Migraine causes and how to prevent them with your diet

When you have a migraine, you likely have a hard time doing anything. All you want to do is lie down in a dark room with a cold washcloth on your head and will the pain away. 

Pulsing, throbbing, pounding — and often debilitating — migraines affect approximately 36 million Americans. Although not always preventable, understanding migraine causes, including foods that cause migraines, can help sufferers avoid them.

It’s also important to distinguish between a regular headache and an actual migraine. 

How headaches and migraines differ

First things first: Is your headache really a migraine? 

Ninety percent of all headaches are tension headaches, which are typically caused by stress, worry, or tiredness.

You’re most likely experiencing a tension headache if you experience the following: 

  • The pain is less severe and on both sides of your head.
  • The pain feels like tight pressure rather than throbbing.
  • You have soreness in your temples, and your neck and shoulder muscles feel tight. 

Migraine symptoms

Migraine pain is more severe than a typical headache, and it’s usually focused on only one side of the head. Less common than tension headaches, migraines typically last between four and 72 hours. Other symptoms can include the following: 

  • Pain that worsens with physical activity 
  • Pain around your eyes or temples, or in your face, jaw, or neck 
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and sound  
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Auras that affect your vision, causing you to see wavy lines, dots, or flashing lights  

What are the underlying causes of migraines?

  • Although the causes of migraines are unknown, there are several common triggers: 
  • Hormones: Women are three times more prone to migraines and may experience them when hormone levels change during menstruation or menopause.  
  • Stress: Feelings of being overwhelmed at home or work, as well as too much exercise or not enough sleep, can cause stress that leads to migraine. 
  • Sensory stimuli: Loud sounds and flashing lights or bright, glaring sunlight can trigger migraines, as can strong smells such as paint fumes, second-hand smoke, or perfume. 
  • Sleep changes: Changes in your sleep schedule, either too much or too little, as well as jet lag, can trigger migraines. 
  • Beverages: Alcohol, especially wine, and caffeinated drinks such as coffee and some sodas may trigger migraines. 
  • Environmental: Changes in the weather, specifically barometric pressure, can prompt a migraine, as can exposure to carbon monoxide.  
  • Medications: Oral contraceptives and vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin, can aggravate migraines. 
  • HIV: One of the symptoms of HIV is migraines.  
  • Diet: New or restrictive diets can cause migraines. Also see foods that cause migraines below.  
  • Dehydration: People prone to migraines should drink plenty of water.  

Foods that cause migraines

Food additives, including the sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG), have been linked to migraines. Processed foods — including meats such as bologna, ham, hot dogs, pepperoni, or sausage — may also cause them. Other foods that can trigger migraines: 

  • Aged cheese 
  • Citrus fruits 
  • Salty and frozen foods 
  • Pickled and fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha 
  • Cured meats  
  • Chocolate 

Foods that can actually prevent migraines

Although changes in your diet may not completely stave off migraine attacks, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and vitamins and minerals in certain foods can help. If you are prone to migraines, eat whole, natural foods that don’t have preservatives or artificial flavorings, and don’t skip meals. Here are some foods that can prevent migraines: 

  • Salmon: Loaded with omega 3 fatty acids, salmon is an excellent anti-inflammatory. It also contains high amounts of B vitamins, including riboflavin, which has been clinically shown to be a helpful tool for managing migraine attacks. 
  • Dark chocolate: Sometimes associated with migraine triggers, chocolate can help prevent migraines in some people. Chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao contains large amounts of magnesium, which promotes relaxation and sleep. 
  • Figs: Figs have been found to prevent migraines because they contain potassium, which reduces inflammation. 
  • Shrimp: Shrimp contain an antioxidant called astaxanthin, which helps fight inflammation and, in turn, migraine attacks.  
  • Kale and collard greens: These leafy vegetables are “neutral” foods, meaning they pose no known risk of triggering a migraine attack. They are also high in magnesium and other anti-inflammatory nutrients. 
  • Carrots and sweet potatoes: These foods are high in beta-carotene and other nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties. 
  • Quinoa: Another “neutral” food, quinoa is a balanced carbohydrate and protein that is gentle on the gastrointestinal tract, making it a good choice during a migraine attack.  
  • Nuts and seeds: High in magnesium, nuts such as almonds, sesame seeds, and cashews have been shown to cure migraines, as well as lower their frequency. 
  • Eggs: Containing amounts of B vitamins, eggs are effective in reducing headache frequency, intensity, and duration. 
  • Whole grains: Low blood sugar can trigger a migraine. Because whole grains are metabolized slowly, they allow you to maintain consistent blood sugar levels. Common sources of whole grains include buckwheat, barley, bulgur, whole oats, and quinoa. 
  • Fruit: Because dehydration can cause migraines, eating fruit with high water content can help prevent them. Choose berries, cucumber, melon, tomatoes, grapefruit, cantaloupe, apricots, papaya, peaches, and cherries.