Monday, May 23, 2011

Migraines and Food Triggers

As someone who suffers from migraines on an annual basis, periods of high stress in my life have been punctuated with memories of intense headaches.

Picture of chocolate pieces

On the day of prom, I remember throwing up outside a store with a throbbing, one-sided headache. The day after my grandfather's funeral, I found myself trying to find a dark, quiet room to lie down in due to another migraine. My migraines are always preceded by blind spots in my vision, and I remember having difficulty reading a final exam during medical school, knowing that the head pain was soon to follow. 

Migraines may last anywhere from a few hours to three days, and typically are described as a one-sided, pulsating headache with sensitivity to light, noise and accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Prior to the onset of their head pain, some people experience an “aura,” which may consist of blind spots in vision, flashes of light or tingling in an arm or leg. 

A common thread in the history of my migraines included high stress events paired with or proceeded by certain foods. Many people find that specific foods may trigger their migraines. In those experiencing frequent migraines, avoidance of potential triggering foods may decrease the occurrence of these headaches. Common culprits include:

  • Nitrate-containing processed meat
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Aspartame
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol (especially beer and red wine)
  • Caffeine
  • Salty foods

Foods high in tyramine, whose levels often increase as foods age or spoil, also may be associated with migraines. Foods high in tyramine include:

  • Aged cheese
  • Pickled products
  • Aged pickled meats
  • Sauerkraut
  • Sausage
  • Chocolate
  • Avocado
  • Fava beans
  • Yeast extracts
  • Soybeans
  • Soy sauce

Individuals suffering from migraines may benefit from avoiding foods high in histamine such as fish, alcoholic beverages, cheese and sausages. Low blood sugar due to fasting or skipping meals may also be a trigger. 

Recording your headaches along with a diet diary may assist in identifying individual food triggers. You may also keep track of additional variables surrounding your migraines such as environmental factors, stress levels, hormones (i.e. menses, birth control use) and lifestyle factors (i.e. lack of sleep, hypoglycemia). 

See your local naturopathic doctor or make an appointment at Bastyr Center for Natural Health at 206-834-4100 for additional effective treatment ideas for migraines including herbal medicine, nutritional supplements, physical medicine, hydrotherapy (water therapy), biofeedback and stress management. Ask your naturopathic doctor about a supervised elimination/challenge diet to identify your individual food triggers.

Several symptoms associated with migraines may also accompany more serious illnesses such as strokes or brain tumors. Go to the emergency room if you experience a headache with any of the following signs and/or symptoms: sudden onset of severe headache, fever, stiff neck, difficulty speaking, numbness, double vision, seizures, mental confusion, change in mental status, worsening of headache with coughing or exertion, rash, weight loss, headaches lasting more than three days, and/or history of head trauma.

— Marisa Pellegrini, ND naturopathic physician and resident at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the teaching clinic of Bastyr University.

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