Migraine Food Triggers [Ultimate Guide]

Does the idea of food triggers make you feel way overwhelmed?

If so, I totally get it. With migraine, it seems like everyone has an opinion on what you “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating.

But don’t worry! We’re going to keep it super real here.

I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about food triggers – from how they tick to how you can both learn & eliminate them from your diet.

Trigger Basics

First things first, we need to get these basics straight about triggers:

  • They’re individualized. While triggers have common trends (which I’ll lay out next for you), each of us have our own “set” of migraine triggers.
  • Their impact varies. Triggers “stack”, building up towards a point at which your migraine attack will start. This means that triggers won’t immediately set off an attack every time you’re exposed to them.

A lot of us have had trouble narrowing down on our unique triggers. To simplify the topic, migraine triggers tend to fall into 4 categories:

summary of 4 migraine trigger types
  • Environmental. Barometric pressure, weather, lights, sounds, smells.
  • Lifestyle. Sleep, stress, exertion.
  • Diet. Food triggers (what we’re focused on today!), dehydration, skipped meals.
  • Hormones. PMS, pregnancy, menopause.

Food Sensitivities = Triggers

Understanding Food Reactions

There are three main ways food can “hurt” us.

  • Allergies are immune reactions that are immediate and sometimes life-threatening.
  • Intolerances occur when a food cannot be appropriately broken down in the body.
  • Sensitivities are complex immune reactions that can contribute to many chronic diseases like migraine and IBS.

Both allergies and sensitivities are immune-based reactions. Intolerances happen due to the lack of an enzyme to break down a food.

Both intolerances and sensitivities have a delayed response and are dose-dependent. Allergies act immediately with any amount of the allergen.

Sensitivities Are Sneaky

Food sensitivities can be tricky to pin down because:

  • Their reaction is delayed by up to 72 hours! (IDK about you, but I don’t have a clue what I ate 3 days ago.)
  • Reactions are also dose-dependent – so a small amount of the food mixed into a dish may be okay whereas a full serving may hit you hard.
  • They can be literally ANY food, even if it’s considered “healthy” or to be a “superfood”.

Food Sensitivity Reaction

When you eat a food you’re sensitive to, your immune recognizes it as a threat. Your immune system builds a defense, then sends out an attack to the threat.

Unfortunately, the attack sent by your immune system trying to protect you causes mayhem. You’ll experience a range of inflammatory reactions.

Some common symptoms are:

  • Headaches
  • Migraine attacks
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Acne
  • Eczema
  • Dermatitis
  • Joint pain

Identifying YOUR Triggers

Remember when I said that migraine triggers are individualized?

Food triggers are NOT one-size-fits-all.

Check out the best 3 strategies you can use to learn your food triggers: tracking, elimination diet, & lab testing.

Food & Symptom Tracking

The most accessible way to get started is through tracking. Migraine tracking, in general, is a total game-changer in becoming familiar with your migraine patterns and triggers.

To narrow in on your food triggers specifically, I recommend keeping a food journal alongside your migraine log.

Here are some tips for successful food & symptom tracking:

  • Timing. Take note of not only what you eat, but when you eat. Also write timestamps for when symptoms begin or change.
  • Ingredients. We’re trying to narrow in on specific trigger foods, so break down your meals into ingredients in your log.
  • Accurate Records. Try to take update your log ASAP after eating to avoid forgetting items, including snacks and drinks.

Once you’ve been logging for at least a week, make sure to review! Look back to see if any trends pop out.

Best case scenario, your symptoms consistently appear soon after eating one specific item.

Worst case scenario, there’s no obvious link, which probably just means you need more data!

Elimination Diet

An elimination diet is a process to identify food reactions.

  1. First, determine what you’ll eliminate – whether it’s a single suspected trigger or set of foods.
  2. Stick to a healthy, varied diet for 2-4 weeks, just avoiding your eliminated item(s).
  3. Reintroduce the item(s), one food at a time, as an “oral challenge”.
  4. Any food(s) reintroduced that cause a rise in symptoms can be confirmed as a trigger.

I love the elimination diet structure, this is how I personally figured out a couple of my food triggers!

However, there’s a major downside… Any food can potentially be a trigger, so it’s virtually impossible to guarantee you’re eliminating the “right” things.

Get started with picking one or more of the items below:

  • Aged foods. Leftovers, ripe fruits, wine, pickled vegetables.
  • Alcohol. Beer, wine, liquor.
  • Artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, sucralose.
  • Caffeine. Coffee, tea, soft drinks.
  • Citrus. Orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime.
  • Dairy. Milk, yogurt, cheese.
  • Food additives. Food coloring, MSG.
  • Nuts & legumes. Almond, peanut, walnut.
  • Preservatives. Nitrates, nitrites, sulfites.
  • Soy. Tofu, edamame, soy milk.

This is not a conclusive list, since seriously any food can be a possible trigger.

Lab Testing

Saved the best for last!

A blood test, specifically the Mediator Release Test (MRT), is basically a fast-tracked elimination diet – taking out the guesswork and already fully customized to you!

The MRT was designed with chronic illness in mind, especially migraine. Not only do you get the lab results pointing out your reactions to 176 items, but you get rapid relief with a tailored eating plan (elimination diet style).

Common Mistakes

Let’s walk through the most common mistakes I see as the Migraine Nutritionist in the world of migraine food triggers.

Trigger Or Craving?

This is honestly very easy to mix up.

Perhaps when you begin tracking, you realize there’s a food you consistently run into pre-attack, so naturally you suspect it’s a food trigger.

But what if it’s not?

Hear me out – a migraine attack starts much earlier than most people realize. Beyond the major debilitating symptoms we’re familiar with, there are several “attack phases”.

In the early stages of an attack, called prodrome, you may experience cravings, meaning the food you suspected may actually be a symptom of your migraine rather than a trigger.

Also, fun fact – I notice that prodrome also comes with major fatigue, which some people will turn food in response to “fix”, usually with sugary or easily broken-down foods.

This is tricky, but the best way to work this mistake out is to really nail down what your prodrome phase feels like through tracking. Then you can ignore any foods eaten in this time in your search for triggers.

Unbalanced Eating

Sometimes… It’s not the food, it’s the diet.

In general, migraine triggers are usually changes to your environment or your body – the migraine brain tends to dislike change.

You can avoid nutrition-related triggers, such as dehydration and blood sugar fluctuations, by drinking plenty of fluids and enjoying a variety of food groups throughout the day.

Some guidelines for balanced eating:

  • Whether you eat 3 large meals or “graze” on 6+ smaller meals each day, it doesn’t really matter, just keep it consistent.
  • Build a healthy plate by always including a fruit/vegetable, grain/starch, and protein.
  • For snacks, avoid “naked carbohydrates”. It’s totes fine to enjoy chips or crackers, but make sure to pair them with something with fat/fiber/protein – think peanut butter, cheese, or dips.

Eliminating For NO REASON

This is the mistake that really grinds my gears.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, there’s a lot of information out there saying that peeps with migraine should avoid specific foods. But like we’ve reviewed, there is NO one-size-fits-all list of food triggers.

I see it all the time, and I totally get it – in hopes of getting much-needed migraine relief, many of us are down to try anything.

If you’re looking for answers and someone says to “just stop eating X, Y, and Z”, it feels like it’s worth a try.

But as you remove foods from your diet, you face tons of possible risks:

  • Restriction resulting in lacking important vitamins & nutrients
  • Being unable to enjoy social connections with food, such as dining out & sharing meals
  • Increased stress & overwhelm from trying to manage your diet
  • Developing “food phobias” & feeling negatively about food
  • Leading to psychological distress, disordered eating

And of course, there’s a major risk that you go through all of this stress but your migraine remains unchanged.

Optimizing Your Migraine Diet

Avoiding Triggers

Once you’ve identified your food triggers, your best bet is to avoid them. If it’s a super common item or something that’s a staple in your diet, this could be easier said than done.

Here are some of my personal examples for how I’ve avoided some of my food triggers:

  • Honey – I’ve switched to other sweetener options, such as maple syrup, cane sugar, or artificial sweeteners.
  • Wheat – I used to rely heavily on bagels for breakfast. My current “fix” is meal-prepping, which prevents the decision fatigue of trying to pick what to eat every morning (which always ended with me reverting to bagels, lol).
  • Corn – It’s really hard to remove corn entirely, but I’ve learned to avoid plain corn, tortillas, soft drinks made with high fructose corn syrup, etc. I’ve mostly been able to easily swap these items with other starches or drinks!

Approaching Triggers (Cautiously!)

Sometimes it’s unrealistic to expect to remove a food entirely from your diet, even if you know it’s a migraine trigger. Here are some ways to “get away with it” and reduce your risk of an attack:

  • Low portions.
    • Reactions are dose-dependent, so a small amount really shouldn’t throw you off track.
    • Example: Someone triggered by strawberry could opt have mixed berries instead of just strawberries to naturally reduce the trigger food portion.
  • Consider processing.
    • If something is further removed from the actual food trigger, your risk of a reaction is lower.
    • Example: Someone triggered by green peas may avoid the vegetable, but be able to enjoy plant-based protein powders.
  • Overall threshold.
    • At the beginning of this article we discussed how triggers “stack”. A lower trigger load overall means you can be more flexible, since there’s a lower likelihood that a migraine attack will occur.
    • Example: If hormones are a significant trigger, be more cautious about your food choices near your period.

Optimized Nutrition

Tips for building a healthy baseline:

  • Stay consistent with meal times and your snack routine – avoid skipped & late meals.
  • Enjoy balanced meals by including a fruit/vegetable, grain/starch, and protein.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, to stay hydrated.
  • Strike a healthy balance with caffeine.
  • Avoid alcohol – this can be a migraine trigger due to its dehydrating effect or the chemical compounds and byproducts present.

To get an extra boost:

  • Magnesium is helpful for migraine prevention. Make sure your diet includes magnesium-rich foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
  • Omega-3 fatty acid boosts brain health. Shoot for seafood 2 times per week, or enjoy plant-based items like walnuts and flaxseeds.
  • Both ginger and turmeric are popular herbal remedies that alleviate nausea, inflammation, and pain. You can use these while targeting migraine attacks, or to build onto your prevention plan.

Conclusion

Migraine food triggers can be overwhelming, but now we’ve broken down all the basics. You’ve…

  • learned how foods can play a role as a trigger,
  • discovered targeted strategies to learn your trigger foods,
  • identified mistakes to avoid,
  • and seen how to optimize your diet overall for migraine prevention.

To fast-track your perfect diet for migraine, including clearly identifying your food triggers, join Migraine Food Trigger Testing.

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