6 foods that can trigger a headache from hell

If you’re reading this right now, you’re likely an unfortunate headache and migraine sufferer. But what you may not know is that 30 percent of headaches and migraines are triggered by foods.

And the six most common offenders are…

  1. Monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is a flavor enhancer found in soups, sauces, and Asian cuisine, particularly in commercial Chinese restaurants in the West. People who are sensitive to MSG have reported that migraines, flushing, and a racing heartbeat are triggered after consuming it.
  2. Caffeine. Found in tea, coffee, chocolate, soda, and ironically, in some over-the-counter headache medications, caffeine is the most popular stimulant on the planet. While caffeine can abort headaches in some people, for others caffeine triggers a migraine. One study in 36 caffeine drinkers suffering daily headaches found that 92 percent were relieved of their chronic headaches after eliminating caffeine from their diet.
  3. Aspartame. This artificial sweetener is incredibly popular as a replacement for sugar in diet sodas and “sugar free’’ products. And unfortunately it can have some pretty nasty side effects. A study examining the side effects of aspartame discovered that it not only causes headaches in susceptible people, but also leads to mood changes like irritability and depression.
  4. Gluten. While celiac disease is fairly rare, a lot of people are sensitive to gluten for other reasons — a trigger for headaches and migraines being one of them. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and oats — three very common ingredients that are added to many processed foods to enhance their flavor and texture.
  5. Nitrates. Nitrates are preservatives found in processed meats like bacon, ham, lunchmeat, pepperoni, and sausage. Nitrates may help the meat look and taste better, but for you they may be a migraine trigger. Always check the package for ingredients like “sodium nitrate” or “nitrite.”
  6. Chocolate. Sadly for you, chocolate can be a migraine trigger as it contains a large amount of the amino acid tyramine, which is known to cause headaches.

The above six foods are the most common triggers but if you’re a sensitive person, the truth is your trigger could be almost anything — dairy, sugar, citric acid and other common ingredients.

There are two effective ways to identify your own food triggers:

Keep a food diary. Keep a written log of what you eat and drink every day for two to three weeks, and also note when you have migraines. Writing things down makes it a lot easier to identify patterns and potential triggering agents.

Try an elimination diet. Once you have some potential candidates noted, see if you notice any correlation between specific foods you ate and the number of headaches you had. If you’re suspicious about one (or several) potential food triggers, try an elimination diet.

For a period of at least two weeks, cut the suspected food out of your diet. If you feel a lot better, you know this food could be to blame for your headaches and therefore, don’t introduce it back to your diet. If you notice no change, keep monitoring in your food diary for other potential offenders. If you notice your migraines are less severe, it could be the food you eliminated plus something else, so keep your food diary, notice any patterns and eliminate the next potential food source.

Just make sure you only test one food at a time for each elimination period so you can be sure to catch the true culprit triggering your headaches and migraines.

If you need more help, read Dr. Mark Wiley’s 3 steps to a headache-free life.

Source: Martin V and Vij B. Diet and Headache. — Headache. 2016;1(1):1543-1552.


Jedha Dening

By Jedha Dening

Jedha Dening is a qualified nutritionist (MNutr), researcher, author, freelance writer, and founder of type 2 diabetic nutrition site Diabetes Meal Plans. Her masters thesis on nutrition and inflammation was published and then presented at a national scientific conference. She has millions of words published in the health industry across various print and online publications. Having been in the field for over 15 years, she’s incredibly passionate about delving into the latest research to share the myths and truths surrounding nutrition and health. She believes when armed with the right knowledge, we’re empowered to make informed choices that can truly make a difference.