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16 Food and Chemical Migraine Triggers

migraine food triggers

Migraine Headaches

Everyone probably knows someone who suffers from migraines, or experiences migraines themselves. A migraine is not just a bad headache, but a neurological disorder involving nerve pathways and brain chemicals. It is the 3rd most prevalent and the 6th most disabling illness in the world.5

1 in 7 people struggle with these headaches, and the annual cost to treat them is over 17 billion in the US alone. Migraine sufferers, which include men, women, and children, are unable to work, attend school, or function normally due to the severity of the illness. Unfortunately, migraines remain a poorly understood disease that is often treated with prescription medications without identifying the root cause.

The purpose of this article is to expose you to common migraine triggers that doctors very rarely discuss with their patients. If you suffer with migraine headaches, keep reading…

What Causes a Migraine?

gluten is a known migraine trigger

Triggers for migraine sufferers includes genetic, hormonal and environmental factors. Headaches can come in many forms (tension, migraine, cluster, sinus, menstrual) and have many different causes. Some stem from postural imbalances, stress, muscle spasms, hormone disruption and some from environmental allergies and sinus congestion. There are also many foods that can trigger migraines.
Common food and food additive triggers are:

  • gluten
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • chocolate
  • alcohol
  • caffeine
  • dairy
  • processed foods
  • sugar and artificial sweeteners
  • pesticides (i.e. glyphosate, atrazine, organophospates)

Research studies have shown that MSG and caffeine can trigger migraine attacks. Users of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose have reported headaches, dizziness, nausea and a disruption in the body’s metabolic pathways (blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol).

Does gluten cause migraines?

Gluten is considered a neurotoxin that can cause nerve damage in addition to inflammatory responses in the body. In recent studies, gluten was shown to be positively associated with neurological dysfunction in those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivities.³

Those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease already have a genetically sensitive nervous system. Overtime, this hypersensitive nervous system can develop into neurological problems to include migraines.1

If we look at the prevalence of migraines in those with celiac or IBD versus a normal population, migraines are more common in those with celiac disease.4 This suggests that migraine sufferers should be screened for celiac disease and adopt a gluten free diet. In studies, eliminating gluten from the diet decreased the frequency of both headaches and migraines.4

In a similar study, a correlation was found between patients with idiopathic neuropathy (nerve damage of an unknown cause) and the presence of gluten sensitive HLA-DQ genes

Leaky Brain?

Leaky gut is common in those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. A number of studies have shown that many people with leaky gut also have something called leaky brain. Similar to leaky gut, leaky brain occurs when unwanted substances penetrate the blood-brain barrier. It can lead to potential symptoms in many areas of the body, including the nervous system, where it can cause migraines, anxiety, or depression. You can read more about leaky brain here.

Nutrient Deficiencies and Migraines

Many studies have shown that an increase in homocysteine levels (linked to increased risk of heart disease) along with lower mitochondrial energy, aka cellular fuel needed to make energy, can lead to migraine headaches.6 A deficiency in specific vitamins and minerals can cause elevated homocysteine and decreased energy metabolism levels. Vitamins involved in this process are Riboflavin (B2), Pyroxidine (B6), Folate (B9), and Cobalamin (B12). Other nutrients that may be deficient with migraine sufferers are vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, Co Q10, magnesium, and iron.

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, which has shown to help with the effects of nerve inflammation and migraines.

Vitamin E, which works in concert with Vitamin C can effectively relieve headache pain and migraine symptoms.

CoQ10 is another powerful antioxidant that helps with energy production and heart health. We have seen that Vitamin B2 can affect increase homocysteine levels if deficient, thus leading to decreased cellular energy. CoQ10 has been shown to support cellular energy levels, and when it is deficient, the nervous system may become hypersensitive, leading to migraine pain.

When taken on a regular basis, many headache medicines can cause deficiencies of nutrients like vitamin C, CoQ10, folic acid, and potassium. Long term medication use for the treatment of chronic headaches is rarely necessary if a thorough nutritional deficiencies evaluation is performed.

Electrolyte Imbalance

Low dietary intakes of electrolytes, calcium and magnesium, can lead to dehydration, low blood pressure, and migraines. Calcium helps regulate healthy nerve and muscle functions in the body. When it is deficient, muscle cramps and pain sensitivity can increase and may lead to increased migraine susceptibility.6 Calcium works in concert with magnesium, which is involved in maintaining healthy nerve and muscle cell function in the body. Researchers have suggested that magnesium has an important role with migraine related receptors and neurotransmitters.6 Nerve cells without proper levels of electrolytes in their environment will not function normally, therefore leading to altered nerve pathways and the formation of migraines.

Natural & Simple Solutions for Migraine Headaches?

  • Stop eating grain – For detailed guidance on this, read No Grain No Pain and follow the 30 day protocol.
  • Rule out additional food triggers for the headache: chocolate, MSG, caffeine, alcohol, cheese and other dairy products, wine, processed lunch meats, and, artificial sweeteners are common triggers, but having your doctor test you for allergies will help you dial in on hidden triggers that you might not recognize.
  • Get tested for vitamin and mineral deficiencies– Vitamin B2, B6, B9, B-12, C, E, magnesium, calcium, and CoQ10 are a few nutrients that when deficient, can trigger migraine headaches.
  • Check your medications – Many medicines can cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies leading to migraine. Additionally, many medications contain filler ingredients (especially artificial sweeteners) known to trigger headaches.
  • Rule out chronic mold exposure – Home and work place environments can harbor toxic molds that release mycotoxins known to trigger headache problems. If you home has a history of water damage, or if you smell mildew or a musty smell, suspect mold, and take action to have it removed or cleaned.
  • Rule out chronic sinus infections – chronic infections can of the sinuses can typically be evaluated by a nasal swab test. Make sure your doctor checks for bacteria and mold. Both produce neurotoxins that can trigger migraine recurrence.
  • Avoid the use of perfumes and scented soaps– Many of the chemicals in these items can trigger migraines directly.
  • Visit a chiropractor –Migraines headaches can also be triggered by structural problems in the spine as well as muscular dysfunction. A reputable chiropractor should be able to help you determine these types of problems.

More In Depth Tips

Watch this short video for more in depth tips on how you can overcome your migraine headaches naturally with diet and lifestyle changes…

Watch this video replay of a recent QnA session on naturally overcoming migraines…

Do you have experience with other migraine triggers? Make sure to post your comments below…


  1. Cady, RK., Farmer, K., Dexter, JK, and Hall, J. (2012). The bowel and migraine: update on celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 16(3): 278-86.
  2. Dimitrova, AK., et al. (2013). Prevalence of migraine in patients with celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Headache. 53(2), 344-55.
  3. Hadjivassiliou, M., et al. (2016). Neurological Dysfunction in Coeliac Disease and Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity. The American Journal of Gastroenterology. 111(4), 561-7.
  4. Martin, VT., Vij, B. (2016). Diet and Headache: Part 1. Headache. 56(9), 1543-1552.
  5. Migraine Facts. (2017). Migraine Research Foundation. Retrieved from Migraine Facts.
  6. Shaik, MM., and Gan, S.H. (2015). Vitamin Supplementation as Possible Prophylactic Treatment against Migraine with Aura and Menstrual Migraine. BioMed Research International, v.2015. doi: 10.1155/2015/469529
  7. Sinclair, S. (1999). Migraine Headaches: Nutritional, Botanical and Other Alternative Approaches. Alternative Medicine Review. 4(2), 86-95.

7 Responses

  1. Quite true and certainly true in my case,as one of the causes. Bad posture leads to muscle tension which then leads to migraine like effects. Possible reliefs, once the migraine takes hold, are: massage around the neck and the back, hot showers, stretches, walking, doing weights in the gym, and application of magnesium and peppermint oils.

  2. My brain would get hypersensitive / inflamed ~ a week before I would get my period. I know because I have another condition and literally I would have symptoms of increased intracranial pressure. ( I choose to manage my headaches vs surgery and monitor my symptoms for worsening). Mine are almost always related to my estrogen levels. I do have a history of low progesterone and were less intense when balanced with progesterone. Sounds more like your hormone levels fluctuating daily throughout the month. I’ve never used BCP etc… and have only used bio identical progesterone. I have had mine tested in the past and different days of the month when both hormone levels should’ve been elevated they weren’t.

    Foods can also make worse. Gluten makes mine worse, but then again they can help increase estrogen levels. I also have thyroid issues. Carbs that are too simple, not enough protein and now I’m suspecting chocolate. My mother is really allergic to chocolate.

  3. I have suffered from migraines for the past 10 years… i am bed ridden for atleast 2 days a week with them and sometimes they last a day if not longer! they are that intense they often make me vomit. I am only 33 years old and find they have impacted my day to day living. I have never thought of gluten been a cause for getting them! I will definately be checking this out 🙂

  4. Recently it dawned on me that the reason eating cereal (cheerios, corn/Frosted Flakes, Total) would consistently trigger a terrible migraine (when I tolerated these cereals daily in 80’s, 90’s) was because now they contain glyphosate! General Mills…if you’re listening- please make an organic Total & Cheerios!

  5. I have suffered from debilitating migraines for the over 25 years. They last at times for weeks. My doctors count those as individual headaches per day.
    My migraines are triggered by anything in the melon family (including squash and cucumbers) oranges, bananas mayonnaise and yogurt. There are also multiple artificial flavors that give me trouble as well.
    I am to the point that I question most everything before I eat.

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