Migraines and Diet: Food Triggers
Migraine is an extremely complex condition that can be characterised by a severe headache, as well as varying symptoms such as disturbed vision, light sensitivity, nausea and vomiting. Migraines vary in intensity and severity from person to person, and they can be extremely debilitating for the sufferer. Migraines and diet are interlinked for many sufferers, and understanding individual foo triggers can help sufferers to manage their migraines naturally.
What happens to the brain during a migraine?
There is some disagreement between medics about what exactly happens in the brain during a migraine. It is thought likely that pain-sensing cells in the brain stem detect changes in your normal routine (e.g. skipping a meal, getting less sleep than usual, eating a trigger food). This releases a neuropeptide chemical that causes other pain-sensitising cells in the brain to become more sensitive to pain, these cells also release more neuropeptide chemicals.
The neuropeptides relax some of the muscles surrounding blood vessels in the brain, causing them to dilate, bringing more blood into the blood vessels. It is thought that this is where the ‘aura’ (visual disturbances, confusion etc.) associated with classic migraine come from. The neuropeptides have the additional effect of causing the blood vessels in the skull to leak, making the tissue around the area swell. All of these factors work in combination to cause a migraine.
Migraine sufferers have ‘triggers’, the term given to a physical or non-physical event that causes them to have an attack. Examples of common triggers include skipping meals, stressful situations, caffeine and alcohol. One of the difficulties for migraine sufferers is determining what their own triggers are. It is not always clear what a trigger is, or if it is working alone or with a combination of other triggers. For example, a woman may have a migraine if she is pre-menstrual and drinks a glass of wine, whilst suffering from stress.
Conventional pharmaceutical treatments
There are a variety of different drugs available to treat migraine, sufferers may have to try many different types of medication until they find one that works. Some medication is taken every day as a preventative measure (e.g. beta blockers), some medication is to be taken at the first sign of a migraine (e.g. Zolmitriptan). For some people, the medication either doesn’t work, or the side-effects make them almost as miserable as the migraines themselves.
Although dietary changes are not routinely prescribed as a solution to migraines, many people find that a change in diet can make their migraines manageable, or even stop them from suffering migraines completely.
Migraines and diet
Some 30 years ago, a group of scientists researched the effect of diet on people suffering from migraines. 88 children with severe and moderate migraine were put on a strictly controlled, five day elimination diet. In this diet, known as the oligoantigenic diet, the researchers eliminated possible migraine food triggers to find out what effect this had on the children’s migraines.
93% of the children recovered when they were on the oligoantigenic diet, i.e. they did not suffer from migraines when their diets were strictly controlled1. The researchers also noted that other symptoms such as abdominal pain, behaviour disorder, fits, asthma and eczema also improved on the diet. While on the diet, patients for whom factors such as exercise and flashing lights provoked migraines were found to no longer be affected by these factors.
Since this famous study was carried out, other links have been found between migraine and diet2, and migraine and food allergies3,4.
Why does diet affect migraine?
The possible ways in which dietary changes may help to ease migraines are complex. Some sufferers have strong, obvious migraine food triggers that they can cut out of their diet easily and see immediate results. These triggers can be wide ranging and include every day foods such as cheese, chocolate, tomatoes, wheat. Others may have food allergies or intolerances which are not as easy to identify, but which results in an improvement in migraine when an elimination diet is undertaken and the problem food is removed.
Processed food and migraine
The most important thing to remember when you suffer from migraines, is that your body requires routine. A break from routine, or a change to the body’s normal state can result in a migraine attack.
As well as individual food triggers, people susceptible to migraines are also affected by rapid increases in blood sugar levels, which can be caused by eating refined carbohydrates and sugar, or rapid drops in blood sugar levels for example as a result of skipping meals.
For this reason, it is more important than ever to not skip meals if you are susceptible to migraine headaches. Eating three main meals, well balanced with protein, complex carbohydrate and fat will help to keep your blood sugar levels stable. Snacking on refined carbohydrates and sugar should be avoided as much as possible. It is also important to drink plenty of water throughout the day as dehydration is a strong migraine trigger.
As well as often being high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, processed foods contain artificial preservatives, sweeteners and additives that can act as migraine triggers in certain people. Some of the most common triggers are described below.
Aspartame is found in over 6000 food products including soft drinks, cordials, yoghurts and commercial diet foods. Aspartame has been shown to cause a reduction in brain serotonin and dopamine levels and this could cause neurological and behavioural problems in susceptible individuals5.
Alcohol can be a migraine trigger in the same way that not drinking enough water can. The human body is 65% water, when the body has too little water, dehydration occurs. Dehydration affects the brains structure and function6 and this is detected in migraine sufferers as a change to their normal equilibrium. The general recommendation for water consumption in a day is 2.2L for women and 3L for men. If you are susceptible to migraines, you should ensure that you drink at least this amount of water every day and limit alcohol consumption.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a flavour enhancer found in many different types of foods, from takeaway Chinese sauces to tubes of Pringle crisps. MSG has gained a bad reputation over the years, and for good reason. As well as causing tightness of breath, flushing, sweating, facial pressure, heart palpitations, chest pain7, increased blood pressure and muscle sensitivity8, MSG is also a well-known migraine trigger9.
The causes of migraine are incredibly complex and vary from sufferer to sufferer. This makes it very difficult to treat and prevent migraine attacks. There are several very effective pharmaceutical medications that can help to control migraines but diet can also be used as a way to complement any therapy recommended by your doctor.
Migraine sufferers are very sensitive to changes to their environment, physical and emotional. Keeping to a consistent routine, drinking plenty of water, getting adequate and regular amounts of sleep and regulating diet are all good ways of keeping the physical environment steady.
A clean diet, containing no refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, artificial preservatives or sweeteners is one of the best ways that you can help to reduce your incidence of migraine attacks. Your meals should be regular, substantial and well balanced to ensure that there are no rapid changes in blood sugar levels.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to curing migraines and eliminating migraine triggers, but if you haven’t tried altering your diet, then the food you eat is a really good place to start.
The complete guide to migraines and diet, and the TGAC 3 Day Anti-Migraine Protocol can be found in the book Food to Fight Migraine: A Complete Guide to Dietary Control.
About the author:
Sonia Nicholas is a Biomedical Scientist and Freelance Clinical Science Writer & Editor. She has been working in the field of clinical science for fifteen years.
Sonia believes that everyone can improve their health by eating a clean diet – a claim that scientific research increasingly supports. Sonia also believes that healthy, clean eating is accessible to all and doesn’t have to be an expensive lifestyle choice.
All of the information on The Green Apple Club website is in line with current, recommended Government guidelines. All of the articles are evidence based and fully scientifically referenced.
Tags: migraine triggers, migraine and diet