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Georgina Camfield, Registered Associate Nutritionist and Anthony Glock, MSc Sport and Exercise Nutrition

The impact of nutrition on migraines

8 September 2021

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Migraines affect around 1 in 5 women and 1 in 15 men, with their frequency varying from several times a week to years between migraine attacks.[1] 

There can be several causes, although the exact cause is still unknown, and what triggers a migraine for one person is different for another. For some it’s stress, lack of sleep or for women the menstrual cycle. For others it’s certain foods and drink. 

We’re taking a look at what foods can cause migraines and what we can change in our nutrition to potentially prevent one from starting. 

What is a migraine?

Migraines are typically a moderate or severe headache that usually feels like a throbbing on one side of the head, but you may also experience other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light and sound. 

There are also several types of migraine[2], including:

  • migraine with aura – where there are specific warning signs just before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights
  • migraine without aura – the most common type, where the migraine happens without the specific warning signs
  • migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache does not develop.

Important note: if you have frequent or severe migraines then you should consult a GP.

Foods that trigger migraines

When it comes to nutrition and migraines, it’s important to try and identify the possible triggers for you as they can be different for everyone. 

The best way to establish your own triggers is to keep a food diary:

  • log the time of day that you eat
  • what food you have eaten 
  • then log any migraines on the same diary; including the duration and intensity of those migraines. 

Then try to look for any patterns. Are your migraines linked to certain times of the day or meal patterns? Or certain foods or perhaps food combinations? Perhaps your hydration levels? 

The aim of the food diary is to identify possible trigger foods and eliminate them from your diet for a period of time (2-4 weeks to see any potential difference). If you find that eliminating that food helps - brilliant! If not, re-introduce that food and run through the process again to find other possible triggers. 

It really can be a case of trial and error until the solution is found. 

There are some foods that are considered common triggers. However, it doesn’t mean that these foods always trigger migraines. If they don’t trigger a migraine for you then there is no need to eliminate them from your diet. 

Many factors can influence the triggers, such as our age, gender, genetics and environmental factors. 

Common triggers

  • Irregular mealtimes/fasting
  • Hunger
  • Dehydration
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate

Consider some of these when trying to identify triggers but keep an open mind as to what may be causing your migraines – it can be different for everyone.

Foods to prevent migraines

If you are unable to identify any food triggers, then we can also try foods that can possibly help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. 

There are several strategies and diets that may help alleviate migraines.

Ketogenic

Ketogenic and modified Atkins diets place a greater emphasis on fat intake for energy whilst severely restricting carbohydrate intake. Scientists aren’t sure as to why these diets can help, but believe it is due to an increase in energy production in the brain, reducing the intensity of signals to nerve cells, assisting hormone (serotonin) function and decreasing certain protein synthesis and release. 

However, the increased emphasis on fat intake could be bad news for your cholesterol levels; especially if there is a higher intake of saturated fats. The elimination of nutrients can also lead to malnutrition and side effects such as low mood and low energy levels. 

If you are considering either of these diets, speak with your GP and/or a dietician first as it may be unsuitable for you.

Low fat diet

Low fat diets may also be an option. Following high fat meals, platelets can clump together. In doing so it can release serotonin which can lead to our blood vessels narrowing, increasing the feeling of pressure in the head. Therefore, lowering our fat intake from 25-30% of our calorie intake to less than 20% has been shown to reduce both the frequency and severity of migraines. 

It’s important to realise though that we still do need fats in our diet, particularly unsaturated fats like omega 3. Having a high intake of omega 3 has also been seen to reduce platelets clumping up and can keep our nervous system and our heart healthy. Fish, nuts, seeds and plant oils are all good sources of omega.[3]

Low GI foods

Opting for more low glycaemic foods can also have a positive effect on reducing the frequency of migraines due to the slow release of glucose into the blood stream (surges in blood sugar levels can act as a trigger).[4] 

Good low GI options are wholegrain carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, beans and lentils. Try building meals around these throughout the day to promote good blood sugar regulation. 

Gut health

There is a link between gastrointestinal diseases and migraines. Migraines themselves can even present several gut-related symptoms. Increasing the number of good bacteria in our gut can help reduce inflammation in the body which has been linked to migraines. 

Eating plenty of fibre from wholegrain foods, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables can help the good bacteria in our gut to flourish. 

Find out more on how to keep your gut happy.  

Our diet can play a role in the prevention and management of migraines. Look to identify trigger foods that can be eliminated from your diet and try to enhance your current diet regime with foods that can help prevent the frequency and severity of your migraines. 

References

  1. NHS (2019). Migraine. Retrieved here: Migraine - NHS (www.nhs.uk).
  2. Hindiyeh, N.A., Zhang, N. Farrar, M., Banerjee, P., Lombard, L., Aurora, S.K. (2020). The Role of Diet and Nutrition in Migraine Triggers and Treatment: A Systematic Literature Review. Retrieved here: The Role of Diet and Nutrition in Migraine Triggers and Treatment: A Systematic Literature Review - Hindiyeh - 2020 - Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain - Wiley Online Library
  3. Jahromi, S.R., Ghorbani, Z., Martelletti, P., Lampl, C., Togha, M. (2019). Association of diet and headache. Retrieved here: Association of diet and headache | The Journal of Headache and Pain | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
  4. Gazerani, P. (2020). Migraine and Diet. Retrieved here: Migraine and Diet (nih.gov)
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