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And…Goodbye Sugar, too.

Migraines can make us feel out of control. We are in a constant state of flux: when will the attacks hit and how long will they last? We are often unable to make plans or keep a schedule. The world is teeming with triggers we cannot control: stress, hormones, barometric pressure, moon cycle, lights, sounds, smells, and more. Foods can often be a trigger and we have greater control over our diet. What we put in our mouths can directly impact whether or not we end up with an attack. As such, our diet is one way to assert some control over Migraine.

Although I’ve had Migraine most of my life, it wasn’t until the last decade that I educated myself about the many dietary triggers that can lead to an attack. I did an elimination cleanse to discover whether or not I had any underlying intolerances and dedicated myself to understanding the relationship between diet and Migraine attacks.

To my surprise, I had already been avoiding many triggers on my own due to a lifetime of experience with the call and response dynamic between ingesting certain foods or drinks which resulted in pain soon after. Therefore, it was easy to eliminate parts of my diet that caused a fairly immediate response (alcohol, nuts, dairy, gluten). It was much harder to say goodbye to those foods that brought me joy and comfort (sugar).

Food as comfort

I went through a phase in which I fully justified eating a slice of gluten-free, dairy-free dark chocolate cake every single day. I felt that if I was navigating severe pain, every day, I certainly deserved the pleasure of enjoying something sweet. Something just for me. That is the definition of comfort food.

Wine, aged cheese, chocolate- when we are in the midst of a Migraine attack, it is very hard not to turn to food as comfort to help maneuver through the pain. Unfortunately, those same foods are often the very ones that trigger pain. When everything else is out of control- feeling in control of what we put in our mouths is comforting. But if that food is a trigger, it can’t act as a comfort food. It’s an awful feeling.

Goodbye sugar

For me, giving up the foods that were clear triggers was an easy exercise. It has been years since I had even a sip of alcohol, for example. But saying goodbye to sugar and chocolate was painful. I have a serious sugar tooth. These foods gave me comfort when I was hurting and caused me no immediate discomfort that I could discern. Letting go of something that gave me joy because it might prevent pain felt like a punishment in addition to the pain of migraine.

But in truth, the process of giving up chocolate and sugar has led to a reduction in my pain and a significant increase in my overall wellness. I stubbornly refused to take this step for YEARS. While alcohol led immediately to pain, there was no immediate cause and effect between chocolate and pain. It took some time for my pain pattern to improve after removing sugar from my system. Though a more gradual process, it was indeed noteworthy. Noticeable enough that I will stick to it.

Food as fuel

I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, a time when views on nutrition were very different than they are now. I had to reeducate myself in recent years to embrace the idea of food as fuel to understand the reasoning behind eating clean. Doing so has helped make it easier to avoid the many trigger foods that can lead to Migraine attacks.

If you haven’t already, I heartily recommend migraineurs dig deep and educate themselves on nutrition in relation to Migraine.

If you are interested in an elimination diet, a quick Google search will show you there are hundreds.  You should consult with your physician prior to any significant change in diet. The elimination diet I tried was CLEAN.  Here are some basic books on the subject that I found useful:

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.


  • tlocker
    2 years ago

    Interesting, and glad it is working for you, but differing types of sugar can affect individuals differently. For new GI issues, was put on FODMAP diet, which limits differing types of sugars (and should be done only under supervision of nutritionist). It has helped the GI symptoms significantly, but I have to say has had NO effect on frequency or intensity my chronic migraines, sadly. Resource:

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    2 years ago

    tlocker- you are SO right that there is no one-size-fits-all option when it comes to treatment of or things that improve migraine. Thank you for sharing information about the approach you tried for those who might want to learn more. I’m sorry to hear it was not a success for you. For me, it was a matter of avoiding refined sugar. It is a complex issue, to be sure, as different types of sugar are in so many things. Thanks again for joining the conversation. Warmly, Holly B. ( team).

  • Maureen
    2 years ago

    Holly, I, too, have found that sugar can be a trigger for me. However, I have found that the key for me is to balance my carb/ protein intake. I can almost never eat carbs alone. The sole exception being extended exercise (i.e. lasting longer than one hour, then I need carbs to fuel my workout , like Gu blocks or Gatorade – I am training to walk a half marathon! Go me!)
    Paradoxically, when I first began my diet/ fitness journey, I was a grazer who had to eat every 2-3 hours to prevent migraine, but my blood sugar was sky-rocketing, and I was pre – diabetic. I worked with a dietician to become a three meal, one small snack, long overnight faster with an A1c well within the normal range. Through this process, I have developed the ability to be hungry without migraine, but have realized that I really CANNOT eat sugars without protein without head pain. Regular exercise has reduced the frequency and intensity, and I feel like my body fights back better, but, inevitably, i “feel” the sugar. But I also appreciate a little bit so much more now. I am loving extra dark chocolate which does not effect blood sugar like other sugars, and my girls love Halo Top ice cream which is made with stevia, which some people might find useful. I mostly just resist, because I’m worth it.
    PS lest some people say, easy for you, you can exercise. It has not been easy. But it’s worth it. Studies show exercise is as good as other prophylaxis for migraine prevention. By working with my migraine specialist, my dietician, and my primary care doctor (to treat subclinical hypothyroidism which has REALLY made a HUGE difference in how i feel), the culminating effect had been a big breakthrough for me this past year. Keep pressing on! There is hope. It’s worth it. You are worth it!
    Love from team NoMoMigraine who will be virtually with the Miles for Migraine walkers and runners this weekend and next!

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    2 years ago

    Maureen- GOOD LUCK on the half-marathon! That is incredible and very inspiring. Thank you for sharing what has worked for you. I totally agree that exercise is a great preventative and I like that you emphasize that it can be a process to “get there”. An increase in heart rate can be a trigger for many, so building stamina slowly is very smart, and looking for no-low impact strategies might work best. I’m so glad you have found this path to health that has resulted in a decrease in your pain pattern. What wonderful news. You are terrific to share in such an inspirational manner and I’m sure you’ve lifted the spirits of others in our community. Bravo and keep at it! Warmly, Holly B. ( team).

  • Tamara
    2 years ago

    I’m pretty sure sugar is a trigger is for me …. but such a sugar addict! How do you handle eating clean when everything packaged has sugar in it and you are super tired/painful from the migraines?

    I sit at a 5-7 daily (last 4 days a 8-9) … no energy to prepare food and sinc I have severe TMJ eating hurts – sugar doesn’t because of the small spike in brain chemicals. Really hard to eat good stuff when it hurts and bad makes the pain less. I am out of options to treat the TMJ so it is likely to stay this way the rest of my life.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    2 years ago

    Hi Tamara- Such great points you raise regarding the challenge of being to exhausted by the condition of migraine to prepare food and then running into foods filled with triggers when you turn to food that is pre-prepared. So, my new approach (maybe this will work for you, maybe not) is to keep a rotisserie chicken in my fridge at all times. I find I can make it to the store once every few days to buy one (or if not, I can get someone to pick one up for me). And as long as I have some protein plus something like steamed broccoli and applesauce, I can stay under the trigger radar. This type of meal takes 5 minutes to prep and I can handle even when I’m at a 7-8. Plus it’s soft (for TMJ issues). If not that, I’ll do a hard boiled egg as the protein. One way to look at it is that our system is under severe stress due to the pain- so perhaps it makes sense to eat a pretty simple diet to keep things calm on an intestinal level. I struggle with severe nausea and vomiting when my pain gets its worst, so will often times go a day eating only sugar free italian ice and jello. Hope this helps and so glad you’re a part of our community. Warmly, Holly B. ( team).

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