If you suffer from an occasional migraine or chronic migraines, then read more about the connection between migraines and diet.
Migraines affect roughly 1 out of every 7 Americans annually (1) or about 12% of the population (2). That’s a large number of people affected daily by a health condition with no one cause as it’s different for each person.
My Migraine Story
Migraines are a large part of my health history, which is a huge motivation for me to practice the daily habits that keep me on the prevention side of things.
When I started to get migraines in my early teens, I recall feelings of helplessness, disappointment, anxiety, and depression at such a young age. I was living with a cycle of on and off again migraines that would take me out of my daily life and activities which included hobbies that I loved like art. This would last for about 5 days monthly and this became my norm for years after. The silver lining of this challenge was it became a beautiful catalyst for my artistic expression and maybe a bit of emo-inspired artwork, ha!
My method of treatment was typical, going to a neurologist and doctors experimenting with different medications to find what worked best. In fact, all of the medications worked as they are “supposed” to with the exception of finding some mediation allergies, but they all left me feeling numb and a bit like a zombie. Honestly, I felt I’d rather go through migraines several days at a time each month then not feel much of myself at all and so I did.
It was also around the age of 15 that I experienced really intense and stressful life events that carried into my early twenties — this later helped me realize stress is one of the biggest triggers for my migraines. I share a bit of backstory because migraines like so many health conditions have different angles, different factors, causes, and ways to start addressing the root cause. My remedies weren’t just found in the diet I ate, but it was the lifestyle I was living.
Fast forward 4 years later, as a first-year nutrition and dietetics major, I started to guinea pig and hack my own health to figure out what was going on with my health — in addition to migraines I experienced digestive issues, acne, eczema, and hormonal imbalances (intense PMS).
I wish from both a personal and professional perspective I could give you a list of foods that will prevent migraines so you never have to deal with them, or a list of foods that will trigger a migraine so you can avoid them forever. Just like anything in health, it’s not that simple. It takes time, an individual approach, patience, and practice to learn what your unique triggers may be, whether that’s food or lifestyle related.
With that individual perspective in mind, use the following article as a guideline, a framework you can use to advocate for your own health and see what brings you closer to your health goals.
What Are Migraines?
Migraines are more than an intense headache, it’s more recently been identified as a neurological disorder involving nerve pathways and brain chemicals. (6) It’s accompanied by throbbing pain (i.e. an intense headache) with sensory and neurological symptoms.
What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?
The most obvious is the intensity and duration. Headaches can be a sign of a simple fix for our modern age, such as dehydration, not enough sleep, stress, hormonal shifts during that time of the month, low magnesium in our diet or B vitamins, etc. Headaches usually last no longer than a day and typically don’t interrupt daily living.
There isn’t one cause we can yet pinpoint, but it appears genetics, environmental factors, lifestyle, brain chemical imbalances (including serotonin), and more that are still being researched. Migraines may also be caused by changes in the brainstem and the trigeminal nerve which is a major pain pathway. (3) Additional factors that may play a role in migraines is a family history of them and/or if you’re female.
What are symptoms and signs of a migraine?
Again, migraines will be experienced differently depending on who is going through them, here is a list of some of the most reported and common.
- Mood swings
- Food cravings
- Neck pain, or stiffness
- Increased thirst and urination
- Frequent yawning
- Feeling lethargic
- Sensitivity to light
- Sensitivity to smells
- Sensitivity to sounds
- Throbbing in various areas on your head/neck
- Auras: these can range from visual, sensory (hearing noises, or noise sensitivity), flashing lights, zigzag patterns, tracers (feels like visually things are in slow-mo)
In my experience, I had intense visual auras, auditory sensitivities, throbbing pain, and nausea. I was able to build a mind-body awareness of when I was at the start of my migraine cycle, I typically would become nauseous for no reason, have a low-level throbbing at the base of my skull, brain fog, and mood swings. This period of time before an active migraine is called Prodrome (3).
Just as there typically is a period before a migraine, there’s also a post-drome which is after the active migraine attack and can last 24-48 hours for most people. A person may feel similar feelings as the prodrome period, with a bit of dizziness, confusion, sensitivity to light and sound, or digestive issues.
What Are Possible Food Triggers For Migraines (4, 5)
One of the best ways to determine your food triggers is to work closely with a Registered Dietitian who can support you and guide you with expertise on an elimination plan, food journal, and trigger testing.
Many of these foods contain tannins, sulfites, nitrites, tyramine, octopamine, phenylethylamine, artificial chemicals, and/or histamine.
- Aged cheeses (i.e. foods high in tyramine)
- Salty foods
- Skipping meals
- Canned soups
- Soy sauce
- Histamine-releasing foods: bananas, strawberries, raspberries, oranges, and grapefruit
- Yeast extract (not the same as nutritional yeast)
- Smoked fish and cured meats
Treatments For Migraines
Just because I shared a personal story that medications weren’t working for me (which was also 1o years ago!), doesn’t mean you should avoid medication. There is a beautiful balance to entertain between what we know can help and work with medications and the work we need to do on ourselves with our lifestyle and diet. Both may be needed to make an effective treatment plan and both need support from your health care professionals.
- Medication: OTC or prescription
- Diet: being aware of your unique food triggers and in general, practicing a diet similar to the NS philosophy — simple whole foods.
Lifestyle Practices To Reduce Migraines
- Engage in mindfulness and mediation
- Getting enough sleep and a consistent sleep-wake cycle
- Reducing stress or making it a daily practice to manage stress
- Reducing intense stimuli like flashing lights, strong smells (perfume, smoke, etc.), loud sounds
- Awareness of environment or changes in weather (barometric pressure)
- Awareness in medication changes or additions (some women are sensitive to hormonal birth control)
- Supporting your body during travel (i.e. managing jet lag)
- Supporting gut health (70% of our immune system starts in the gut, it’s important to support digestive health especially if foods are triggers)
- Talking about how to cope with your support system
As you can see, every a migraine is unique to the person so it’s incredibly important to self-experiment with finding your own triggers and things in your lifestyle that you can control and manage to prevent. Always be smart about your health — we have the empowerment to take care of ourselves which should also include when to know it’s time to go see a doctor. If you have a headache that’s incredibly intense, lasts longer than a day, is very severe and sudden, or you intuitively know you should get help, have your doctor check you out.
I would love to hear from you and I’m sure there’s someone reading this right now that needs to hear what you have to say. Share your story, what’s worked and hasn’t worked for you in your migraine journey.