Migraines are headaches that are often severe in intensity, and are accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to sensory information such as light, sound, and smell.

Many individuals affected by migraines also experience visual disturbances referred to as “aura.” Migraines are classified as a primary headache disorder, meaning that they do not result as a cause of another underlying medical condition.

Migraines are a common type of headache, with a global prevalence of millions of migraine sufferers. The exact causes of migraines are still unknown, and it is currently thought that they arise as the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In fact, many environmental “triggers” are associated with the onset of migraines, including weather changes, stress and fatigue. Importantly, up to 60% of individuals who experience migraines report specific foods serving as migraine triggers.

Here are some changes you can make to your dietary habits and foods you consume in order to decrease the risk of triggering migraines.

1. Skipping meals

Skipping meals is not only detrimental to your metabolism and overall health but can also trigger the onset of migraines. Since the nutrients we eat are the most important source of energy in the body, skipping a meal interrupts the supply of glucose our bodies and brains need to function. When you don’t eat a scheduled meal and forego eating for many hours, your blood glucose levels drop, triggering hypoglycaemia, which can often result in headaches and migraines. Skipping meals often result in increased fatigue, which is also a major contributing factor to developing migraines.

2. Caffeine

Caffeine is a natural stimulant that can be found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, and even over-the-counter cold medicine. It stimulates the nervous system, as well as the heart and muscles, increasing alertness and promotes wakefulness. Although caffeine has some health benefits, its regular consumption can result in caffeine dependence. Like any other stimulant, caffeine causes physical dependence upon its frequent use, in addition to withdrawal symptoms.

Scientific research shows that consuming as little as 100 mg of caffeine a day (which equals to about 1 cup of coffee) can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, and depressed mood, and is classified as a migraine trigger. One research study has demonstrated that discontinuing the use of caffeine resulted in significant reduction of migraine intensity. Ironically, caffeine is sometimes used to treat certain types of headaches and migraines.

Blood vessels in the brain often dilate before the onset of a migraine, and caffeine causes the narrowing of the blood vessels (a phenomenon referred to as vasoconstriction), caffeine can sometimes be used to reduce the pain felt due to migraines. However, since caffeine is also a known migraine trigger, it is best to avoid its regular intake by individuals who suffer from migraines.

3. Aged cheeses

Tyramine is a naturally-occurring molecule derived from the amino acid tyrosine. Tyramine can form the proteins in cheese break down over time and can be found in higher concentrations in aged and fermented foods, such as cheeses.

Scientists are still trying to understand exactly how tyramine can trigger migraines, it is thought that tyramine increases the concentration of another molecule, norepinephrine, in the brain, and this can result in headaches and migraines.

Besides aged cheeses, other foods with higher concentrations of tyramine include smoked and cured meats and fish, as well as some fermented foods and some types of beer. In order to avoid consuming high levels of tyramine, choose fresh meat and fish over smoked and cured products, and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, while avoiding aged cheeses such as Swiss, Parmesan and Camembert.

4. Alcohol

Alcohol is considered to be another common migraine trigger. It is a well-known fact that alcohol affects the brain. Specifically, alcohol causes depression of the central nervous systems and slows down the communication between brain cells.

Consumption of large amounts of alcohol can disrupt the activities of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers used by brain cells to communicate with each other.

rinking alcohol causes dehydration and decreased blood glucose levels, both of which can trigger headaches and migraines. In addition, alcohol results in sleep disturbances, which are also known to contribute to the frequency and severity of migraines. According to the International Classification of Headache Disorders, there are two types of alcohol-induced headaches: immediate and delayed.

An immediate alcohol-induced headache is also known as a “cocktail headache,” while a delayed alcohol-induced headache is known as a “hangover.” However, when individuals who suffer from migraines develop alcohol-induced headaches, their headaches tend to resemble the migraines they typically experience. According to scientific research, migraine sufferers are also more vulnerable to migraine-like hangover symptoms.  

5. Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a naturally-occurring amino acid naturally found in foods such as mushrooms, cheese, tomatoes, among others.

MSG is commonly used in the food industry as a flavour enhancer and is responsible for contributing the “umami” taste, which can intensify the flavour of some foods. In addition, MSG is one of the active ingredients in soy sauce and is contained in higher concentrations in many Asian foods. Although MSG is generally recognized as safe to eat, large doses of it can cause headaches.  Therefore, MSG should be generally avoided by individuals who are susceptible to recurrent migraines.

6. Nitrates and nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals added to many types of processed and cured meats, including ham, hot dogs and bacon. These molecules function as food preservatives, helping to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and keeping foods fresh longer.

The use of nitrates and nitrites in the food industry is controversial, as these chemicals have been associated with negative health effects. Nitrates and nitrites have been associated as a migraine trigger because they cause blood vessel dilation in the brain (vasodilation). If you suffer from recurrent migraines, it is best to avoid processed meat products and choose fresh meats instead.