April 2017 Issue

Relief from Migraines with Diet

Some foods may trigger migraines; some foods may prevent them.

If you’ve ever experienced a migraine, there’s no doubting what it is. The pain can be excruciating and debilitating. Once the pain is gone, many sufferers are saddled with a “migraine hangover,” in which they feel drained. Migraines are distinguished by moderate to severe pulsating pain, usually on one side of the head. Sufferers may experience nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light, sound, and even touch.

The Migraine Research Foundation estimates that 12 percent of the population suffers from migraines—some as often as 15 times a month, greatly affecting quality of life. Migraines tend to run in families; about 90 percent of sufferers have a family history of migraines. There are several medications that, if taken early enough, can stop a migraine in its tracks. But all medications have potential side effects. Prevention is the best approach.

Trigger Foods

Specific foods have been suggested to be migraine triggers in up to 30 percent of people who suffer from them. The most common trigger foods and beverages include chocolate, coffee, nuts, alcoholic beverages, milk, citrus fruits, and cheese. Among the most frequently cited ingredients are caffeine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners, nitrites, and gluten. However, a recent study found that single dietary triggers were associated with migraines in less than 7 percent of those studied. The problem may be that food triggers vary greatly among individuals, even within the same person, depending on the amount consumed and the timing. Researchers from the U.S., Austria and Spain recently published a study confirming that trigger profiles were unique for 85 percent of the patients studied.

Wine and Chocolate

Juri Bizgajmer | Dreamstime.com

Wine and chocolate are common migraine triggers.

Another trigger theory is that histamines (most often related to allergies) may trigger migraines. Foods rich in histamines include nuts, aged cheese, red wine, pickled foods, and smoked meats, like salami. The theory is that the enzyme needed to break down histamine is low or absent in some migraine sufferers. Some research suggests that vitamins C and B6 may increase the ability of the enzyme to break down histamine, potentially decreasing the risk for a migraine.

Diet as Migraine Prevention

Some foods may have the power to keep migraines at bay. A recent review by researchers from the University of Cincinnati found that diets with a high ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s were linked to a decreased frequency of migraines. Fatty fish, like salmon, are high in omega-3s; most vegetable oils are high in omega 6s. They also discovered that a diet high in folate, found in dark green vegetables and lentils, was an effective preventer. Some research suggests that a vegan diet might eliminate triggers and increase potential preventers. Weight loss, for people who are overweight, has also been suggested as a migraine preventer. Several supplements, such as magnesium and feverfew, have been studied for migraine prevention, but none have been proven conclusively to be effective.

The best way to find out if you have a trigger is to keep a food/migraine diary, eliminating one food at a time to identify culprits. If migraines happen only once or twice a month, a much longer period of time would be needed to identify your trigger than if you suffer a few times a week.