Would This Meal Give You a Migraine?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The dinner on the right looks inviting – but to some people prone to migraines it could leave them with a bad headache.

Many migraine sufferers have learned to avoid or limit their consumption of foods and beverages that can cause a migraine attack. Wine, chocolate, coffee, nuts, and milk are often named as likely triggers, but did you know that some diets can actually help prevent migraines?

The role of diet in the treatment and prevention of migraine is poorly understood and somewhat controversial in the field of headache medicine because few rigorous studies have been performed.

In an effort to bring some clarity to the issue, two professors at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine performed a comprehensive review of over 180 research studies on the subject of migraine and diet. Their two-part review, "Diet and Headache" is being published online in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. You can also see it by clicking here and here.

"One of the most important triggers for headache is the withdrawal of caffeine," says Vincent Martin, MD, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine. “Let's say you regularly pound down three or four cups of coffee every morning and you decide to skip your morning routine one day, you will likely have full-fledged caffeine withdrawal headache that day."

Martin and co-author Brinder Vij, MD, an associate professor in the UC Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine, say there are two different approaches to preventing headaches with diet. The first is an elimination diet that avoids foods and beverages known to trigger headaches. The second approach is to adopt low fat and low carbohydrate diets that may actually help prevent headaches.

"The beauty of these diets is that they not only reduce headaches, but may produce weight loss and prevent heart disease," says Vij.

One of the most promising diets for those with frequent migraine attacks is one that boosts omega-3 fats while reducing omega-6 fatty acids. That means avoiding polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, canola and soy) in favor of flaxseed oil. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fats include flaxseed, salmon, halibut, cod and scallops, while foods to avoid would be peanuts and cashews.

Martin and Vij say gluten-free diets are only helpful in lessening headaches if someone suffers from celiac disease, which can be established through a blood test or intestinal biopsy.

Other foods to avoid include anything with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer used in many processed foods, including frozen or canned foods, soups, snack foods, salad dressing, seasoning salt, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and in some Chinese cooking.

"You eliminate it by eating fewer processed foods," explains Martin. "You eat more natural things such as fresh vegetables, fresh fruits and fresh meats. MSG is most provocative when consumed in liquids such as soups."

About 5 percent migraine suffers are likely to have an attack on days they consume nitrites, a preservative often used in processed meats such as bacon, sausage, ham and lunch meat. The use of both nitrites and MSG has declined, but Martin says checking food labels is a good idea.

Alcohol is another headache trigger for about a third of migraine sufferers, and studies suggest that red wines, especially those with high histamine content, are the worst. Interestingly, one study found that beer was associated with fewer headaches and migraines.

"Persons with headache and migraine have more dietary options than ever. Ultimately a healthy headache diet excludes processed foods, minimizes caffeine and includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats,” Martin says.

Martin and Vij say identifying dietary triggers is challenging because there are so many different foods and ingredients that migraine sufferers are exposed to. They recommend keeping a food diary to help determine which foods to eliminate.

“It is not reasonable for persons with headache to avoid all know dietary triggers, as individuals may only be susceptible to a small number of foods or beverages,” they wrote. “The triggers could be identified by simple observation if the association is strong or through the use of a food diary if it is less obvious. The ideal would be to use a food diary as part of an app that would then determine statistically if a given food or beverage was associated with headache.”

Migraine affects about three times as many women as men. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound. About half of people living with migraine are undiagnosed.