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If you have ever had a migraine, then you know how debilitating they can be. You are not alone. Over 30 million Americans suffer with migraine headaches. Women are twice as likely as men to experience migraines with the most common age range falling in the time period between 18-44.

Migraine prevention is important to understand and easy to implement. It is often a combination of triggers from the environment, your diet and your overall physical state that can cause a migraine to happen. These triggers vary amongst individuals and can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint as they are not always consistent. It is important to keep a “migraine diary” – and yes, there is an app for that – in order to better understand what specific things may cause your migraines.

Because I am a dietitian, I am going to specifically focus on dietary triggers for migraines, however it is important to touch on some of the other triggers as well. These include:

  • Feeling worn down
  • Stress
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Hormone changes
  • Weather changes
  • Lighting (bright, fluorescent or flickering)
  • Odors (chemicals, smoke, perfume)

So, what about diet? We all know that if you have diabetes, or high cholesterol that you need to pay close attention to what you eat. Many people do not know that if you have gout, acid reflux, kidney stones or are prone to migraines – your diet may be even more important to keeping your migraines under control.

Let’s discuss 10 different dietary migraine triggers.

    1. Hunger – related to falling blood glucose levels. Many people will get a headache if they become too hungry, however those who often get migraines, hunger can be a trigger.
    2. Dehydration – headaches are a common symptom of dehydration and similar to hunger, this can be a trigger for a migraine as well.
    3. Alcohol – this is perhaps one of the most common triggers for migraines. In a Brazilian study, alcohol triggered one-third of migraine patients. More often than not, red wine is the culprit and alcohol can cause dehydration and sleep disturbances as well.
    4. Caffeine – those with a sensitivity to caffeine can develop a migraine after drinking coffee or tea. However excessive caffeine intake as well as caffeine withdrawal can also be a trigger. Some people find that having caffeine at the onset of a headache or a migraine can stop the headache from becoming worse. Some migraine medications actually contain caffeine.
    5. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – MSG is a “flavor enhancer”. Many people have a reaction to MSG so it is best if you avoid it, if you can. Other names for MSG include: yeast extract, hydrolyzed or autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, sodium caseinate and kombu extract.
    6. Aspartame – aka NutraSweet or Equal. Many people report a link between this artificial sweetener and migraines and this sugar substitute is found in many diet foods and beverages. Be sure to read your food labels and see if this is a trigger for you.
    7. Tyramine or Phenylethylamine – these are 2 amino acids which do trigger migraines in some people. They are typically found in: chocolate, aged cheese, soy foods, nuts, citrus fruits and vinegar.
    8. Sulfites – this is a preservative commonly found in dried fruits, wine and many processed foods.
    9. Tannins – a compound found in plants and is known for giving foods an astringent taste. Tannins are found in tea, red-skinned apples, pears and red wine.
    10. Nitrites – nitrites are a common food preservative and are found in hot dogs, deli meat, beef/turkey jerky, corned beef, pepperoni and other foods that have been cured, pickled or smoked. Try to look for nitrite-free products at the grocery store.

Bottom line – many things can induce a migraine. Try to be mindful of the triggers mentioned above and keep a “headache diary” to pinpoint which triggers effect you the most. Once you have a better understanding of what jump-starts your migraine try making a few lifestyle changes to see if adjusting your diet will provide relief from future migraine attacks.


  • Geha, R.S., Beiser, A., Ren, C., Patterson, R., Greenberger, P.A., Grammer, L.C., et al. (2000, April). Review of alleged reaction to monosodium glutamate and outcome of a multicenter double-blind placebo-controlled study. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(4S Suppl), 1058S-62S. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from
  • Schiffman, S.S., Buckley, C.E. 3rd, Sampson, H.A., Massey, E.W., Baraniuk, J.N., Follett, J.V., Warwick, Z.S. (1987, November). Aspartame and susceptibility to headache. The New England Journal of Medicine, 317(19), 1181-5. Retrieved Apr 28, 2014, from
  • Armstrong, L.E., Ganio, M.S., Casa, D.J., Lee, E.C., McDermott, B.P., Klau, J.F., et al. (2012, February). Mild dehydration affects mood in healthy young women. The Journal of Nutrition, 142(2), 382-8. doi: 10.3945/jn.111.142000. Epub 2011, December 21. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from
    By: Tarie Beldin, RD, LD, FAND

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