· By Tyler Mason
Foods that may trigger migraines and how to manage them
Do you suffer from migraines? You may wonder if there are certain foods that trigger these often-debilitating headaches. In this post I’m going to walk you through what may help or hinder this condition.
June is migraine awareness month, shedding light on this debilitating and underdiagnosed disease. Migraines affect both children and adults, however women are three times more likely to be impacted than men. As a registered dietitian and someone who experiences migraines myself, my goal is to spread evidenced-based information on how food and nutrition may intersect with this painful condition.
What are migraines?
Migraines are a common neurologic disease that impacts 1 in 4 households across the US. This type of headache is usually experienced as severe throbbing pain, which may also be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and/or sounds, dizziness, fatigue and changes in mood. Migraine with aura is where the headache is experienced alongside sensory disturbances (including blind spots, flashes of light, or tingling in the face/hands).
How migraines are experienced, and what triggers the onset of a migraine episode, are uniquely individual to each person affected. While there is a lot we still need to learn about what causes migraines, research has found common underlying factors to watch out for; especially if you are someone who has a family history of migraines or suspect you may be experiencing them.
Are there certain foods that trigger migraines?
Yes, some foods/beverages may be involved in triggering your migraines. While there is no one-size-fits-all diet for migraines, some dietary changes have been shown to help reduce the frequency and severity of these headaches in some people.
This is a list of food-related factors that have been associated with the onset of a migraine:
- Missing a meal or fasting
- Low blood sugar
- Consuming caffeine or a higher level of caffeine than you are used to
- Consuming less caffeine than your body is used to
- Foods high in fat
- Citrus fruits
Other factors include:
- Flickering lights
- Strong odors or fumes
- Hormonal changes
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in environment/ weather
It is possible you have other triggers that not listed, or have multiple factors present before a migraine is triggered. This makes it difficult to tease out what the underlying trigger may be.
Uncovering your triggers
First, writing down details of the day or days prior to a migraine episode may be helpful in identifying your individual triggers. Often there are symptoms that present hours or even days prior to a migraine headache (such as fatigue, neck pain, food cravings, mood changes, nausea etc.), termed as the prodrome phase.
Becoming aware of how this phase plays out for you is a great the first step in identifying the onset of your migraine, and perhaps journaling information such as how you have been eating and sleeping, changes in your environment, changes in your hormones such as premenstrual syndrome etc. As you journal your experience, you may notice common patterns that surround your migraines.
The good news is, once you can name your triggers, your chances of reducing your migraine frequency and severity go way up!
What is the best diet for migraines?
It's important to note that dietary changes may not work for everyone, and it's always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before making significant changes to your diet. As mentioned above there are many factors involved in migraines, including your own genetic predisposition. Fortunately, there are a few dietary strategies that research shows may reduce the severity of your migraines and possibly even cut down how often you get them!
Eat regular meals:
Skipping meals is a common struggle for a lot of us. Fasting for too long between meals causes a drop in blood sugar, which is a common trigger for migraine headaches. Barriers such as shift work, a demanding work and life schedule, and lack of support with meal planning make eating every 2-3 hours a challenge. Sometimes it may come down to simply setting an alarm in your phone to remind you to eat. However, setting up a regular meal planning routine is arguably the most important first step if it isn’t already a household habit.
If you are a caffeine/coffee drinker, and also suffer from migraines, there is a good chance caffeine dependency is partly what triggers your migraines. While the mechanisms of how caffeine heightens your migraine risk is not fully understood, the drug-dependency effect it has on the brain is likely involved. The American Migraine Foundation notes that caffeine is probably not the sole cause of your migraines, however caffeine intake is often an overlooked risk factor among migraine sufferers. Going off caffeine “cold turkey” may actually trigger more severe migraine episodes, so make sure to slowly reduce your intake over the course of a week or two!
Its no secret that staying hydrated is important for overall health (our bodies are over 60% water, with the brain being over 70%). Dehydration is a well know trigger for migraine sufferers. To prevent dehydration, aim to have water bottle (that you enjoy drinking from) on your desk during the day. Make sure it can also fit in your car cup holder! One goal might be to try and fill a 1L water bottle twice daily. Or if you’re starting from ground zero, aim to finish one bottle, and increase from there!
Take Vitamin D:
Low vitamin D levels has been associated with more frequent migraine episodes as well as regular headaches. I always recommend that everyone take a vitamin D supplement daily, especially if you live in North American or are not exposed to enough sun throughout the year. While fortified milk and juice, fatty fish, and egg yolks can help bump up your intake, adults should also be taking between 1000-2000 IU of vitamin D daily in supplement form
Try magnesium supplements:
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is abundant in leafy greens, nuts, seeds and legumes. Because magnesium supplements are available over the counter and lack serious side effects, it is often used as a preventative treatment for those with migraines. Magnesium oxide supplements are an inexpensive option to trial and at 400-600mg a day may help prevent or reduce migraine symptoms. This is especially true for those who experience migraine with aura or menstrual migraines.
Karen Daily phytoplankton tablets provide 550mg of magnesium per dosage, which is the recommended amount (like mentioned above) of what may help reduce migraine symptoms. Before you take any supplemental form of magnesium, be sure to ask your doctor if it is a safe and effective addition to your migraine management plan. Over the counter supplements and natural health products may have medication interactions or other unwanted side effects if taken at the wrong dosage and/or timing.
Try your best to set small realistic goals, and not make too many changes at once. Pick one thing to change allow yourself time to settle into your new daily routine.
Evaluate any tweaks you make to your routine: Do you have less migraines?
Are these changes you have made, making a difference? For example, does eating more often reduce your migraine frequency? If you noted that sleep disruption was a trigger, did going to bed earlier help? If you decided to reduce your caffeine intake, was it worth it?
Take a step back and evaluating is key to understanding if something is serving you. Typically, these types of changes don’t yield results right away, so allowing for enough time and patience is key. You know your body best, so trust your intuition when deciding if you have implemented a change for long enough to know if it helps with the management of your migraines.
It is important to connect with a health care professional if you are experiencing migraines. Often, successfully treating migraines can take a combination of self-care, understanding your triggers, making realistic dietary/lifestyle changes and individualized medications to treat acute symptoms. Having a conversation with your doctor about your migraine treatment plan is a great place to start. If you need help navigating tweaks to your eating routine, do not hesitate to connect with a registered dietitian. The Institute of Health Economics has a wide range of migraine headache and self-management information sheets available to you as well!