7 Eating Tips for Avoiding Migraines
1. Aged Cheeses
Tyramine is an amino acid, and it’s produced when the aging of a food causes protein breakdown. It’s been linked with migraines, and aged cheeses contain high levels of tyramine. Migraine sufferers can benefit from steering clear of aged cheddar, blue cheese, Gorgonzola, Parmesan and feta cheese.
Caffeine is a trigger for some migraine sufferers but is used for symptom relief by others. As a trigger, it seems to be about caffeine withdrawal more than the caffeine itself being problematic, with the withdrawal headache possibly leading to a migraine.
Using caffeine to help alleviate migraine pain can be helpful, but only when used occasionally. When used regularly, the brain can develop a tolerance and the drug effect will lessen. Caffeine helps by negating the action of something called adenosine. Adenosine is a substance in the blood that can negatively impact blood vessel width and electrical activity in the brain. It increases during migraine. Caffeine helps block the action of adenosine by blocking the receptors in the brain that adenosine attaches to.
Chocolate contains three potential culprits: caffeine, tyramine, and phenylethylamine (the substance in chocolate that causes a boost in the same neurotransmitters released when we fall in love, which is why some call chocolate “The Love Drug”). Each of these guys has been associated with migraine, although the link to phenylethylamine is not as strong as to caffeine and tyramine.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that migraine sufferers avoid aspartame. Most often in foods labeled “sugar-free”, aspartame is found in many food and beverages as a sugar replacement. NutraSweet and Equal are popular sugar substitutes made with aspartame.
The preservative Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is commonly found in frozen food, some salad dressings, processed meats, canned soup, dried soup, Chinese food, and soy sauce. The mechanism thought to cause migraine in some people is due to MSG’s effect on blood vessels, causing them to restrict.
Alcohol, especially red wine and beer, contains tyramine and can be dehydrating, both of which have migraine trigger potential.
Nitrates preserve flavor and color in cured meats (sausage, deli meat, hot dogs), and consuming nitrates can increase nitric acid levels in the blood. Nitric acid is thought to contribute to migraine occurrence because of the way it can dilate blood vessels in the brain.
[Related: Are Nitrates Dangerous For Your Family?]
Research on migraine triggers and treatments is tricky because of the uniqueness of each person’s experience. There are many anecdotal reports about triggers and what worked or did not work to help with migraine. Most migraine organizations and pain clinics recommend that the person with migraine uses a headache diary to help track food intake and migraine occurrence to help determine individual food triggers.
[Related: 8 Natural Headache Remedies You Need To Know]
Meaghan Ormsby, MS, RD is a private practice dietitian in Seattle, WA.