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7 Foods That May Trigger Headaches

headache triggers

If you suffer from migraines, you’ll probably do just about anything to prevent one – including change your diet.

Though each individual has different headache “triggers,” the following seven foods, food additives and eating habits are the most common triggers of migraines.

1. Skipping meals. Fasting – or going five or more hours without eating – may be the most frequent food trigger, according to a 2012 study in Neurology Science.

2. Alcohol, especially red wine and beer, are the next most common trigger. One or two drinks may trigger a headache immediately or the following day.

3. Tyramine, an amine compound found naturally in some foods, can cause blood vessels to dilate, which may trigger a migraine in some people. This can be a tricky trigger to identify, because the effects may be even worse the day after eating tyramine-containing foods. Tyramine-containing foods include: red wine, beer, chocolate, avocados, nuts, overripe bananas, soy sauce, aged cheeses and some dairy products.

4. Processed meats, such as hot dogs, deli meat and bacon.

5. MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer used in nearly every cheese or ranch-flavored snack food, as well as many Asian dishes. “Autolyzed yeast,” “hydrolyzed soy protein” or “glutamate” in the ingredients list are clues that a food contains MSG, since these additives are MSG-equivalents. More on where MSG is hiding.

6. Nitrates and nitrites, compounds which are added to processed meats and also naturally occur in some vegetables. Usually the nitrates we consume in vegetables, such as spinach, beets, radishes, celery and cabbage, are not a problem for migraine sufferers. When selecting deli meats or hot dogs, choose brands that have no nitrates or nitrites added, like Applegate Farms.

7. Aspartame, the artificial sweetener in NutraSweet and Equal, has been linked with trigger headaches in some people, possibly because the body breaks down the sweetener into formaldehyde (ew!). Even if aspartame is not a trigger for you, there are many other great reasons to avoid artificial sweeteners.

8. Caffeine. Some people find caffeine to be a headache trigger, and some find it to relieve their headaches. (Caffeine even appears in some headache medications like Excedrin Migraine as well as prescription medications). The key may be in the amount of caffeine. If you drink coffee, limit your intake to about one cup. If you currently drink a lot more than that, slowly reduce your intake over time so as not to bring on headaches associated with drinking less.


To discover which of these is a headache trigger for you, keep a food journal that includes everything you eat and all headache-related symptoms you experience. Over time, you may see patterns that reveal which foods or habits tend to bring on a migraine. In some cases, even just reducing the amount or frequency of food triggers may be enough to keep you pain-free.

Note: The above foods are common migraine triggers in sensitive people who suffer from migraines. They are not likely to cause headaches in normal individuals. As always, you should consult with your physician and a dietitian about migraines and their potential treatments.

The information above originally appeared in the Environmental Nutrition Newsletter and later in the Chicago Tribune.

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