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Steer Clear of These Top 10 Foods for Headache Relief

Headache specialist Fred Cohen, M.D., shares how what you eat may be a contributing factor to migraine attacks


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Have you resolved to eat healthier this year? If you’re one of the millions grappling with migraines, a rethink of your diet might be in order. Even so-called healthy options, such as fruits, nuts, and fermented foods can be a headache trigger for some people.

“Many foods that benefit our bodies contain natural or added compounds that can cause painful headache and migraine attacks,” says Fred Cohen, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and co-author of Unraveling the MSG‑Headache Controversy: An Updated Literature Review. “Some contain histamine, phenylethylamine, and tyramine, which are established headache triggers. Caffeine presents a unique case; it can trigger headaches in some individuals, yet for others, it serves as an effective treatment for their headaches. Monosodium glutamate (commonly referred to as MSG) has garnered much controversy, not just as a headache trigger, but also as a cause of numerous ailments such as indigestion, palpitations, chest pain and tightness, flushing, and dizziness.”

While MSG is most often associated with Chinese food, it can also be found in a broad range of processed foods and snacks. “It is a common misnomer that Chinese and other Asian cuisines are the most common sources of MSG,” says Cohen. “Many fast-food and chain restaurants frequently contain MSG in their dishes. In fact, MSG use in the USA is widespread and often found in frozen vegetables, condiments, breakfast cereals, spices such as Sazón, a popular seasoning used in Hispanic dishes, and even baby food.”

Cohen emphasizes the importance of monitoring how your food choices affect the onset of headaches. “While there are several MSG studies that demonstrate a statistically significant increase in headaches when compared against placebo, the evidence is still mixed and further research is needed,” says Cohen. “For individuals who are worried that MSG could be a trigger for them, an elimination diet might serve as an effective diagnostic method.”

Here are some ingredients that can trigger a headache:

  1. Caffeine, often found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and some soft drinks
  2. Alcoholic beverages, especially red wine, beer, and spirits
  3. Dairy products, including milk, yogurt, ice cream, and aged cheeses, such as blue cheese, cheddar, feta, and Parmesan
  4. Nitrates, which are found in processed meats, such as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats
  5. Citrus fruits, including oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits
  6. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucrose, which can be found in diet sodas, fast food, and baked goods
  7. Tyramine-rich foods, such as aged meats, smoked fish, fermented foods, and certain beans
  8. Onions
  9. Nuts and legumes, including peanuts, walnuts, almonds, and cashews
  10. Gluten, including breads, baked goods, cereals, barley, and rye

“I always advise my patients that each individual’s headaches are unique, as are their treatments,” says Cohen. “What is effective for one person may not be for another. This is especially true for dietary triggers, which can vary greatly from person to person. Lifestyle changes may also be beneficial for controlling migraines, including proper sleep, regular exercise, and managing other migraine triggers, such as stress and allergies.”

About The Author

Heather, co-founder of Well Defined and the former editor-in-chief of American Spa, is an award-winning journalist and content strategist, skilled in writing, copyediting, and media relations. She is also a freelance writer and has contributed to Elite Traveler, Islands, Kiwi, Luxury Travel Advisor, Organic Spa, Porthole Cruise, Travel Agent,,,, and, in addition to various custom publications. She is frequently called upon to comment on various spa and wellness trends for various media outlets.