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The Best and Worst Foods for Migraines

An image of a middle aged man sitting and holding his temples in painIf you get migraines, then you know that they can be incredibly debilitating. They’re common during times of stress, which means that you’ll probably experience one just when you’re busy and don’t have the time to take a break to recover. There are a lot of strategies that can help alleviate the pain of migraines, but the best strategy is prevention. That’s why you need to know all about the best foods for migraines, so you can avoid potential triggers. This is even more important if you’re under a lot of stress, because changes in stress levels and stress-related conditions can bring on or worsen the pain of migraines.

An Overview of Migraines

The causes of migraines aren’t well understood and the triggers for a migraine vary from person to person. Migraines cause severe, pulsing pain in one or both sides of your head. The pain is usually concentrated around the temples or behind the eye and can last from 4 to 72 hours. As if this wasn’t bad enough, many people experience symptoms like vomiting, nausea, and light sensitivity at the same time. Most people who get migraines need to lock themselves away in a dark room until the pain goes away. This can seriously impact your productivity, work, and everyday life.

There are several known triggers for migraines. These include certain foods, which is why it’s important that you know as much as possible about the worst foods for migraines. However, one of the biggest triggers is stress, which is a cause of migraines in around 4 out of 5 people. The reason for this link isn’t well understood, but it may have to do with changing serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (NT) that helps with pain reduction. Significantly, this link seems to be related to changes in serotonin levels rather than high or low levels. Studies have shown that a sudden reduction in stress levels can bring on a migraine, which indicates that migraines can be brought on by changes in stress as well as by periods of high stress.

How Stress Can Cause Migraines

Stress is a very common cause of migraines and this isn’t the only problem that it can bring on. If you’re under stress over a long period, it can cause your adrenal glands to become fatigued and bring on Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

The adrenals are a pivotal part of your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response, the body’s primary system for stress control and protection. When you experience stress, the NEM stress response causes your adrenals to excrete cortisol and prompts a range of reactions in other organs and systems in your body. These are natural processes and very beneficial in most cases. However, if you’re under ongoing stress, then the NEM stress response can become overworked.

The stress that results in AFS can come from several different sources. It’s ongoing, causes low levels of inflammation throughout the body, and can lead to wear and tear on many other systems. Some causes of this kind of stress can be work pressures, relationships, environmental toxins, a sedentary lifestyle, and a poor diet.

This creates another connection between stress and migraines. People who are chronically stressed often eat on the run and make poor food choices. This means that they’re more likely to indulge in all the worst foods for migraines. Imbalances in the neuroaffect circuit may also be an important cause of migraines.

Serotonin Levels, Neurotransmitter Imbalances, and Migraines

An image of the brain showing neurotransmittersHigh levels of stress create hormone imbalances that affect many areas of the body, and one key area is your neurotransmitter levels, which are controlled by the Neuroaffect circuit of the NEM system.

This can seriously affect the Neuroaffect circuit, which includes the microbiome or bacterial balance in the body, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the brain. This system can be pivotal in your experience of migraines because it uses neurotransmitters (or NTs) such as serotonin to communicate. And when it becomes unbalanced, NT imbalances are very common and can cause a range of negative symptoms from mood instability to brain fog and depression.

NTs must exist in a careful balance to ensure good mental and physical health. Unfortunately, this balance can be disrupted when you have AFS. People with AFS often experience an overload of norepinephrine and epinephrine when they’re under stress. This is what causes the “fight or flight” response. It also causes the ANS to activate, which causes the feeling of being “wired but tired.” These are excitatory NTs, which means they keep you focused and alert. And when you have high levels of these NTs, it’s very difficult for inhibitory NTs like serotonin to do their work.

Serotonin is often known as the “feel-good” hormone. It’s pivotal in determining your mood and in melatonin production. So, when this NT is out of balance you may experience sleep disruptions, depression, anger, cardiovascular problems, or hormonal problems depending on whether your levels are too high or too low.

If you have AFS, you may experience frequent fluctuations in serotonin levels as the neuroaffect circuit becomes dysregulated. And if you’re prone to migraines, this may bring them on more frequently. That’s why it’s important that you know about and eliminate or reduce other key causes, such as the worst foods for migraines.

The Worst Foods for Migraines

Migraine triggers can be highly individual. A food or stimulus that will cause a migraine in one person might have no effect at all on another. That’s why you need to experiment with key causes of migraines to see if they have an effect on you. Doing this kind of experimentation is essential if you want to eliminate the debilitating pain of migraines and stay as productive as possible. You may have food triggers or you may not, only time and experimentation will tell. But these are some of the worst foods for migraines, the ones most likely to cause a reaction:

    An image of chocolates

  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheeses
  • Cured meats such as bacon, salami, and Prosciutto
  • Yeast extract, found in breads, cereal products, vinegar, and alcohol
  • Food preservatives like nitrites and nitrates
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • MSG
  • Breaded or marinated meats
  • Chicken or beef livers
  • Nut butters
  • Fresh bread
  • Flavored chips or crackers
  • Soft pretzels
  • Lima or navy beans
  • Onions
  • Citrus fruits
  • Dried fruits that contain sulfite preservatives
  • Sauerkraut
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Fruits that contain compounds that may cause a histamine reaction such as oranges, raspberries, plums, bananas, and grapefruit
  • Pre-packaged dips such as mustard dips or salsa
  • Pre-bottled salad dressings

To test out these foods, try eliminating many of the worst foods for migraines from your diet. And then add one at a time back into your diet and see how your body reacts. It can also be helpful to keep a food and migraine diary. This can help you identify potential triggers without removing all your favorite foods from your diet.

The Best Foods for Migraines

There are some foods for migraines that may prevent the onset of migraines or decrease how often you suffer from them. Most of these foods are fresh, healthy, and unprocessed, which will have other benefits for your body and for your migraines as well.

It may even help you cope with stress and NT imbalances. Nutritional deficiencies are fairly common when you have AFS, which is why dietary changes are essential to recovery. By adding more of these good foods for migraines, you will improve your nutritional intake. This will help ensure that your body gets all the nutrients it needs to create serotonin and other NTs, which will help correct NT imbalances and hopefully reduce the number of migraines you experience.

Here are some of the foods to eat more of to reduce migraines:

    An image of chicken breasts, green beans and cherry tomatoes on a plate

  • Meats. Your diet should include healthy meats such as fresh, organic beef, fish, turkey, lamb, or chicken.
  • Seeds. Healthy seeds such as sesame, pumpkin, poppy, or sunflower seeds without natural flavors can reduce migraines in some cases.
  • Cereals. It’s important that you avoid cereals that contain yeast, as this is a known cause of migraines. Try plain or sesame seed bagels, unflavored potato chips, crackers, or quick bread such as pumpernickel or zucchini. White, rye, pumpernickel, or wheat bread from the store is also often okay to eat.
  • Fruits and Vegetables. Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables are some of the best foods for migraines available. They are full of nutrients and antioxidants, and they help reduce inflammation.
  • Salad Dressings. If you like some dressing on your salads or vegetables, then try homemade ranch dressing. Distilled white vinegar salad dressings are also good for migraines as well as homemade dips that are free of artificial flavorings for vegetables.

Beyond just eating good foods for migraines occasionally, it also helps to pay attention to when and how you eat for the best effects.

When to Eat

When you eat is almost as important as what you eat. Fluctuating blood sugar levels and the resulting hunger can be a key cause of migraines. If you have AFS, then you may experience severe blood sugar fluctuations as a result of the imbalances throughout your body.

That’s why you need to eat in a way that keeps your blood sugar levels as stable as possible. If you struggle with this issue, try eating smaller meals throughout the day, which will give your body a steady flow of nutrients and sugars to keep your blood sugar levels stable.

Eating small amounts regularly can also help cut down on snacking, which may help with weight loss. This is important because being overweight can bring on migraines or make them worse than normal. Changing your eating patterns in this way may help to reduce this problem.

The Importance of Slow Change

When you have any chronic health condition, it’s important to make dietary changes slowly. This includes positive changes such as adding more good foods for migraines into your eating plan. Suddenly flooding your body with unfamiliar foods when it’s already stressed and at its breaking point will only cause potentially serious problems.

If you have AFS, the combination of stress, poor health, and troubling symptoms can make your body very sensitive to any changes. It may react poorly or paradoxically to any change, even to changes that should improve your health. That’s why you need to make any changes slowly and with the help of someone who understands your health issues and the complicated mechanisms that cause them. And if you notice any adverse symptoms, stop immediately and seek out help.

The Takeaway

An image of a man sitting on his bed in a dark room holding his headMigraine triggers can be highly individual, but it’s important that you work out what they are. Identifying your triggers will involve experimenting with a lot of factors, including the best and worst foods for migraines. It can be a big project to go on a food elimination diet, but it may help you avoid those days when you can’t do anything but lay in a dark room. Focusing on stabilizing your blood sugar, eating smaller meals more often, and making slow changes that don’t stress out your body can help as well. Serotonin imbalances can be a key factor in migraines, and eating foods to rebalance your NTs can be a big help.

© Copyright 2020 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

Migraine triggers can be highly individual, so it will take you some time to identify the best and worst foods for migraines when it comes to your body. But as a general tip, the fresher and less processed your diet is, the less likely it will trigger a migraine.

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