Migraines: Could Your Diet Be To Blame?

What causes migraines? 

Although you might not think of them as such, migraines are a neurological disease. They occur secondary to temporary changes of nerve conduction in the brain, paired with inflammation in the nerve cells. 

Sadly, migraines are the most common cause of chronic pain, lost work time, and reduced quality of life in America. Attacks can last as long as three days, and sufferers usually cope with at least 15 migraine days every month. 

Evidence suggests that headaches believed to be caused by dietary choices are often, in actuality, precipitated by stress, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, changes in the weather, or dehydration. Clinical studies have failed to find a link between compounds in food and headache frequency or severity. Experts contend that, at most, 20% of migraine sufferers are food-sensitive. 

An exclusion diet might not be necessary.

Some individuals with food sensitivities don’t have reactions for up to 24 hours after eating the food they are sensitive to; although you may read that it can take up to 72 hours, this is almost certainly untrue. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic states that a headache will usually occur between 20 minutes and two hours of eating a triggering food. Food diaries are critically important for those who suspect a potential sensitivity so that more foods than necessary aren’t excluded. A registered dietitian can help to create an exclusion diet with a reintroduction to pinpoint problem areas. Alternatively, you could simply stick to unprocessed, fresh foods, as they rarely seem to be problematic. 

It’s important to time your meals well. 

Individuals suffering from a diet-triggered headache must eat a well-balanced diet that includes three meals a day. Have a healthy snack in between meals if they will be spaced more than four hours apart. Alternatively, some headache sufferers feel better if they eat six small meals evenly spread throughout the day. 

Caffeine, alcohol, and migraines

Individuals with migraines need to keep their caffeine intake consistent, and many physicians recommend limiting caffeinated beverages to two servings a day (no more than 200 mg per day). However, stopping your caffeine consumption without weaning can cause caffeine-withdrawal headaches. 

Many people report developing headaches if they drink red wine or beer. These same people also tend to report sensitivity to chocolate. 

Food qualities that cause migraines

Food temperature can be an issue for some migraine sufferers, who do best to avoid ice cream and slushes. Others report that highly aromatic foods are problematic for them. 

Other foods that people have reported sensitivity to:

Fruits and vegetablesBananas
Citrus fruits and juices
Dried fruits
Onions, raw
Dairy and eggsAged cheese
Cultured milk products such as buttermilk or yogurt
Protein foodsBeans
Cured meats, such as pepperoni, salami, and liverwurst
Smoked fish
Condiments including ketchup or barbecue sauce
Canned soup
Fermented or pickled foods
Potato chips and flavored crackers

Obviously, you could become nutritionally deficient if you excluded all of these foods from your diet. 

Eat more fatty fish and fewer vegetable oils.

A new study published in the July 3 issue of The BMJ indicates that a diet containing more fatty fish while simultaneously limiting vegetable oils (corn or soybean, for example) reduces the number of headaches and intensity of pain among migraine sufferers. It seems that the polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid, in plant oils, inflames the trigeminal nerve, which is the largest and most complex of the twelve cranial nerves. The participants placed on a diet lower in vegetable oil and higher in fatty fish experienced 30%-40% fewer headache hours per day, fewer severe headache hours per day, and fewer overall headache days per month than the control group. Surprisingly, the participants with improved headache frequency and intensity reported only minor improvement in migraine-related overall quality of life.

Riboflavin and vitamin B6

There is some evidence that riboflavin and vitamin B6  may be beneficial to individuals who experience migraines. 

Riboflavin is found in green leafy vegetables, meats, and dairy products, as well as enriched bread and cereals. Vitamin B6 is found in meat, whole-grain products, vegetables, and nuts. However, much of the vitamin B6 in plants including potatoes, spinach, and beans is bound to other compounds and not very bioavailable. 


Some research shows that probiotics may help to quell inflammation and lessen migraine symptoms. However, the evidence is far from conclusive.