The Culinary Connection

Migraines are more than just a throbbing headache; they can be debilitating, affecting both our physical well-being and our quality of life. The World Health Organization categorizes migraines as one of the ten most disabling medical illnesses. In fact, migraine is the third most common disease in the world, affecting one out of every seven people globally. Migraine is three times more common in women than men and affects over 30% of women over a lifetime1. For those who suffer from these intense and often recurrent headaches, finding effective relief can be a constant pursuit. Even though medications are commonly prescribed, they can be ineffective and cause many unwanted side effects. It’s no wonder why there is growing interest in a holistic approach to migraine management that includes dietary choices. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of foods and whether they intensify or alleviate migraines.

3 Categories of Foods to Avoid

One category of food substances linked to migraines is food additives. These can include artificial sweeteners, preservatives, food colorings, and food enhancers2,3. For example, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a commonly used food additive frequently associated with migraines. MSG is a form of glutamic acid, which is naturally produced in the body and used to make glutamate. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that can overstimulate neurons in the brain, which may lead to a migraine4. Therefore, it may be beneficial to avoid processed foods containing MSG if you are prone to migraines. 

Another example is the nitrates used as food preservatives in cured meats2,3. Bacteria in our mouths reduce the nitrates in our food to nitrites, which are then further transformed into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide acts by dilating blood vessels, including those in the brain. While nitric oxide can have beneficial effects in those with heart disease and high blood pressure, it can also be a possible migraine trigger. At this point, you might wonder, “What about the nitrates in green leafy vegetables and other plant foods?” Nitrates, regardless of the food source, can contribute to migraines. One study has shown higher amounts of nitric oxide producing bacteria in the mouths and guts of those who suffer from migraines versus those who do not5. While it is not necessary to eliminate all plant foods that contain nitrates, it is beneficial to be aware of this relationship if you suffer from migraines. Either focus on vegetables that contain lower amounts of nitrates or cook your green leafy vegetables, which will reduce the amount of nitrates they deliver. 

A third category to avoid is aged foods, such as meats and cheeses. Many foods in this category naturally contain tyramine, a byproduct in the breakdown of the amino acid tyrosine in our body and helps regulate blood pressure. Tyramine levels increase in foods when they are aged. Tyramine contributes to migraines by causing initial constriction followed by rebound dilation of vessels in the brain, hence the throbbing headache pain6. Our bodies contain an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) that breaks down excess tyramine. Certain medications (monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs), typically used for depression, prevent this enzyme from doing its job. Therefore, more tyramine can build up and trigger migraines. If you suffer from migraines or take MAOIs, reducing or eliminating foods high in tyramine can improve your symptoms. 

3 Categories of Foods to Enjoy

In addition to knowing which foods can precipitate migraine symptoms, it is important to know that many foods can improve or prevent these symptoms. First, foods high in magnesium can prevent migraine symptoms7. Multiple mechanisms can help to explain the benefits of magnesium. Magnesium prevents signals in the brain that produce the visual and sensory changes associated with migraines. It also helps by decreasing pain-transmitting chemicals in the brain and preventing the narrowing of brain blood vessels8. Fortunately, there are many foods you can enjoy that are rich in magnesium. These include bananas, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, spinach, and Swiss chard. 

Secondly, low blood sugar can lead to a migraine. Going long periods without eating or consuming foods with a higher glycemic index can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar. Therefore, eating foods that have a lower glycemic load and stabilize blood sugar can help7. These include beans, squash, root vegetables, and whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats). 

Finally, hydration can play a huge role in the severity of migraine symptoms. Dehydration can lead to constriction of the blood vessels in the brain, as mentioned above. Therefore, staying hydrated is very important in reducing migraine triggers. Obviously, drinking enough fluids, such as water and non-caffeinated herbal teas, can keep you hydrated. Additionally, most fruits and vegetables contain a significant amount of water and can also keep us hydrated. One delicious example is watermelon, which is 92% water7

In conclusion, foods and drinks can have a significant effect on the severity of migraine symptoms. Certain foods or drinks may trigger symptoms in one individual and not in another. Therefore, it is crucial to listen to your body and learn what your particular triggers are in order to avoid them. In most cases, focusing on plant foods as close to their whole form as possible rather than consuming processed foods will significantly improve your chances of reducing migraine symptoms. Go Plants!

1.) The facts about migraine. American Migraine Foundation. (2019, March 28). https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-facts/

2.) Knox, S. F. (n.d.). Migraine Food triggers. Sutter Health. https://www.sutterhealth.org/health/migraines-headaches/migraine-food-triggers

3.) Gotter, A. (2023, May 31). 10 foods that trigger migraines. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/foods-that-trigger-migraines#cured-meats

4.) MSG and headaches: What is the relationship?. National Headache Institute. (2018, March 21). https://nationalheadacheinstitute.com/blog/msg-and-headaches-relationship/

5.) Gonzalez A, Hyde E, Sangwan N, Gilbert JA, Viirre E, Knight R. Migraines Are Correlated with Higher Levels of Nitrate-, Nitrite-, and Nitric Oxide-Reducing Oral Microbes in the American Gut Project Cohort. mSystems. 2016 Oct 18;1(5):e00105-16. doi: 10.1128/mSystems.00105-16. Erratum in: mSystems. 2017 Apr 11;2(2): PMID: 27822557; PMCID: PMC5080405.

6.) Tyramine. National Headache Foundation. (n.d.). https://headaches.org/tyramine/

7.) Upham, B. (2023, August 29). 12 foods to help get rid of a headache or migraine attack naturally. EverydayHealth.com. https://www.everydayhealth.com/migraine/foods-to-help-get-rid-of-a-headache-or-migraine-attack-naturally/

8.) Tepper, D. (2013, October 15). Magnesium and Migraine. American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/magnesium/#:~:text=The%20most%20substantial%20evidence%20for,the%20common%20forms%20of%20aura.

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