Nutrition: How Does it Affect Migraines

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by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN

Is there really a connection with nutrition and migraines?  Several studies indicate that there are 21 million US women and 7 million US men over the age of 12 that suffer from migraines. Of those who suffer, 90% have a family history of migraines.  A classic symptom can be one or all the following: nausea, vomiting, vision or hearing disturbances, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

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Yes, there is a dotted line between nutrition and getting these debilitating headaches.  So, what’s the connection? 

A migraine is brought on by several factors, one of which is related to nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. Understanding how proper nutrition influences those at greater risk can aid in diminishing this debilitating health problem.

A diet that consists of fresh wholesome foods that include whole grains like quinoa, lean proteins, fresh fruits to include blueberries; vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and kale; salmon, and shrimp all aid in preventing these life debilitating headaches.  Consider having 5 small meals throughout the day to minimize the event of low blood sugars.  Remember to stay hydrated by consuming at least 64 ounces of fluids daily, preferably water. 

The list of foods below aid in the prevention of developing migraines.

  • Whole grain cereals and quick breads such as pumpernickel. Omit yeast bread.
  • Consume seeds such as poppy, pumpkin, sesame or sunflower. Omit nuts.
  • Salad dressing should be homemade using oil and distilled white vinegar. Avoid commercially prepared salad dressings.
  • Fresh Fruits except for bananas, raspberries, plums and citrus and dried fruits.
  • Vegetables omitting lima bean, navy beans, onions, and sauerkraut.
  • Salmon and oysters, avoid smoked fish.
  • Include omega 3 fatty acids such as Brussel sprouts, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, and soybeans.

Avoiding Potential food triggers

Tyramines which are found naturally in foods such as aged cheese, aged and or canned cured or processed meats; beans such as fava; pickles, beer, wines, pickled herring, yeast, coffee, citrus, and canned soups. It is postulated that individuals whom are prone to migraines may have a decreased ability to metabolize tyramine, due to a lower level of MAO (monoamine oxidase) in their liver and blood. The buildup of tyramines accounts for the migraine.

Chocolate contains Phenylethylamine, theobromine, and caffeine. These chemicals cause the headache by altering the cerebral blood flow and releasing norepinephrine.

Alcoholic beverages cause individuals to experience a migraine because the alcohol creates vasodilator effect on the cranial blood vessels.  The combination of alcohol with the presence of tyramines and histamines only increase one’s chances of developing a migraine.

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Nitrates and nitrites that are found in cured meats such as hot dogs, bacon, ham, salami, pepperoni, beets, lettuce, celery, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and potatoes can induce a migraine.  Nitrites can result in lowering the amount of oxygen in the blood generating pain.

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose are known to trigger a migraine in individuals prone to such headaches.

Fatty Foods such as linoleic and oleic acids can be a trigger for a migraine vascular headache.  Increased levels of these fatty acid levels in the blood have been found after a migraine attack, along with distention of the cranial arteries. On the other hand, omega 3 fatty acids have proven to prevent migraines from occurring.  These fatty acids are thought to have a stabilizing effect on nerve cell membranes making them more resistant to the migraine mechanism.

MSG, a flavor enhancer used in many foods, is known to trigger a migraine. Migraines usually will occur 15 to 60 minutes after ingesting MSG on an empty stomach.

Hunger and Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) are a result of irregular eating patterns throughout the day.  Studies indicate that 50 % of migraines occur after 16 hours of no food.  Altered levels of serotonin and norepinephrine and the dilation of blood vessels around the brain are the probable mechanisms of these headaches.  On the flip side, an aggressive intake of carbohydrate ingestion can result in a vascular headache due to the rapid insulin secretion and the reactive effect of the lowering of the blood sugar.

Dehydration or lack of adequate daily fluids can result in triggering a migraine.  It is important for each of us to know our hydration needs.  A quick guide is to include 64 ounces of water daily.  Understanding this is the minimum. Don’t forget to consider exercise and the need to increase water consumption to stay adequately hydrated.

Caffeine recommendations are for no more than 200 mg per day to avoid triggering a migraine.

Food sensitivities and or allergies can cause inflammation resulting in migraines. 

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Each person is unique and often it is not as cut and dry to identify the causes and or sources of the migraines.  If you follow the general recommendation stated in the article and still suffer from getting migraines, perhaps you should discuss taking the MRT blood test with your doctor.  This test identifies at least 120 foods and their chemical components that may lead to inflammation in the body resulting in a migraine.

Consuming a healthy diet is just one component in managing migraines.  Decreasing stress in your life, incorporating exercise, and getting the recommended hours of sleep, all contribute to your wellbeing.  Even changes in atmospheric pressure, the season, altitude and storms can trigger a migraine. Knowing all the factors that can influence this devastating pain, it is recommended to focus on things that you have control over.  Understanding how nutrition can significantly influence the outcome of migraines is important in managing your path to wellness.


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