A woman is eating a bowl of cereal while sitting on a sofa.
Can food prevent (or cause) headaches?
The exact cause of migraine is still unknown. However, doctors and scientists agree that brief changes in brain activity play a role. These affect blood vessels and nerve signals. The result: pulsating headaches that sometimes last for days.
Published ON
April 20, 2022

Reading time: 5 minutes

A migraine can be caused by many factors, such as medication, changes in hormone balance or lack of sleep. But would you have thought that diet also plays a role? In about 10% of those affected, food is the trigger of migraines.However, not all people react equally intensely to certain foods. Reactions can occur as early as half an hour after food ingestion, but for some it takes up to 72 hours. For this reason, it is difficult to identify the foods that cause headaches. Therefore, it is recommended to keep a food diary, recording times, foods eaten and headache symptoms.

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The whole thing works like this: It starts with a conservative diet (one that does not include any of the foods on the list below). Every three days, another food is added and observed to see if the migraine symptoms change in any way. This method takes a while and requires absolute adherence to the rules, but in the end it is really effective.Everyone is different, but there are some food groups that have a higher probability of triggering migraines than others. They are classified based on their similarity in sensitivity (example: people in whom red wine triggers migraines usually also get headaches from chocolate). The following food groups are known to trigger migraines:

Caffeine and similar active ingredients

The stimulant caffeine can affect the effectiveness of migraine-treatment medications. Therefore, you should limit your caffeine consumption and keep it as consistent as possible.

Food with high tyramine content

Tyramine is a natural waste product of protein cleavage. The older foods are (especially those rich in protein), the higher their tyramine content. Food should generally always be prepared and eaten fresh - especially those with a high protein content. Be careful with leftovers older than two or three days.

Alcohol

Some people get migraines from all alcohol consumption. Others only get migraines from red wine (especially Chianti), but this is due to the chemicals in the wine, not the alcohol. People who get migraines from red wine usually also get headaches from chocolate.In any case, consult your doctor and/or pharmacist about your alcohol consumption, as many medications react to alcohol. Migraine triggers can have an additive effect. Being overtired and skipping a meal are factors that can separately lead to a migraine. However, if you haven't slept enough and are in such a hurry in the morning that you skip breakfast, you are even more likely to be struck by a migraine.For women, many women who suffer from migraines react more strongly to the various triggers before they menstruate. Foods that are easy to digest the week after your period can cause a migraine in the days leading up to it.

Advantages of a plant-based diet

The American Journal of Headache and Pain published a study that concluded that a plant-based diet can reduce headaches. The intensity of the study participants' pain decreased considerably when they ate a plant-based diet. The reduction in pain was likely due to the elimination of migraine triggers (meat and dairy) and the weight loss and hormone changes brought about by the dietary changes.

Sources:

MacGregor EA. Migraine. Ann Intern Med. 2017 Apr 4;166(7):ITC49-ITC64..
Finocchi C
, Sivori G. Food as trigger and aggravating factor of migraine. Neurol Sci. 2012 May;33 Suppl 1:S77-80.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “Migraine Diet: A Natural Approach to Migraines.”
Journal of Headache and Pain

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