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Migraines and Junk Food: Is There a Connection?


You’re craving chocolate. Or bread. Or salami. Your whims tend to bend with the wind. If you frequently suffer from migraines, this could be a sign that a migraine is on the way. But for some of the 37 million Americans who suffer from migraines, do these types of vascular headaches really lead to unhealthy food cravings?

Yes, according to the National Headache Foundation. Warning signs can appear anywhere between four and 72 hours before a migraine, and they include cravings — specifically for chocolate. “If [migraine sufferers] eat the chocolate and the headache occurs, it’s natural to assume that the chocolate actually caused the headache,” writes the National Headache Foundation. “But in reality, both the chocolate cravings and the migraine are caused by the same root problem and the chocolate is not at fault.”
The core issue is actually a bit harder to pinpoint. Doctors know that abnormal brain activity causes a migraine, but there are numerous triggers for that abnormal brain activity, including these trigger foods listed in the U.S. National Library of Medicine:

  • Processed, fermented, pickled or marinated foods
  • Foods containing MSG
  • Baked goods, chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, dairy
  • Foods containing tyramine, such as red wine, aged cheese, chicken livers, figs and certain beans
  • Avocados, bananas and citrus fruit
  • Meats containing nitrates, such as bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats
  • Onions

So why do we crave the very foods that trigger these blinding migraines? It may have something to do with your blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar drops to abnormally low levels — hypoglycemia — a migraine may start developing, which causes you to crave certain foods. And one recent study in the Journal of Headache and Pain showed a link between metabolic syndrome and migraines, another indicator that blood glucose management may be behind the crushing pain.

Instead of getting caught in the vicious cycle of triggers and cravings, you can stay healthy and manage your migraines by keeping a headache journal that includes likely food triggers, and reading labels carefully, as migraine-triggering sulfites can often be found in soup mixes and dried fruit, for example. You might not find MSG on a label, but it can still be present if listed as natural flavorings, broth or hydrolyzed plant protein.

You can also try the National Headache Foundation’s low-tyramine diet, which includes freshly purchased and prepared meats, fish and poultry; eggs; several dairy products; cereals, bread and all pasta; and a host of fruits and vegetables from apples and asparagus to peaches and zucchini. You might find that the “use with caution” foods such as avocado and bacon are actually okay, as long as you follow the “avoid” advice on MSG and Chianti. Even chocolate is a “use with caution” food rather than a strict no-no.

Finally, to get off the cravings, eat regularly. Several studies have shown that fasting triggers migraine headaches, including one published by the Journal of Headache and Pain that showed the worsening of migraines during fasting for Ramadan observation.

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