Do Certain Foods Cause Migraines?

There are many different types of headaches, but most of them are symptoms of something else. For example, if you have an illness, a vision problem, a concussion, or have been exposed to a toxin, you may experience what’s called a secondary headache.

A primary headache, on the other hand, is a condition in and of itself, not a symptom of something else. Migraines are primary headaches, and there’s no known cure for them. However, you can predict, and therefore avoid, some migraines if you can figure out what triggers them in your case.

Dr. Stanley Mathew and our team here at American Rehabilitation Medicine in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, Iowa, can help you understand your migraines and learn what tends to set yours off. We can also help you manage your symptoms with lifestyle changes, medications, and Botox®. The first step in finding the right treatment is identifying your triggers.

Phases of a migraine

Every migraine sufferer has a different story and a unique set of triggers that sets the migraine train in motion. They often notice the precursors hours or even days ahead of the attack. This phase is called prodrome and may include a stiff neck, constipation, and intense yawning, for example. 

Some people experience a second phase with visual — and sometimes speech — disturbances called auras just before the migraine hits.

The attack comes next, and for many, the pain is debilitating. In addition, you may feel lightheaded and nauseous, or vomit throughout the attack, which can last from four hours to three days. 

Finally, you go through the postdrome phase where the pain subsides, but you feel weak, confused, dizzy, and may have light sensitivity.

Common migraine triggers

We may not be able to tell you why you’re prone to migraines, but we can help you figure out what prompts the attacks. It helps to keep a migraine diary where you jot down everything you were doing at the time of each attack. This includes describing the environment around you, your emotional state, and what you had to eat or drink.

Some of the most common triggers include:

You may have more than one trigger, so make sure to write down everything, even if you think it doesn’t matter. Dr. Mathew can understand a great deal about your unique migraine experience by analyzing your episode diary. 

You may notice that we didn’t add food to the list of triggers. That’s not because food doesn’t set off migraines, but because food is such a prominent trigger, it deserves a category all its own.

Foods that trigger migraines

Anything you consume can trigger a migraine, including some medications, but what starts an attack for you may be perfectly safe for a fellow migraine sufferer. The trick is to find your own triggers. Here are some likely culprits:

Processed foods

Prepackaged or microwaveable meals, salami, pepperoni, cereals, bacon, packaged pastries, bread, cheese, and canned tuna are all examples of processed foods known to set off migraines in some people.


If caffeine is one of your triggers, you may need to cut back on or eliminate coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate. Sometimes, though, caffeine can ease migraine symptoms.

Dairy products

Some people report that yogurt, cheese (especially aged cheeses, like parmesan), milk, and ice cream trigger a migraine.


Excess alcohol can lead to a classic morning-after hangover, but an alcohol-related migraine is different. You don’t have to get drunk to suffer from a migraine, and even a small amount of alcohol, especially red wine, can trigger an attack. 


Gluten is the protein in wheat flour that makes bread chewy, but it may also bring on a migraine. In addition to bread, watch out for pastas, cereals, crackers, and certain condiments, such as soy sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressings, and some spices.

Food additives

Some food manufacturers add things to their products to make them taste or look better or last longer. Unfortunately, those additives can bring on a migraine. Read labels carefully, and look for monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates, and nitrites.

Other potential food triggers

Some migraine-triggering foods don’t fall into a neat category but may appear on your personal list, including:

You may find your triggers in these lists, or you may identify others we haven’t mentioned, but once you discover them, you’ll have the power to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of your migraine attacks.

To learn more about migraines and find out which treatment is best for you, schedule a consultation online with Dr. Mathew, or call us at either of our two offices today. Let’s get your migraines under control. 

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