Killer Migraines? 5 Foods To Watch Out For

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 2:33pm

By Wendy Hodsdon, ND

It starts unexpectedly. Intense pain. Then, a wave of nausea washes over you, and you feel like vomiting. In that moment, your one and only thought is: "I need to get somewhere safe, quiet, and dark." Could food be causing your killer migraines? Could a change in diet really make a difference? How would you know?

No one knows what causes migraines

The actual cause of migraine headaches is unknown. Some evidence shows that migraines are associated with instability of blood vessels in the brain. Some researchers think the cause of migraines is instability of the nerve cells in the blood vessels, while others think that low serotonin is the culprit. The thought is that blood vessels in the brain first constrict, and then dilate in a kind of rebound effect. Platelets, which are a component of the blood that provide the ability to make clots, may be involved in migraines by affecting the way blood vessels respond in the brain.

How food affects the body

How does food affect these processes? Some foods contain a substance called histamine that can affect blood vessel dilation and constriction. Histamine levels also are high in the body when there are allergies and cause redness and itching. When you take in histamine in foods, or when foods trigger the release of histamine in your body, blood vessels in the brain expand. Alcohol and other chemicals in food can also contribute to the frequency and severity of a migraine attack.

5 Food triggers for migraines

In spite of all that is unknown, some very common food triggers for migraines have been identified. At the top of the list of known food triggers are:

  1. Chocolate
  2. Cheese
  3. Coffee
  4. Red wine
  5. Foods containing Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Why these foods? Let's look at how components in these foods relate to the possible causes of migraine headaches:

  • Histamine. Beer and wine both have histamine in them, with red wine containing twenty to two hundred times more histamine than either white wine or beer.

  • Phenylethylamine. Cheese and chocolate contain phenylethylamine, which affects blood vessel dilation and constriction. The lactose in cheese and all dairy products, including milk chocolate, is difficult to digest for many people with dairy food sensitivities.
  • Caffeine. Coffee contains caffeine, which also has the ability to cause blood vessels to constrict. It is, in addition, a common allergen and affects how well the liver is able to process toxins.
  • MSG. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is found in a surprising number of processed foods and is sometimes used in restaurant cooking. Vitamin B6 helps in breaking down both histamine and MSG in the body. There is speculation that when the body uses up vitamin B6 to break down MSG, it leaves more histamine in the body. Other chemicals that cause a depletion of vitamin B6 include alcohol, yellow dye #5, and many drugs.

Changing your diet could eliminate your migraines

Does that dinner with red wine, cheese, chocolate cake and coffee sound less appealing to you now? If you are a migraine sufferer, eliminating all alcohol for a trial period may yield useful information about the cause of your headaches. If it also a good idea to check with your naturopathic physician about starting an elimination diet to discover whether there are other foodssuch as wheat, egg, orange, tomato, rice, shellfish and nutsthat might be contributing to your migraines. Eliminating killer migraines may be as simple as eliminating chocolate, cheese, coffee, red wine and MSG from your diet.