservatives in food, in particular benzoic acid
  • Nitrites found in ham or bacon or other processed meats
  • Food coloring
  • MSG
  • Cigarette or cigar smoke
Tyrosine is an amino acid in aged cheese, chocolate, dried fruit and red wine that increases blood flow to the brain triggering headaches. Artificial substances such as sweeteners, preservatives, nitrates, food colorings and MSG have also been shown to have an effect on headaches even in small amounts. For these additives, be sure to read ingredient lists carefully.
Foods that may help:
  • Eat small, frequent meals that are well balanced. Avoid eating high sugar foods on an empty stomach.
  • Eat foods freshly cooked. As foods age, they can increase in tyrosine.
  • Eat foods rich in magnesium such as black beans, peanuts, seeds, scallops, halibut, vegetables (broccoli, okra and spinach in particular), soy milk, tofu and enriched grains such as bran cereals and breads. If migraines are severe, try to eat a serving of a magnesium rich food at each meal.
  • Migraines often are brought on by inflammation and healthy fats can help to fight inflammation. Try to include a healthy fat at each meal. Examples include avocados, olive oil, canola oil, olives and nuts.
  • Stay well hydrated. Be sure to keep a water bottle with you always and drink often. If you find yourself thirsty, you are already dehydrated.

To find what foods are triggers for you, it may be helpful to keep a food journal. Once you notice a headache forming, it will be easy to see what you have eaten recently and over time you will see a pattern forming. With that knowledge comes the ability to lessen the frequency of your headaches.

There are other environmental triggers other than food. Stress, heat, hormones, changes in weather patterns and lack of sleep are only a few other examples. And as always, genetics will play a role.
As one who gets headaches, I know how important it is to recognize triggers. Some of my environmental triggers have nothing to do with food. But I am also very sensitive to MSG and artificial sweeteners. Thank goodness chocolate is safe for me!
What about you? Do you suffer from migraines? What are your triggers? What have you found helpful? Have I missed anything on this list?
Emily Fonnesbeck RD,CD