The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can You Prevent Migraines by Watching Your Diet?

Avoiding trigger foods, including MSG and aged cheese, may help some sufferers prevent migraines. Have you had success with this approach?
Cheeses dairy food

Migraines are a pain. Even worse than the pain, though, is the life disruption. Some sufferers lose days every time a headache strikes hiding in a dark quiet room. They may feel horribly nauseated or completely enervated. Most would welcome a way to prevent migraines.

Can Avoiding Certain Foods Prevent Migraines?

Q. My husband used to get migraines. He was suffering so much, I decided to see if it was related to food.

For a two-month period, I wrote down what he ate every day. We discovered that within three days before each migraine, he had eaten Chinese food, salted peanuts, sharp cheese or a frozen lasagne. We switched to fewer frozen entrees, moderated consumption of cheese and peanuts and asked for no MSG in our Chinese food.

As a result, his migraines went from once a month to about two a year.

Migraine Headache Food Triggers:

A. Headache specialists consider food triggers for migraine to be controversial (Martin & Vij, Headache, Oct. 2016).  That’s because there are relatively few well-controlled scientific studies of dietary triggers.

That said, there is general recognition that some people may be susceptible to certain foods. Among the most common culprits blamed are alcohol, chocolate, aged cheese, monosodium glutamate (MSG), nuts, salami, nitrite preservatives and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. A food diary of the sort you kept is a very good way to uncover migraine triggers for a given individual.

In fact, a study in children found that many of those who avoided frequent triggers such as aspartame, caffeine, MSG, cocoa, cheese, citrus and nitrites had fewer headaches (Taheri, Nutrition and Health, March 2017). This particular study showed that eliminating the most frequently consumed suspects made the headaches go away.

Learn More:

You can learn more about food triggers, a connection between celiac disease and migraine headaches and nondrug approaches that can help prevent migraines in our Guide to Headaches and Migraines. You may also wish to listen to our interview with Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary, Show 1033. In it, she describes how she turned to Ayurvedic medicine when conventional medications did not help her own migraines.

If you have had success reducing your migraine headache frequency by altering your diet, please tell us about it in the comment section. We are always interested.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Headaches & Migraines

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I learned twenty years ago that any foods with tannins caused or exacerbated migraines for me. It’s tricky to know what foods have tannins in them.

A common cause of migraines and tension headaches, both frequency and intensity, is excessive nighttime teeth clenching This compresses the muscles and nerves in those muscles in different areas the head and neck and results in pain. I am a retired dentist who had worked with many people with either migraine or tension headache pain. For most people presenting them with a small customized dental appliance called an NTI-tss that dramatically reduced nighttime clenching. This completely stopped or dramatically reduced the frequency and intensity of a person’s pain.

Suffered many years from severe migraine pain and effects until bits and pieces of info were slowly collected (prior to internet) about anything pickled or fermented (including soy sauce), ALL flavor enhancers (MSG and related), pineapple, papaya, cheese and other food/beverages on trigger lists. Look for anything marinated with pineapple or papaya content as well. Tracking caffeine intake important for me (take in a bit each day to avoid withdrawal).

MDs don’t seem well versed in the dietary connection for migraines. Really miss tequila and champagne but not the pain. Best med for me has been generic Fioricet (not brand, too expensive). Shop for best price as not on any formulary. Works great and I experience no side effects. When I sleep, get up, how much I sleep, etc., doesn’t seem to matter. When I eat, as along as I watch for triggers, doesn’t matter. Chocolate has not seemed to be a problem for me even though it’s on all the lists, but don’t eat lots of it anyway.

Words to the wise: read labels, ask for info in restaurants, avoid sauces and gravies unless you make them, delete all triggers and add back slowly to learn which ones are your problem. However, home cooked meals at friends and relatives or potluck dinners are a mine field and you just have to use your best judgement as to what to eat. Bottom line is that I like to dine out and socialize with food so can never completely eradicate migraines but they are kept to a low level and much less frequent. With generic Fioricet, my life is dramatically improved. A script lasts for ages as one tablet is usually enough to stop a low level migraine. Rarely get one above a level 5 (usually just a 3) any more and they were always level 9 or 10 before learning the above info.

Before there was the People’s Pharmacy there were women’s magazines at the checkout at the grocery. I discovered my food triggers there. There are two amino acids in various foods that are problematic for some people especially when estrogen is high. I haven’t had a migraine since then, 30 years ago. Except one time when I had a cup of coffee, which I almost never drink.

My migraines went away when I quit eating anything with even the slightest amount of gluten in it. You would be surprised what has gluten in it, so I have to read all labels carefully. Cooking from scratch works best without using condiments. But I know when I accidently get some gluten in something I ate because I will get a short term migraine and other symptoms. Free Costco samples and food at other people’s house are my downfall (many of which don’t know what gluten is so swear there isn’t any in their food, also there is frequently cross contamination with other food that being cooked)

I have a lot of food triggers for my migraines: chocolate, sugar, fermented foods, even potatoes and cooked spinach will seem to do it. But what I did find is that when the first symptoms start — I get an aura and visual disturbances to start with — if I take an aspirin right away, the aura goes away after about fifteen minutes or so, and then I don’t even get the headache. I guess this is unusual, to have aspirin work so well? But in case this can help someone else, I wanted to share it. The key, I think, is to take it as soon as symptoms start.

I have had what I called migraines since age 40. Finally, I saw a chiropractor who told me that my facial sinuses were quite a mess. Then I saw a neurologist who asked me some good questions I hadn’t heard before about my diet; he then applied a spray to my nostrils, not telling me the reason. All of a sudden, I felt a little drainage and told him. . . he said “I thought as much; it only takes a small amount of congestion to give some people terrible headaches”.

I was amazed; I have never had any kind of allergic reactions to ANYTHING. But it turns out, I am slightly allergic to dairy casein ( which is an ingredient in many “dairy-free” foods). The small amount of congestion my body produced, in reaction to the casein, caused pressure in my (inefficient) sinuses; the headaches would continue until that congestion cleared.

So, now I avoid dairy protein (dairy fats are fine for me) and when those headaches come, I no longer try to find a pain reliever; I use head massage, facial wet hot compresses, and OTC non-steroidal nose sprays (to avoid addiction).

Does the weather play a part in the headaches. whenever changes or severe storms or thunderstorm a day away causes sinus headaches for days. My teeth ache too and ear. ENT couldn’t find anything after years suffering and 6 dentists, endo, oral surgeon, periodontal find nothing wrong with teeth but possibly metal in old crowns. Gluten is something trying give up.

Allergies can also exacerbate migraines. I get 2-3 week in August through September unless I take allergy medication all the time. Except for MSG and artificial sweeteners, foods have never been a trigger for me.

I suffered from migraines from age 21 to 36. They were occurring weekly when we lived for 4 years in a state with glaring sunshine and oil refineries. They caused me to vomit and made it difficult to care properly for our children. The drugs available in 1986 were not helpful, but I found a list of possible triggers and eliminated alcohol, chocolate, caffeine, aged cheese and citrus from my diet.

Eating and sleeping at regular hours as well as regular exercise helped. The headaches came much less frequently and were less severe. My new doctor prescribed Imitrex which helped immensely. I was able to reintroduce citrus and small amounts of cheese to my diet and best of all, I enrolled in law school in 1988, something I could not imagine when I was suffering from those immobilizing headaches.

I have had migraine aura since I was a teenager, now in my 60s. The headaches that come after are rarely debilitating but the auras are worrisome because you never know when they will come and can last up to an hour. My doctor did a food sensitivity test a few years ago to see if my gut issues were due to food allergies and it turns out that I’m sensitive to wheat, eggs, milk, and a few others that were low on the scale. I stopped eating those foods and the auras stopped. If I now have an aura I can always trace it back to something I ate, usually about 24 hours before. The gut issues are better, though not completely resolved probably because those other foods on the list I still eat because they don’t give me migraine aura.

Yes, I had migraines triggered by estrogen withdrawal, aged cheese (Parmesan), MSG, nitrites, and even red wine vinegar, as well as glare, chemical smells, and stress. I did not drink coffee nor eat chocolate for years. My headaches improved with avoiding these triggers, but also with supplementing magnesium, vitamin B2/feverfew, and butterbur; as well as fish oil and CoQ10. No more headaches since going through menopause, although I still take magnesium and have chosen to avoid gluten.

I did hear that 1/8 tsp powdered ginger worked as well as rx meds to stop a migraine, when taken immediately ( I wish I had known that earlier!

Oh, and add Ranch dressing and aspartame to two of the worst foods for me. I used to get a headache when I played bridge with the ladies. I was eating dry roasted nuts [msg], eating veggie pizza [Ranch dressing], and drinking diet soda [aspartame]. Also like one of the other responders, my headache would sometimes come 24-48 hours after I ate the offending foods. Realizing I was getting a horrible headache at the same time after bridge night each month was a breakthrough for me. Any scientist who says we have no evidence needs to do some more research and controlled studies.

YES, you can control at least some migraines with diet. Years ago I had a diet written out for me that my doctor might have gotten from the National Headache Foundation. Migraines, as I understand it, are a result of the triggers reaching and going beyond a threshold level, so sometimes a hormone shift can contribute to a migraine. I did not realize that msg was a trigger until after menopause, and there was no longer an influence from hormones. The NHF diet also lists the many names that msg or similar glutamates are hidden under in a food list. I always avoid anything with “natural flavor.” Also, “yeast extract.” I always read labels. “Good for you” canned soup is usually loaded with msg. Look for it under another word if the can says “no msg”.

Some years ago I figured out that the dark chocolate I was eating was the cause of repeated migraines. I had gone from about one or two a year to about one to three a week, although they were mild as far as migraines go. Eventually I decided it was the amino acid tyrosine in the chocolate. I cut down on the dark chocolate, and things were much better. I would still try to resume eating chocolate from time to time, limiting myself to small amounts. Sooner or later I would start to have migraines again. I also suffered from insomnia, and I suspected that the stress and fatigue may also have been a factor.

Some months ago I read online that too much of the stimulating neurotransmitter Glutamate was associated with insomnia, migraines, acid reflux, and stomach troubles, all of which I had. I read about countering this condition by increasing GABA( Gamma-aminobutyric acid), another neurotransmitter that has a calming effect. I started eating cottage cheese (high in GABA) an hour or so before bedtime and the insomnia improved about 75%. I also started drinking oolong tea which also has GABA. I believe the insomnia may have been a contributing factor, along with the tyrosine in dark chocolate.

If I take Magnesium it reduces migraine attacks.

Also Flurbiprofen(derivative of Ibuprofen) works very well with me. It goes away within an hour.

I find that 100mg of B2 does the trick for me.

I frequently get eye migraines that often disappear in 30 minutes. They seem to be triggered by a change in temperature; the latest one was when I went out to the mailbox without a jacket and then drank a cold glass of eggnog. In the summer I can go out in the heat to pick a tomato and come in to eat it for lunch in the air conditioning, and the migraine will begin. They are most common just at noon. Stress plays a role. They seem to be connected to company coming or having just left. I haven’t identified any special food trigger. They are usually in the right eye but if the left eye, they don’t go away as quickly. Years ago they would go into numbness and sensitivities that would last all day.

I recently found out some of my favorite foods are triggers – oranges, tomatoes, raisins, avocados, sausage, grapes, pineapple. Chocolate so far does not seem to be a trigger. I’m not sure how to keep my diet as healthy without them, but it’s wonderful to have far fewer migraines, and to be sleeping better. Advil Allergy also helps during the day, Sinex at night when needed, or Maxalt when all else fails.

I have had migraines since my twenties and have had to take multiple tablets of aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen just to go to work. Then along came sumatriptan (Imitrex), and I thought of it as my miracle drug. The headaches were gone in an hour, and I could function normally. Then in May of last year, in an attempt to lose about twenty pounds, I cut out most of the sugar in my diet – no cookies, cakes, pies, candy, etc. (a bit of ice cream occasionally ). To my amazement my migraines stopped. I have only had one (it was minor) in the last nine months. I even stopped filling my prescription for sumatriptan. I won’t say I have proof the sugar was the cause but this is working for me, plus I’m losing fat, and that’s wonderful.

I had Migraines for years. I had to go to bed for two days. The vomiting was worse than the headaches. I tried all kinds of prescription medications and lowered my salt intake. The meds would work for a while then quit working.
My migraines magically went away when I went thru the change. No more headaches.

I have traced most of my migraines to foods. It turns out that foods containing tyramines trigger my migraines. Yogurt, avocados, ripe bananas, and prunes for starters. My Dr. suggested 6 prunes daily for constipation, and I had an almost constant aura before I checked to see if prunes were on the tyramine list. They were, and I stopped taking them immediately. The auras ceased within a few hours. This is difficult, because many fruits and vegetables can develop tyramines when over-ripe or when fermented. All of these foods are promoted as being healthy, but not for me.

I have never been diagnosed with migraines. One doc told me I had cluster headaches (I disagree), another trigeminal neuralgia (sounds more like it). In any case, I get headaches that last 3 to 4 days, and I become very sensitive to noise, light, and smells. I used to get them every 3 to 4 months, but more recently was having them every 2 or 3 weeks – very disruptive since I am incapacitated each time.

Triggers are not particular foods but my eating schedule. If I am 2 hours late to eat lunch, I am doomed. No sleeping in on weekends for me either. I have to eat by 8 or so to avoid a headache. Keeping a regular schedule has helped tremendously, and I haven’t had a headache now in 2 months.

The only particular food to watch for me is caffeine. I can drink it daily, but if I stop, the withdrawal headache is 3 or 4 days long. So I decided to stop it altogether.

Only MSG and foods with nitrites in them can trigger my migraines. Dehydration is a huge factor, and it’s just as easy to become dehydrated in the winter as the summer. What I can’t control is quick changes in barometric pressure. Gets me every time.

I used to get migraines regularly from chocolate or coffee withdrawal. It took me a long time — decades! — to recognize these triggers since it happened a day or two after the last time I had chocolate — or in the case of coffee, every Saturday when I slept in and delayed my first cup of coffee in the morning. Since menopause I no longer have migraine headaches and have coffee and chocolate whenever I like. I sometimes have a brief episode of visual migraine, but no headache.

After suffering from 15 headache days a month my physician tested my blood for sensitivity to over 300 foods. I immediately stopped eating the 15 foods I tested positive to for several years. I still had migraines. I eventually got my migraines under control with a myriad of preventive methods including daily exercise, consistent bed and wake times, Botox injections, daily use of a Cephaly, anti-migraine supplements and others. I can now eat most of the foods on my sensitivity list without a headache but still cannot eat dairy, sugar, nuts, and anything fermented or distilled. I now only have about two migraine days per month. I think each individual is different and must experiment to find what works for them, but I suspect foods are a trigger for many.

My monthly migraines dropped to less than one a year when I gave up diet soda and gluten. I had already given up dairy (except cheddar and mozzarella, which I still eat).

I started with migraines when I was seven years old. Every week I would be sent home from school with a migraine because they always caused me to vomit. I would spend the rest of the day and night in a dark, silent room battling the excruciating pain. Visits to doctors yielded prescriptions, but they never did anything to stem the migraines. As I got older the migraines would last longer, sometimes up to a week.

11 years ago, at the age of 54, I was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity. I actually had a migraine at the time, and my dear husband had been feeding me chicken noodle soup and crackers, which we now know made it worse. I went home, cut out all gluten from my diet. The migraine disappeared, and I have now been migraine-free for 11 years. In fact, I have not had a headache of any kind. For me it was a miracle.

It is absolutely possible to alter your migraines with diet. I am 73 y old and troubled in a variety of ways, primarily a migraine as I understand it as result of nitrites,since I was a teenager. I have found medical tests and advice particularly ineffective and even insulting.

I suffered for 20 years with migraine headaches every weekend. Then a doctor on one of the morning shows said to watch your diet and maybe find out the cause. I found out it was cheese. When I stopped eating cheese, my headaches stopped. I learned later that I could eat natural cheese but not processed cheese.

Keeping gluten (bread, baked goods, wheat pasta) to a minimum significantly reduced my headaches in frequency and severity. Now ‘little migraines’ may keep me in a dark room listening to podcasts all day if I don’t take migraine meds soon enough. But the pain is a manageable level 1-2 instead of a screaming I-want-to-die level 8-10. Also, I rarely experience nausea and vomiting anymore.

I cut way back on chocolate, sharp cheddar cheese, and red wine. I did finally omit red wine totally.
Then I tried to eliminate stressors in my life.
Worked quite well! Am now able to do away with most migraines, and if I do have one I can usually trace it to one of the above.

Yes I do agree that food is major trigger of my migraine. I have been a migraine sufferer for over a decade. I moved to US ten years ago, and I have been introduced a new food/vegetable, SWEET CORN. I ate corn and loved it but I had migraines every single day. I remember the last time I ate the corn I end up in urgent care with severe headache, vomiting, and could not see. I now avoid any corn product. High fructose corn syrup gives me a horrible migraine within seconds. First, I get shock-like pain on one side of my head, and I will check if to see there was HFCS in the food or beverage I was concerned about, and yes, it is HFCS. I also don’t consume red wine, American cheese, dark chocolate, Cumin, and some aged cheeses. I also try to avoid some perfumes. I still get migraines every month even though I avoid triggers bc it is hormonal, too. Thanks.

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