The Little-Known Migraine Triggers Lurking In Your Diet

December 01, 2021


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If you think all foods are the same when it comes to migraines, you’re mistaken. It turns out that there are specific compounds in foods that can bring them on. 

Research in this area is still developing. But as anyone who has lived with migraines for a long time will tell you, food is definitely a factor. The patterns are too obvious. 

In this post, we take a look at some common food-based migraine triggers that are almost certainly lurking in your diet. Check them out below. 


Tyramine is a substance found in both plant and animal foods. Onions, citrus fruits, aged cheese and cured meats all have it. That’s because it is an amino acid – one of the building blocks for protein.

Tyramine is a problem because it can affect the way that nutrients get to the brain. Many people, for instance, find that they develop migraines after eating over-ripe food, since this is often the highest in the compound. 


Tannins are a type of food that produces a bitterness on the tongue. You find them widely distributed throughout the plant kingdom. Tea, for instance, is high in tannins. 

Unfortunately, this phytonutrient, while healthy for most people, can trigger migraine attacks. It is found in great concentrations in red wine, which is why many migraine sufferers need to avoid the drink. 

You can also find tannins in many other foods. These include apple juice, grapes, apples, walnuts and chocolate. 


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Sulfites are chemicals that manufacturers use to preserve food. And, as the name implies, they’re high in sulfur compounds, chemicals that can trigger migraines. 

Unfortunately, because of their preservative abilities, sulfites are found in most long-life foods. You expose yourself to high concentrations of the compound when you eat dried fruits and nuts, wine, canned goods and vegetable juices. Sulfites keep products fresh, but they don’t always agree with your body. They can be a reason to reorder migraine treatment


People who are prone to migraines should generally avoid caffeine. While it can help with mild headaches, it generally tends to make migraines worse. It is also a well-known trigger for ocular migraines – the type of migraines that lead to temporary sight loss. 

Coffee, sodas that contain caffeine and energy drinks are all possible sources of migraine. Replace these with alternatives, such as chicory malt coffee (which has zero caffeine), or just plain water. 


There is some interesting evidence that olives may be a migraine trigger. Researchers are still trying to work out whether it is specific compounds they contain, or just their high level of salt. 

Olives are a food that people consume only in moderation. However, serving sizes can be excessive in some situations, leading to overconsumption. 

If you believe that olives are a trigger but love sprinkling them over your salad, then you might want to try capers instead. These provide the same vinegary punch, but without any of the associated side effects. 


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Chocolate could be another migraine trigger, according to some researchers. That’s because it contains a range of compounds, including theobromine, that directly interact with the brain. 

Chocolate comes in many varieties. Chocolate bars are the most common, but it is also an ingredient in many recipes, particularly cocoa powder. Chocolate can sometimes also be an ingredient in a main course, such as mole sauce. 


Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage and goes well with hotdogs and other fast food. Unfortunately, it’s also a migraine trigger, in part due to the high levels of salt that it contains. 

If you eat sauerkraut, opt for low-salt versions. Only use a small amount on your foot. Don’t add too much as this may bring on a migraine. 


MSG – monosodium glutamate – is a type of salt that’s used in Asian cooking to give dishes their characteristic savoury, “umami” flavour. Research over the last twenty years, though, has found that it is a possible migraine trigger which usually causes a migraine after 20 minutes of consuming it. 

You’ll find MSG in soy sauce. It is also in a lot of processed foods, usually labelled “hydrolysed protein.”


Aspartame is a non-caloric sweetener found in most diet soft drinks. It’s around 150 times sweeter than sugar. It may cause headaches, but researchers aren’t entirely sure yet, partly because they can’t find a convincing mechanism. 

If you get regular migraines, you might want to avoid this particular ingredient. It offers no nutritional value, so skipping it will probably improve your health anyway. 


Alcohol is a migraine trigger for many people. Alcohol itself adversely interacts with the brain, plus many beverages, as discussed, also contain other triggers, such as red wine. 

The good news is that you can usually taste alcohol in any dish. You’ll find it in liquor, liqueurs and, sometimes, seasonal desserts. 


Lastly, histamines can also trigger migraines. These are inflammatory molecules found in foods including pepperoni, aged cheese, vinegars and cured meats. They may also trigger other inflammatory diseases at the same time. 

Wrapping Up

When it comes to migraine triggers, everyone is different. For many, the triggers are not food-related at all. 

Your task, therefore, is to isolate and eliminate foods from your diet one-by-one and see what happens. For instance, if you notice that you get a headache after eating dried fruit (because of the sulfites), try skipping them for a few weeks and see how you feel. If you don’t notice any improvements in your migraines, move onto the next food category. Try not to combine multiple interventions, all at once. Instead, do one thing at a time, like you’re conducting a controlled scientific experiment. 

If you have a feeling that a certain food triggers your migraines, let all your friends and family know. It is important that you eliminate the trigger from your diet entirely to help you identify it. 

Sometimes, you may believe that you’ve found the source of your migraines, even when you haven’t. Remain logical and thorough throughout your investigation, checking the facts at all times. 

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