These Are the Best and Worst Foods to Eat If You Have a Migraine
Your diet can have an impact on migraines. Here, we take a look at the science behind foods that can help and hurt your head—including chocolate, cheese, fish and water.
Photo: Getty Images/PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou
You're out and about on a beautiful sunny afternoon and all of a sudden you're hit with a migraine. It's the worst, right? And unfortunately, migraines are incredibly common and can be really, really painful for some people.
What causes them? Probably not the answer you're looking for, but the cause is actually unknown. "Some believe migraines occur from hormonal shifts, specifically a drop in estrogen during menstruation," says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. Two triggers that definitely can lead to a migraine are poor diet and stress, she explains. And even though causes might be based on the individual (for example, flashing or bright lights might affect one person but not the next), there are specific foods and drinks that universally can be either beneficial or detrimental to migraine sufferers.
Not sure which foods to nosh on or to avoid when your head is pounding? Here's a handy guide.
The Best Foods to Eat to Help Prevent Migraines
There aren't any foods that will totally prevent migraines, but some are "pain-free foods," according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). "They recommend a plant-based diet as a way to improve your overall health, and these foods shouldn't trigger any migraines," says Rizzo. These foods aren't necessarily linked to migraine prevention, but they are harmless to eat and generally healthy.
Fill your plate with bright veggies, as they're not only great for your body but also won't lead to nasty migraines. "Orange, yellow and green vegetables contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which contribute to overall health," says Rizzo. They will help keep you energized and well, which can prevent migraines from occurring, she explains. What's more, vegetables often have a high water content-such as peppers, cucumbers, leafy greens like kale and Swiss chard, carrots, sweet potatoes and more-which will keep the body balanced and prevent it from losing too much water.
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If you feel a migraine coming on, chug some water, as you might be dehydrated. About 30 percent of people who get migraines say dehydration could be the cause, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
"Any type of water will keep you hydrated, and a symptom of dehydration is headaches," explains Rizzo. Staying hydrated throughout the day can keep you from experiencing headaches. If you don't like plain water, try adding in some fresh fruit or herbs.
"Whole grains like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta are considered good sources of fiber, which contributes to overall digestive and heart health. Once again, including this in your diet just helps keep you healthy and happy and hopefully prevents migraines from occurring," says Rizzo. These grains also don't contain any ingredients that might lead to headaches, making them harmless for migraine sufferers. To keep from getting bored (and make sure you're getting your nutrients), eat a variety of grains including quinoa, amaranth and barley.
Fruit contributes minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and fiber, all of which can fulfill your daily requirements for many nutrients. "Plus it's rich in water, so getting enough on a daily basis is a good way to prevent migraines," says Rizzo. If you are eating dried fruit or frozen fruit, look for options with no added sugar. You also want to avoid sulfates (check the label), which might be in dried fruit. (Sulfates can actually lead to migraines, so dried fruit with sulfates added isn't your best option!)
Figs in particular are a great fruit to choose, due to their high potassium content, to help keep migraines at bay. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps boost hydration levels and can reduce muscle cramping and fatigue. Bananas are another potassium-rich fruit.
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Fish and Shellfish
It's a great idea to eat fish, like salmon or halibut, along with shellfish, like shrimp, on a regular basis (aim for 8 ounces per week) for good fats and protein. Fish won't cause migraines, and their high omega-3 content can help reduce inflammation and lower your risk of various diseases. When you're in better health, you're better able to manage and prevent migraines, says Rizzo.
The Worst Foods to Eat for Migraines
Diet gets blamed for a lot of migraines, but not every migraine sufferer has dietary triggers. It may be stress, light, sleep or hormones that are responsible. Below we've listed some foods that you may want to cut out if you notice they're a culprit for you.
Aged cheeses, like Cheddar, Gruyère and manchego, may contribute to headaches because they contain more of a compound called tyramine. A rule of thumb: the longer a high-protein food like cheese ages, the higher the tyramine content. "Although the exact mechanism is unknown, tyramine may cause migraines by altering the level of certain neurotransmitters in the brain," says Rizzo. A few other cheese culprits could include Brie, blue and Parmesan.
This summer, don't put sauerkraut on your hot dog at those outdoor barbecues unless you want to run the risk of a migraine. You might love fermented foods and drinks like kombucha, sourdough, miso and pickled veggies, but fermented foods can lead to migraines, also because of tyramine. And that hot dog isn't doing you any favors either, as cured, smoked and processed meats can also be a trigger.
Smoked or Processed Meats
If you're eating meats or vegan meats that are processed, they likely contain additives, such as nitrates and nitrites, which can dilate (or widen) blood vessels and cause headaches in some people. Plus, these meats also have tyramine, says Rizzo, which might lead to the onset of head pain. You're better off grilling or roasting a plain piece of unprocessed meat (think chicken or steak instead of sausage or bacon) and pairing it with fresh veggies instead of pickled or fermented ones.
Despite the urge to cope with migraine pain through booze, resist. Sulfites and those good-for-you flavonoids in the red wine may actually be migraine triggers for some people. "If you're a migraine sufferer, it may be best to opt for a white wine without the flavonoids, and the Dietary Guidelines suggest sticking to one glass of wine per day," says Rizzo.
The aspartame found in diet soda may cause migraines in some people, says Rizzo. "If you suffer from headaches, keep the diet soda to a once-in-a-while treat, rather than an everyday beverage," she says. Diet soda may not be the healthiest beverage choice to begin with-although it's calorie-free, research has linked its artificial sweeteners to some negative health outcomes. Reach for sparkling water instead.
Don't shoot the messenger! Like wine and processed meats, chocolate contains nitrates, which can contribute to headaches, and it also has tyramine. "The other issue is that women crave chocolate during their time of the month. In conjunction with a drop in estrogen during this time, the tyramine in chocolate may be too much for your head to bear," says Rizzo. So, if you get migraines and you're expecting your period soon, you might want to swap chocolate for another sweet treat, like fresh fruit. "Experiment with small amounts to see how much you can tolerate without feeling it in your head," says Rizzo, and go from there.
There is no magic food to eat to prevent migraines but some foods can help-and some foods may actually increase your risk of migraines. You may need to test these foods a bit or work with your doctor to figure out which foods may be aggravating your migraines and headaches.