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Why It’s So Hard to Identify Food Triggers

If you’ve tried to track migraine triggers, you’ve probably gotten frustrated by how difficult it can be. Here are some of the reasons it’s tough to identify specific food triggers.

Triggers tend to be cumulative. This is the case with all triggers, not just food. A food may be fine one day, but not on a day when the weather is stormy or you didn’t get enough sleep or your hormones are fluctuating. Think of it like a bucket. You can fill up a bucket without it overflowing unless you try to add more than it can hold. Different people’s buckets can hold different amounts. You can add trigger after trigger as long as your bucket doesn’t overflow, but it can be hard to know when that overflow point is.

Food cravings are often misattributed as triggers. Say you usually have a migraine attack within a few hours of eating chocolate. It could be that the chocolate is a trigger, or it could be that you already had a migraine coming on and were craving chocolate because of it.

Other types of misattribution are common, as well. You may think a food is a trigger because a migraine comes on after eating it, but the two events may be completely unrelated.

We rarely eat foods in isolation. That pumpkin ravioli you had for dinner wasn’t just pumpkin, of course, but also contained wheat, eggs, aged cheese, and spices, not to mention the ingredients in the sauce. Any one of those components could be a trigger, or maybe none of them are.

Not everyone has the same triggers. You may not have any trouble with the foods on the typical list, but react to something seemingly benign. Cauliflower and butternut squash don’t appear on any migraine food lists, but are both major triggers for me.

Quantity matters. Maybe you’re OK with eating an ounce of chocolate each day, but two ounces trigger a migraine attack. A slice of tomato on a sandwich might be fine, but tomato soup sets off an attack. The same goes with food chemicals. Maybe you’re OK with tomato and chocolate if you eat them a few days apart, but eating them on the same day will lead to an attack.

The difficult identifying triggers is why elimination diets are recommended. By simplifying your diet and taking out the most common possible triggers, it becomes easier to track what’s problematic for you. Once you clean the slate (as much as possible), it’s easier to tell if a certain food you test will trigger an attack or not.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • RobertCan
    5 years ago

    Identification of food triggers is a maddening process for all the reasons mentioned above. I’ve tried many times and come away feeling that almost everything is a potential trigger depending on what other triggers (weather, etc) are in play on that particular day. It’s so frustrating because I never know from one day to the next which food will push me over my threshold. Is this how it is for everyone else? – robert

  • Eddie
    5 years ago

    I have recently become aware of some foods becoming migraine triggers. I tracked down some of the culprits – due to cooking specific meals on specific nights. Then realizing I would awake within 12 hours with a migraine. I think it was a cumulative effect. One culprit was tomatoes. I used to be able to eat home made tomato sauce in a casserole but no longer. I suffer from allergies year round. So I am now investigating the possiblity of histamine (and of course tyramine) levels in food as a trigger for some of my migraines. At this time of year-Spring – my system is already over-loaded so the cumulative effect of levels in my food may be a tipping point. I have changed my eating habits to reduce consumption of foods recognised to have potentially high histamine levels and the migraines have reduced accordingly. There has been some research in Europe on this as well. I hope after time to be able to reintroduce slowly and in small amounts some of the possible triggers. I realise that this may only affect people with severe allergies but it may be of interest. I would not recommend any drastic action in cutting out different foods. But suggest talking to allergy specialists for advice if you are an allergy sufferer.

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