Food and migraine: a personal connection

Christine Junge

Former Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

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At a Harvard Medical School talk on migraine and food, a nutritionist from Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center delivered a message that people in the audience probably didn’t want to hear: “There are no specific dietary recommendations for migraine sufferers,” said Sandra Allonen. But she did have some advice to offer—and she emphasized that the connection between food and migraine is a very individual one.

Several foods have been associated with triggering migraine. None of them has been scientifically proven to cause migraines, explained Allonen, but many people report a link between eating these foods and getting a migraine. Possible migraine triggers include:

  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
  • Caffeine (Caffeine can help stop a migraine when it starts, but if you don’t drink the same amount every day, caffeine withdrawal can trigger a migraine.)
  • Chocolate
  • Cultured dairy products, such as yogurt
  • Broad beans, such as fava beans
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Nitrates and nitrites, which are found in processed meats such as bacon and cold cuts
  • Sulfites, which are found in wine
  • Tyramine, which is found in aged cheeses and meats, and fermented beverages
  • Yellow Dye Number 6, which is used in Doritos, Mountain Dew, and Peeps

Preventing migraines

Can you eat to prevent a migraine? Sadly, there aren’t any magical foods. But Allonen did say that keeping blood sugar steady throughout the day can be important. To do that, follow these tips. (Happily, they will help you keep your heart healthy as well.)

  • Eat small, frequent meals
  • Choose whole grains over processed grains (whole wheat bread vs. white bread, for example)
  • Eat lean protein at every meal
  • Keep hydrated

The most important prevention tactic may be keeping a daily headache diary, in which you write down everything you eat and drink, the activities you do, your stress level, and even the weather, along with how your head feels. It is a tedious activity, but a worthwhile one, especially when you start to see patterns emerge. For example, one person in the audience noted that she found she only got migraines when she ate pizza and chocolate at the same meal.

Allonen attributed the dearth of research into connections between migraine and food to finance: “There’s no money in studying diet and migraine,” she said. With so little research being done in this area, you have to be your own personal researcher. And in reality, you’ll probably learn the most this way, since it seems migraine triggers vary from person to person. After all, you don’t want to cut chocolate out of your diet unless you truly have to.


  1. John Braun

    That’s pretty much what our doctor told us. My son had a bad migraine, so we took him to the doctor. I was surprised to know we had to pay attention to the foods he eats. he’s only eleven years old. [URL deleted by moderator]

  2. Ed

    I’ve heard that aspartame comes from the fesces of genetically engineered bacteria.

    How true this is, I’m not sure.

    Not only is the aspartame deadly for the brain, but the aluminum can that contains soda drinks may leave traces of aluminum in the drink (also bad for the brain).

    Safer to drink mineral water from glass bottles (a lot of plastic used commercially contains bisphenol-A, which is a hormone disrupter).

  3. Valentina

    Very Good Post. I knew that caffeine could stop the migraine but now thanks to this I learned more.

  4. Linda Morrisno

    Ms. Junge,
    I read your article on migraines and found it interesting that no one has mentioned floating in flotation tanks for migraine relief. I had a float center in the mid 80’s and floated 3 women with migraines. As long as they floated once a week, their migraines ceased. I would recommend someone read “The Book of Floating” by Michael Hutchinson. It details all the positive benefits of floating; ie. migraine headaches is one of the benefits.

    Linda Morrison

  5. Anonymous

    I am suffering headache most of the time. This article helps me a lot. Thank you for this precise information.

  6. Mike

    Most people do not realize that food allergies or the sensitivity to certain foods can be a major cause of their migraine headaches. Some of these foods such as, nuts, beans, cheese, alcohol, monosodium glutamate (a food additive), caffeine, onions, and chocolate can all cause migraine headaches. Salt is also known to be a cause of headaches especially when taking in high amounts. When a food causes a headache it is known as a “trigger”. If you are one of the many people who have food sensitivities, finding what is causing the “trigger” to the migraine headaches is going to take a little work.

    To find out which foods are the culprits to the migraine headaches, a food diary is going to be the best method. Each page of the diary should represent one day. Three columns are needed for the hours, foods eaten, and write down headache in the third column when you get one.

    Logging everything you have eaten and when you have eaten it will give you the documentation needed to see if there is a pattern. This is going to take a few weeks but it can be very helpful. You may be able to notice that the migraine headaches are happening after eating a certain food. You may also notice that it may be by only eating this food at a certain time that will be causing the migraine headaches. This method takes a little work but if it is going to eliminate the problem, then it is well worth it.

  7. Jacqueline

    Frustrated and challenge neuropthamalogist diagnosis of migraine with constant symptoms of bilateral flashing lights, and other visual aberrations when glancing up. Main, but not exclusive, trigger is turning of head to left or right, or down. And upon first light in the dim light of morning, when opening my eye-fluttering as in sync with a muscle movement. I have just been diagnosed with a prominent arrythmia; it’s more like the light flutter was in the same rhythm. My challenge is can one have a LEGITIMATE 24 HR MIGRAINE, PROVOCABLE BY MOVEMENT??? Lone voice here, and going crazy with all kinds of imagination, and no help in sight, they’re on a one-track path.

  8. Robbie

    Mum suffered migraine for 20 years, the vicious type where a dark room & bucket where her only ‘tools’
    She finally saw an Acupuncturist for a few sessions and surprisingly enough, was cured.

    I had Migraine for one year at High School, triggered by Exam stress. Thankfully it lasted just a few months.

  9. philip hendon

    Along with other food related illnesses is this on the increase? If so, is there a correlation between to peoples diet and increased migraines? I cannot help but think that our worsening diet i.e pizza and chocolate in the same meal might have a bearing…

    There is no doubt though, that migraine for the sufferer must be unbearable and any research that can bring relief is important.

  10. Marc Azada

    I think balanced diet can prevent migraines. This is actually one of the most effective ways on how to live a healthy life.

  11. Brian

    I have always found a correlation between getting migraines and food (even though there is no scientific proof of this). I find that eating healthier makes my body respond in better ways. I feel better and it seems my ailments aren’t as harsh. Great article!

    [URL removed by moderator]

    • Ella Campbell

      Certain foods are a definite trigger..Neo Citran was bad for me!!Iread the ingredients and realized there was an atrocious amount of sugar!!I have cut down on sugar,no sugar in tea,no pop, no fruit juices,very little of any kind..I rarely have migraines any more, eat much more nutritiously than I used to..

  12. Diana Jo Rossano

    I have posted the information by Ms. Junge on my blog.

    I was a migraine sufferer and used myself as a “test animal” to find the links for me and the migraines that I suffered with for many years. Some food triggers are sometimes a little misleading. Caffeine, chocolate, yogurt, nuts and nut butters will only sometimes give me a migraine. After 5 years of research with me as the test animal, I have found that these foods will trigger a migraine when the ingredient list of these products contain a lot of chemical preservatives, additives and any food colorings. If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t eat it!

    • Christine Junge

      Diane, so glad you found your connection–and yes, they can be tricky! And I know what you mean about feeling like a test animal, but it’s worth it when you find your trigger!

  13. Annette Baker

    After an allergy test for wheat showed I was gluten intolerant, I immediately went off of gluten in March and haven’t had a migraine since. (That was over 40 yrs of needless suffering.) Gluten is also found in ALL grain, not just wheat, rye, barley and oats. It’s in many cosmetics and cleaning products plus in supplements and medications. Corn can also produce migraine symptoms.

    • Christine Junge

      Thanks for the information, Annette. And I’m glad you figured out the answer for you, even if it took much longer than it should have.

  14. Alexis Jenkins

    Just as certain foods may have negative effects on our blood pressure and tension, other foods like fruits have been shown to have the opposite effect they improve blood flow and help decrease tension. Maqui Berry is one of those foods. The high amounts of antioxidants increase blood flow and relax muscles and nerves. It not only suggest this could help with migraines but other fruits could as well.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  15. Christine Junge

    KATHERINE H–I love your attitude! Congrats on all your accomplishments, especially learning not to be a perfectionist!

    Anna–Even if you find a great doctor, it pays to do your own homework, since you’re with yourself all the time, and you only see your doctor once a month or so… Good luck!

    Marc–Hope your wife finds relief!

  16. Marc Azada

    My wife is experiencing migraines for almost 2 years now. I think prevention is better than cure. This article would help her understand how she could prevent it. Thank you for the wonderful post!

  17. anna

    Excellent article, especially the last paragraph I think… We have to be a little of our own doctors or dieticians.It’s cheaper(!), healthier and more effective than dubious drugs and malpracticing doctors, fashion diets, etc.

  18. katherine h.

    i’ve had migraines for almost as long as i can remember. i am 76 and continue to suffer.
    by now, i’ve pretty much run the gamut of medications, maxsalt the latest, and ibuprophen
    when the attack seems mild. i was absent from school and work many times, and my teachers and social work bosses considered me a malingerer. when i returned to school
    much later in life, i excelled, graduating summa cum laude from an eastern university,
    making my 4 adolescent children proud. i even aced a psych exam with an excruciating attack! i am in good health basically, try to maintain a good diet, but i can’t do much
    about the climate. actually, i keep up-to-date in the latest info on migraines, stay away
    from over-the-counter or quick fix “help.” the best migraineurs can do, i believe, is
    avoid “toxic” situations, chill, get rest, drink water, enjoy nature and helpful, supportive
    companionship/love, work on saying “no” to folks who expect too much, eat right, think
    good thoughts, pursue something fun–a new language, dancing, etc. beyond that, go
    with the flow, and when under attack, lie down, close the curtains, put on some soft music, take a pill, go to sleep and hope for the best. and too, stop trying to be a

  19. Carole Book

    I have a friend with terrible headaches and she has had all sorts of tests but without success in pinpointing what is the cause. She doesn’t feel any of the above are an issue either!

    • Christine Junge

      I know, it can be a really frustrating journey! Has she kept a food journal, also noting her levels of stress, her menstrual periods, the weather, and anything unusual going on everyday for a month or so to see if there are any patterns?

  20. MariJoy

    Definitely an aspartame connection for me – noticed that years ago. That stuff should be taken off the market.

    • Christine Junge
      Christine Junge

      Glad you found your food connection and can avoid it.

      I just noticed I might have a nut butter connection. I will be avoiding it to see if it helps!

  21. Pascale Blunier

    Imagine you suffer since years and the find out, that it’s something you eat that provokes it!
    Great article thank you so much for this input!
    [URL removed by moderator]

    • Christine Junge
      Christine Junge

      Thanks for your comment, Pascale. I imagine it would be both frustrating and a relief to figure out a food were the cause of your headaches after a long time of suffering.

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