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Frequently asked questions about food triggers, migraines and headaches

What you eat, when you eat, or sometimes not eating at all, or not eating enough can be triggers for headaches and migraines.

Keeping a headache diary matching symptoms with food and drink can help identify triggers.

What foods trigger headaches and migraines?

Some of the most common foods, drinks and additives associated with headaches include:

  • Aged cheese and other foods containing tyramine: Tyramine is a substance found naturally in some foods. It is formed from the breakdown of protein as foods age. Generally, the longer a high-protein food ages, the greater the tyramine content. The amount of tyramine in cheeses differs greatly due to the variations in processing, fermenting, ageing, degradation or even bacterial contamination. For people who take monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) drugs  to treat their headaches, it is especially important to avoid all foods containing tyramine including aged cheeses, red wine, alcoholic drinks and some processed meats, as these foods can trigger severe hypertension.
  • Alcohol: Blood flow to your brain increases when you drink alcohol. Some scientists blame the headache on impurities in alcohol or by-products produced as your body metabolises alcohol. Red wine, beer, whisky and champagne are the most commonly identified headache triggers.
  • Food additives: Food preservatives (or additives) contained in certain foods can trigger headaches. The additives, nitrates and nitrites in food preservatives dilate blood vessels and this causes headaches in some people.
  • Cold foods: Cold foods can cause headaches in some people. It's more likely to occur if you are overheated from exercise or hot temperatures. Pain, which is felt in the forehead, can last from several seconds up to two minutes. More than 90% of migraine sufferers report sensitivity to ice cream and cold substances.


Do other foods trigger headaches and migraines?

These foods have been identified as headache and migraine triggers by some sufferers:

  • Peanuts, peanut butter, other nuts and seeds
  • Pizza
  • Crisps
  • Chicken livers and other offal
  • Smoked or dried fish
  • Sourdough bread and fresh baked yeast goods such as doughnuts, cakes, homemade breads and rolls
  • Bread, crackers and desserts containing cheese
  • Certain fresh fruits including ripe bananas, citrus fruits, papaya, red plums, raspberries, kiwi and pineapple
  • Dried fruits such as figs raisins, and dates
  • Soups made from meat extracts or bouillon but not homemade broth
  • Cultured dairy products including sour cream, buttermilk and yoghurt
  • Caffeine which is found in chocolate and cocoa; drinks such as tea, coffee and colas; certain medicines
  • Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners

What cheeses have high tyramine levels?

The following types of cheeses are reported to be high in tyramine:

  • Blue cheese
  • Brie
  • Cheddar
  • Stilton
  • Feta
  • Gorgonzola
  • Mozzarella
  • Parmesan
  • Swiss cheese
  • Processed cheese

Other foods high in tyramine are: aged, tinned, cured or processed meats, certain beans (broad beans, chickpeas, butter beans, pinto beans), onions, olives, pickles, avocados, raisins, tinned soups and nuts.

What food products contain additives?

  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Sausages
  • Bacon
  • Lunch meats and deli-style meats
  • Pepperoni
  • Other cured or processed meats
  • Some heart medications
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is a food additive/flavour enhancer found in soy sauce, meat tenderiser, Chinese food and a variety of packaged foods.

What are the symptoms of food additive-induced headaches?

Most symptoms begin within 20 to 25 minutes after consuming these products. They include:

  • Pressure in the chest
  • Tightening and pressure in the face
  • Burning sensation in the chest, neck or shoulders
  • Facial flushing
  • Dizziness
  • Headache pain across the front or sides of the head
  • Abdominal discomfort


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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on April 25, 2016

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