The Migraine Research Foundation estimates that 12% of North Americans suffer from migraines on a regular basis.  Although frequently misperceived as a minor complaint, at Health One we understand that headaches can truly reduce quality of life, and have a significant impact physical, emotional, and social well being.

There are numerous causes of migraine headaches, which make them tricky to diagnose and treat effectively.  Every individual has a unique set of triggers and research tends to come primarily from patient observation.  However, there are known dietary triggers that can be avoided to reduce their frequency and intensity.

Here are 9 common diet-related causes of migraine headaches:



Alcoholic beverages, especially red wine, can be a major headache trigger.  This one tends to be more obvious and easy to recognize.  Research points to tannins and flavonoids, which are highest in full-bodied red wines.  Drinking alcohol can also lead to dehydration, another major player in the headache game.


According to a recent study, caffeine has the highest correlation to migraine headaches of any dietary factor.  Caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, and energy drinks can cause headaches in several different ways.  Firstly, they have vasoconstrictive properties that restrict blow flow.  This is a tricky property – sometimes it can actually prevent headaches, but sometimes it can cause them.

Caffeine is also a diuretic, meaning that it can lead to dehydration.  But be careful not to cut out all caffeine at once, caffeine withdrawal headaches are also very common! The best recommendation is to aim for no more than 200mg of caffeine per day.


Dehydration is a big underlying cause of headaches because we often don’t know when it’s happening.  You may get a headache after spending a day in the sun, working out, or going long periods of time throughout the day without drinking water.

Fasting or Skipping Meals

Be careful before jumping into your new intermittent fasting plan if you have a history of headaches after skipping meals!  Lower than usual blood sugar levels can also trigger headaches in susceptible people.  Dr. Peterlin of Johns Hopkins University states that fasting or skipping meals can be an even bigger trigger for women.

Aged Cheeses

In certain groups of people, histamine-containing foods such as aged cheeses have been associated with headache onset.  Aged cheeses such as camembert, cheddar, and gorgonzola contain tyramines, which can interrupt neurotransmitter signaling.


Another ingredient on the histamine-containing food list is sodium nitrate.  This is a common additive in processed meats such as salami, sausages, and cured meats.  If you need your fix of cold cuts, look for options in the grocery store that are nitrate-free.


Monosodium glutamate is a flavouring agent added to packaged foods. MSG can appear on ingredient lists hidden under the terms “all natural preservatives”, or “hydrolyzed protein”.

There is conflicting evidence about the role of MSG causing headaches, with two 2016 studies reporting opposite findings.  While one article found no relation, the other linked it as one of the strongest precipitating dietary factors.  The primary issue with the research here is that most is done by administering a distilled version of MSG to subjects, which doesn’t represent the amount consumed in real food.

Artificial Sweeteners

There is basically never any positive research on the effects of aspartame, so this one comes as no surprise.  A recent evidence review had controversial findings about the role of aspartame with headaches, citing two positive and two no-effect studies.  For a more natural sweetener alternative try xylitol, stevia, erythritol, monk fruit extract, or maltitol.


Ugh, we know, this one is not our favourite either.  However, chocolate is actually quite controversial as a factor in making your head throb.  A 2014 study found that risk of migraine after chocolate ingestion was 2-3 times lower than after fasting or consuming alcohol beverages.  We don’t want to completely rule this out as something to consider if you are migraine-sensitive, but it may not be the villain after all.

A 2016 study reported that some foods can trigger migraine after as little as one hour after ingestion, while some foods can take over 12 hours to cause trouble.  If you frequently suffer from migraine headaches, try keeping a food journal that includes what and when you eat and drink everyday for several weeks.  If you get a migraine, review the your previous entries for clues as to patterns and triggers you can try to avoid in the future.


Research has also found that certain supplements can play a role in the prevention of migraines, although they won’t help once the migraine has already started.  These include magnesium, riboflavin, and coQ10.

If you are suffering form headaches, and wondering if these supplements could be right for you, make an appointment with our amazing family physician here.

9 Food-Related Causes of Migraine Headaches

Posted by Healthone on March 6 2020

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