Researchers Affirm Diet Can Impact Migraines

Summary: A new study confirms the impact some foods and drinks can have in triggering migraines.

Source: University of Cincinnati.

Eliminating that morning ‘Cup of Joe,’ consuming processed foods high in nitrites or monosodium glutamate (MSG) and enjoying too much alcohol are potential headache triggers for individuals battling migraines, says Vincent Martin, MD, professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine.

There are two different approaches to preventing headaches with diet. The first approach would be an elimination diet that avoids foods and beverages known to trigger headaches. The second approach would be follow a comprehensive diet whose very composition may prevent headaches, explains Martin, co-director of the Headache and Facial Pain Center at UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and an expert in the area of migraine. His conclusions and others for migraineurs come after performing an exhaustive literature review of more than 180 research studies on the subject of migraine and diet.

Martin’s two-part review, “Diet and Headache” is available online in the scholarly publication Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. It is co-authored by Dr. Brinder Vij, associate professor in the UC Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine.

“One of the most important triggers for headache is the withdrawal of caffeine,” says Martin, who also sees patients at UC Health. “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.”

That said, too much coffee may also present a risk, no more than 400 milligrams daily–one cup is 125 milligrams–is probably the maximum for migraine patients, says Martin. “Large amounts of caffeine can bring on anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as headaches,” he explains.

Another trigger for migraine is MSG, which is a flavor enhancer used in a variety of processed foods, including frozen or canned foods, soups, international foods, snack foods, salad dressing, seasoning salts, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and heavily in Chinese cooking, says Martin.

“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.”

Nitrites are preservatives food in processed meats such as bacon, sausage, ham and lunch meat to preserve color and flavor. Martin says a diary study found that five percent of individuals with migraine were statistically more likely to have an attack on days when they consume nitrites. Use of nitrites in foods has declined with stronger government regulation though checking labels remains a good idea, he explains.

Alcohol is one of the most commonly reported dietary trigger factors for migraine and studies suggest vodka and red wines, especially those with highest histamine content are problematic, says Martin. There is a lot of interest in gluten-free diets, but they are only helpful in lessening headaches if the individuals suffer from celiac disease, which can be established by a positive blood test or intestinal biopsy, he adds.

There have been three comprehensive diets whose very composition may prevent headaches such as low fat and low carbohydrate diets as well as those that increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids and decrease the amount of omega-6 fatty acids, according to Martin.

Vij says low fat diets restrict the amount of fat in the diet to less than 20 percent of your daily energy requirements. “The beauty of these diets is that they not only reduce headaches, but may produce weight loss and prevent heart disease”, says Vij.

Low carbohydrate diets such as ketogenic diets can reduce headache frequency, but it’s not something to consider without strict physician supervision. The diet limits carbohydrates more than the well-known Atkins diet, Vij explains.

Image shows a cup of coffee.
That said, too much coffee may also present a risk, no more than 400 milligrams daily–one cup is 125 milligrams–is probably the maximum for migraine patients image is for illustrative purposes only.

One of the most promising diets for those with more frequent attacks of migraine is one that boosts your omega-3 fats while lessoning your omega-6 levels and that means tossing out polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, canola and soy) in favor of flaxseed oil, says Martin. Foods to consume would include flaxseed, salmon, halibut, cod and scallops while those to avoid would be peanuts and cashews.

“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. He adds, “After all, you are what you eat.”

About this neurology research article

Source: Cedric Ricks – University of Cincinnati
Image Source: This image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Diet and Headache: Part 1” by Vincent T. Martin MD, and Brinder Vij MD in Headache. Published online October 4 2016 doi:10.1111/head.12953

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Cincinnati. “Researchers Affirm Diet Can Impact Migraines.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 31 October 2016.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Cincinnati. (2016, October 31). Researchers Affirm Diet Can Impact Migraines. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved October 31, 2016 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Cincinnati. “Researchers Affirm Diet Can Impact Migraines.” (accessed October 31, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Diet and Headache: Part 1


The role of diet in the management of the headache patient is a controversial topic in the headache field.


To review the evidence supporting the hypothesis that specific foods or ingredients within foods and beverages trigger attacks of headache and/or migraine and to discuss the use of elimination diets in the prevention of headache disorders.


This represents part 1 of a narrative review of the role of diet in the prevention of migraine and other headache disorders. A PubMed search was performed with the following search terms: “monosodium glutamate,” “caffeine,” “aspartame,” “sucralose,” “histamine intolerance syndrome,” “tyramine,” “alcohol,” “chocolate,” “nitrites,” “IgG elimination diets,” and “gluten.” Each of these search terms was then cross-referenced with “headache” and “migraine” to identify relevant studies. Only studies that were written in English were included in this review.


Caffeine withdrawal and administration of MSG (dissolved in liquid) has the strongest evidence for triggering attacks of headache as evidenced by multiple positive provocation studies. Aspartame has conflicting evidence with two positive and two negative provocation studies. Observational studies provide modest evidence that gluten- and histamine-containing foods as well as alcohol may precipitate headaches in subgroups of patients. Two of three randomized controlled trials reported that an elimination diet of IgG positive foods significantly decreased frequency of headache/migraine during the treatment as compared to baseline time period.


Certain foods, beverages, and ingredients within foods may trigger attacks of headache and/or migraine in susceptible individuals. Elimination diets can prevent headaches in subgroups of persons with headache disorders.

“Diet and Headache: Part 1” by Vincent T. Martin MD, and Brinder Vij MD in Headache. Published online October 4 2016 doi:10.1111/head.12953

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