Food Triggers

Many foods and food additives have been identified as potential migraine triggers. In most cases, trigger foods contain chemicals that produce changes in body function that are believed to set the migraine attack in motion. Some commonly reported food triggers include:

  • Cheese

  • Chocolate

  • Alcohol

  • Citrus fruits

  • Yeast-risen bread and bakery products

  • The artificial sweetener aspartame

The Amines

Amines are derived from amino acids, and include tyramine, histamine, and beta-phenylethylamine. They are vasoactive substances (i.e., they impact the dilation and/or constriction of the blood vessels), but there may be more to the migraine/amine relationship than just blood flow, and researchers aren't sure exactly why amines seem to trigger migraine in some people.

The amines associated with migraine include:

  • Tyramine. Many foods that are aged, such as hard cheeses and fermented or pickled foods, contain tyramine, an amino acid formed by the breakdown of proteins. So do smoked meats, chocolate, soy sauce, onions, and nuts.

  • Phenylethylamine. This vasoconstrictor is found in chocolate.

  • Histamine. Eggplant, spinach, and certain species of fish contain histamines naturally. Histamines are also found in foods and drinks that ferment, such as vinegars, wine and beer, and sauerkraut.

Essential

Dark chocolate is a triple trigger threat, containing caffeine, tyramine, and phenylethylamine, a vasoconstrictor. Milk chocolate contains only small amounts of tyramine, and it may be a better choice if you need a chocolate fix but are sensitive to this substance.

Tyramine, phenylethylamine, and histamine levels in food can increase as food ages, so if these are migraine triggers for you, take care to buy fish and meat fresh, store properly, and cook it in a timely manner. Don't keep leftovers around longer than a day.

Additives and Preservatives

Many food additives, colors, and preservatives are migraine triggers. These include, but are not limited to, monosodium glutamate (in large amounts), sodium nitrite, and the food dye FD&C yellow #5.

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Although probably most well known as an additive in Chinese food, MSG is found in seasonings, sauces, Parmesan cheese, and meat tenderizers.

  • Sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is a preservative found in many meat products such as sausage, hot dogs, deli meat, and canned and prepackaged meat. It's also found in smoked and dehydrated meat products.

  • FD&C yellow #5 (tartrazine). This color additive is used in many medicines, cosmetics, soft drinks, candy, and ice cream. Don't assume that a food is free of yellow #5 just because it isn't yellow; this additive is also used to create green, orange, and other colors.

Checking food labels is the best way to determine if a product contains an additive that is a trigger for you.

Beverages

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It has a direct impact on brain function and can elicit migraine in some people. Many alcoholic beverages also contain histamines and high levels of tyramine, including red wine, sherry, beer, and champagne.

Many nonalcoholic beverages contain caffeine, which, unlike alcohol, stimulates the nervous system. While small amounts of caffeine can actually help ease migraine pain, in large doses caffeine becomes a dietary migraine trigger. Most people realize that caffeine is found in coffee, tea, and soft drinks, but be aware of hidden caffeine sources such as energy drinks, vitamin waters, coffee-flavored foods (e.g., ice cream and yogurt), and orange soda. Caffeine withdrawal is also a potential trigger, so keeping your caffeine intake moderate but steady is important.

There is comprehensive information on potential food triggers for migraine and how to avoid them.

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