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Foods can trigger migraines

The migraine-food connection

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Thirty-five-year-old mom-of-two, Sandra Mulcahey, remembers her first migraine well. She was a 19-year-old college freshman.

“I woke up with this mild throbbing over my left eye, but figured it would go away. So, I got up and went to class, but by lunchtime, I just couldn’t take the pain anymore,” explains Mulcahey. Since college, she has had regular migraine headaches.

In “The Woman’s Guide to Managing Migraine,” Dr. Susan Hutchinson, a headache specialist who suffers from migraines herself, estimates that nearly 30 million Americans suffer from regular migraine headaches, and of those, 22 million are women. Furthermore, these “often debilitating attacks that can leave the sufferer bedridden and that, in many cases, can undermine both one’s career and even one’s marriage.”

Like many women, Mulcahey’s migraines are sometimes triggered by the surge of hormones during her menstrual period or a particularly stressful situation. However, over the years, Mulcahey learned that, often, it can be something as simple as food or sleep that bring on a migraine.

“Over the years, I began to notice that if I skipped a meal, I would get that nagging feeling that a migraine is coming on. It would start with that dull feeling on one side of my temple, and I knew it would get worse,” says Mulcahey. “If I can eat something quickly, I might be able to fend it off, but not always. Sometimes, even a coffee on an empty stomach will bring them on.”

Dr. Michael Wald of Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco says that while not every migraine sufferer will have food triggers, many do.

“Food triggers vary among migraine suffers. Many people with migraines do not seem to have food triggers, while in others, it is very clear that various foods trigger this neuro-vascular, inflammatory condition.”

What foods trigger migraines?

Foods that trigger migraines vary among individuals, but some types of food are thought to be typical triggers, like chocolate.

“Common food [triggers] are thought to be various cheeses including Brie, Stilton, Ementaler, cheddar, and Camembert. Sour cream and peanut butter, citrus fruits (including oranges and lemons), and coca are commonly reported to trigger the onset of migraines.”

Surprisingly, one widely consumed food that proves a trigger for many is gluten. But, as Dr. Wald points out, “virtually any food may precipitate a migraine. Commonly eaten foods often trigger migraines. (That’s right — not foods eaten occasionally.) Repeat exposure to sensitizing foods seem to trigger the autonomic and gastro-neuro-hormonal migraine response.”

How does food cause migraines?

It might seem strange that eating a food you enjoy and eat sometimes — or often — can bring on debilitating pain. Dr. Wald explains how this physically occurs.

“Migraines involve a hypersensitive autonomic nervous system response; this means that the nervous system is hypersensitive to insults like foods and various other potential stressors, causing the blood vessels in the brain and those that go directly to cranial nerves, to dilate. The nerves envelop the blood vessels, so that when the blood vessels dilate (get larger), they stretch the nerves and this causes many of the various symptoms associated with migraines including the prodrome (feeling ‘off’); dizziness; nausea; feeling cold; dry mouth; shaky; light-headed; head, neck and eye pain.”

Migraine prevention

The first step in preventing the dreaded migraine is to identify your own personal triggers, food or otherwise. Dr. Wald says they include poor sleep habits, stress, dehydration, poor diet, flickering lights, extremes in temperatures, and strong perfumes. Refined sugar and processed sugars are thought to trigger and worsen headaches, as does magnesium deficiency and hormonal imbalance, so seeing your doctor is vital in helping stave off regular migraine headaches.

Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. Sullivan also writes about pets and parenting for Disney’s Babble.com. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @DanniSullWriter, or on her blog, Just Write Mom.

Updated 4:44 pm, July 9, 2018
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