Eat Away The Pain: The Dos and Don’ts Of The Anti-Migraine Diet

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, one in four American households includes someone with a migraine. Migraines create more extreme symptoms than your average headache. They can cripple a person’s daily life if left untreated.

A person’s diet can make or break their head pain. If you assume that all healthy foods can prevent migraines, you’ll be disappointed. But if you follow some rules–such as avoiding MSG–your head will hurt less. Equip yourself with the knowledge on how to experience fewer migraines by learning the dos the don’ts of the anti-migraine diet.

DO: Stay Hydrated

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If you don’t drink enough water, you may get more headaches. According to the American Migraine Foundation, one-third of people with migraines consider dehydration to be a common trigger. If you become dehydrated for over four hours, your risk of acquiring a debilitating headache skyrockets.

In 2005, researchers tested how hydration influences migraines. Participants who drank more water had far fewer headaches. When they did have migraines, their symptoms were far less intense. If you experience frequent head pain, try drinking more water.

DON’T: Think That All Healthy Foods Help Migraines

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SSPL/Getty Images

Although you should stick to a healthy diet, don’t assume that all “healthy” foods help migraines. Some foods can trigger headaches if they contain certain natural ingredients. For instance, the National Headache Foundation asserts that the amino acid tyramine can spark migraines.

Foods that supply a lot of tyramine–including pickles, aged cheeses, and raw onions–are generally considered “healthy.” Meanwhile, “non-natural” products such as soy milk can fit into an anti-migraine diet. If you want to reduce head pain with your diet, throw away the mindset of “healthy equals good.”

DO: Track Your Premonitory Symptoms

A man with a headache clutches his forehead.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Before a migraine hits, some people experience symptoms up to an hour beforehand. These are called premonitary symptoms, which occur during the prodome or “preheadache.” If you notice any of these symptoms, take care to drink more water, avoid triggers, and eat anti-headache foods.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, premonitary symptoms include dizziness, sensitivity to light, yawning, nausea, fatigue, and muscle stiffness. Research in Neurology states that people who notice their premonitary symptoms can accurately predict a migraine. Try to figure out what your preheadache entails, and adjust your diet accordingly.

DO: Avoid Processed Foods When Possible

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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although processed foods make quick meals, they can trigger migraines. Most processed foods include chemicals called nitrates. In 2016, a study by the American Gut Project discovered that people with migraines have more bacteria used in processing nitrates. This could explain why migraine sufferers have more symptoms.

Because people with migraines have more bacteria, their body produces more nitric oxide. Research in the journal mSystems concluded that higher levels of nitrate oxide lead to more migraines. For an anti-headache diet, steer clear of processed foods and stick to fresh foods.

DON’T: Fill Your Water Glass With Ice

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Do you get headaches after drinking water? If so, check the drink’s temperature. In 2001, researchers tested how water temperature influenced migraines. Over half of the participants who drank iced water experienced a headache afterward. When people drank cold water through a straw, their head pain increased.

That said, not everyone gets a headache after drinking cold water. During a 2013 study, participants became more hydrated upon drinking water at 60°F. Some people are more inclined to drink cold water, which keeps them hydrated and prevents headaches.

DO: Avoid Strong-Smelling Food

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A smell can influence your head pain as much as diet does. The American Headache Society claims that 95% of migraine sufferers are sensitive to smell. For many people, this means avoiding perfumes, incense, and cleaning products. But certain foods can also trigger headaches in some people.

Cooking smelly food or sitting in a fragrant restaurant can boost your risk of a headache. The director of the New York Headache Center, Dr. Alexander Mauskop, recommends carrying around a pleasant smell to offset other unpleasant ones. Examples include peppermint or lavender essential oil.

DON’T: Assume That Everyone Has The Same Triggers

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Bildquelle/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Scientists still aren’t sure what causes migraines. However, they know that certain factors–foods, smells, medications, and activities–affect certain people. Don’t assume that everyone has the same triggers. For instance, your friend may be sensitive to dairy, but you may not be.

Michigan Medicine recommends keeping a headache diary. Jot down your meals, exercise, and sleep schedule every day. When you experience a migraine, check your meals to determine what may have caused it. This will help you to identify and avoid certain triggers in the future.

DO: Avoid Foods With MSG

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Monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, is a type of salt. Some processed foods, especially Chinese and Japanese products, use MSG as a flavor enhancer. It is frequently cited as a migraine trigger. Research in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that MSG from processed foods often results in head pain after 30 minutes.

Although people react differently to MSG, most people struggle with the flavor additive. Ingredients such as gelatin, glutamic acid, textured protein, and yeast extract contain MSG, says the National Headache Foundation. Take care to avoid that ingredient.

DO: Monitor Your Sugar Intake

A shopping cart holds bags of sugar and soda.
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Luis Ascui/Getty Images

You may have heard the term “sugar headache,” which results from eating too much sugar. In reality, migraines can occur from eating too much and too little sugar. According to Migraine Trust, a drop in blood glucose can trigger head pain. A spike in blood sugar– called reactive hypoglycemia– also causes headaches.

Researchers believe that insulin imbalance may play a role. In April 2020, a study in the journal Headache found that blood glucose spikes right before a migraine. This may cause an insulin imbalance, leading to head pain. To prevent migraines, make sure that you eat a balanced amount of sugar.

DON’T: Resort To Artificial Sugars

Packets of Equal and Splenda are set up in a coffee bar.
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Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

Artificial sweeteners can help people lose weight, but they may not support people with migraines. Research suggests that aspartame, a common artificial sweetener ingredient, triggers headaches. According to UC Health Physician Vincent Martin, “two of the three randomized studies involving aspartame have shown a positive correlation between the sweetener and headache.”

Fortunately, most people need a high amount of aspartame to feel the effects. Dr. Martin explains that you would need to drink two liters of diet soda per day. Still, try not to consume too many artificial sweeteners if you get migraines.

DON’T: Overdo Caffeine

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Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s true that caffeine can help relieve head pain. But if you overdo it, your symptoms could become more severe. According to a study in The American Journal of Medicine, people who drink three cups of coffee or are more at risk of getting a migraine.

Dr. Vincent Martin, the director of the Headache and Facial Pain Center at the University of Cincinnati, says that one to two cups of coffee should be fine. Beware of energy drinks, which have far more caffeine than coffee. Remember that some sodas and teas contain caffeine, too.

DO: Drink Electrolyte Drinks If You Need Them

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Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Electrolyte drinks contain minerals that keep your body hydrated, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium. According to a study in the journal Headache, people with sodium deficiency are more likely to get a migraine. Sodium and potassium lowered the frequency of migraines, but it didn’t reduce pain.

Magnesium helps the body absorb other nutrients, which makes it useful for headaches, says the Migraine Trust. If you’re struggling to hydrate, you may want to try an electrolyte drink. Just beware of some sugar-filled sports drinks, like Gatorade; they may worsen your migraine.

DON’T: Fall For The High-Salt Diet

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Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

In 2016, researchers from the Huntington Medical Research Institute conducted a study of salt and migraines. They discovered that a high-salt diet resulted in fewer migraines. These findings surprised the scientists; however, experts still don’t recommend that headache patients should consume emore salt.

Dr. Michael Harrington, the molecular neurologist who led the study, says that there is not enough evidence to prove that salt lessens head pain. But we do know that salt increases high blood pressure, which can trigger migraine attacks. A high-salt diet isn’t worth the risk, says Brendan Davies, a consultant neurologist at the Migraine Trust.

DO: Eat Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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If you want fewer migraines, eat more omega-3 fatty acids. In 2017, Iranian researchers analyzed 85 studies about migraines. They discovered that omega-3s reduce the number of headaches experienced. They can also alleviate head pain by up to 74%.

According to another study in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids, omega-3s can help migraine sufferers manage chronic pain. Specifically, researchers supplemented participants with eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid. Fatty fish, chia seeds, walnuts, eggs, juice, and milk all contain these omega-3s. You can easily eat more fatty acids through your diet if you don’t want supplements.

DO: Work To Maintain A Healthy Weight

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Photofusion/Keith Morris/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Overweight and obese patients may experience fewer migraines if they lose weight. According to The Journal of Headache and Pain, high fat levels create inflammation, which may spark headaches. People with a high weight often experience more severe migraine symptoms, says Migraine Pal.

In 2019, a study by The Endocrine Society concluded that losing weight can lower migraine frequency in obese people. It also helps people concentrate and improves the overall quality of life. If you’re at a healthy weight, you may want to work to maintain it.

DON’T: Skip Meals

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According to the American Migraine Association, skipping meals is a common trigger among patients. When people skip meals, they experience lower blood sugar and hydration. Registered dietitian Joy Bauer recommends keeping healthy snacks on hand to maintain your blood glucose levels.

Although late-night snacking is not often recommended, for migraine sufferers, it’s better than nothing. Research in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience reports that nighttime snacking lowers migraines by 40% compared to having no food. However, your best bet is to eat early to prevent feeling sickly later.

DON’T: Avoid Everything With Tyramine

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Tyramine, a naturally-occurring chemical in certain foods, has become the topic of many migraine diet articles. Some experts claim that tyramine triggers migraines. The theory began in 2010 when a study found that 18% of people got head pain after eating the chemical in food. But is tyramine really that bad?

Some experts disagree that tyramine must be avoided. A study from N1-Headache asserted that 93% of migraine patients “don’t have to worry about tyramine at all.” In addition, some foods that reportedly have tyramine (such as chocolate) do not contain enough of it to make a difference. Don’t let tyramine scare you away from certain foods.

DON’T: Drink Too Much

A judge drinks from a wine glass during an International Wine Challenge.
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Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It’s recommended that people who suffer from migraines avoid drinking alcohol. And that doesn’t just mean drinking that will result in a hangover; it can happen after just a few glasses. In 2018, research in the European Journal of Neurology determined that 35% of migraine sufferers consider alcohol to be a trigger.

Oddly enough, very few studies have focused on alcoholic beverages and migraines, says Harvard Health Publishing. However, most migraine patients report red wine as their most common trigger, according to the Neurology Times. If this sounds familiar, it could be beneficial to limit how much you drink.

DO: Eat Plenty Of Fruits And Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are stacked on display.
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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When you eat more vegetables and fruits, you’ll become healthier–and get fewer headaches. In 2012, Iranian researchers tracked peoples’ diets to see what impacted migraines. Participants who ate more produce experienced fewer headaches (except for tomatoes).

No matter your age, fruits and vegetables can result in fewer headaches. Research in Nutrition & Food Science confirmed that children experience fewer migraines when they eat more produce. They also have a healthier diet overall and a lower BMI. When in doubt, eat fresh!

DO: Substitute Certain Cheeses

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Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Some studies suggest that aged cheese creates a migraine. A study in the journal Cephalalgia concluded that 18% of migraine sufferers react negatively to cheese. Some researchers believe that tyramine is to blame. Others suggest that histamine, another chemical in aged cheese, could be a culprit.

“There is not much research on cheese as a migraine trigger, but it is generally agreed that aged cheese is more likely to cause a headache,” explains Dr. Noah Rosen, the director of the Headache Institute at North Shore–LIJ Health System. If you react negatively to cheddar, Swiss, or parmesan, try replacing them with cottage cheese, ricotta, and mascarpone.