Migraines & Food: Cravings, Triggers, Comfort & Freedom
Last updated: June 2023
Nutrition plays a powerful role for the person living with chronic migraine. What we crave can signal the arrival of a migraine; what we eat can prevent or conversely trigger its occurrence; and finally, when we are in pain, food can give us comfort like nothing else. Food has the ability to both exacerbate or quiet our pain. We truly are what we eat.
Food as a Signal
For some of us, the first sign of a migraine is the moment we find ourselves reaching for the saltiest or sweetest thing we can find. It is a well-known prodrome - often arriving far before the pain. The cravings can be intense, but are different for everyone. The problem is, in most cases, the very thing that our body craves is often the last thing it needs. Overdoing it on refined sugars or salts can mean entering into an even worse than usual cycle of pain.
Using a food journal can serve to identify what foods you crave prior to a migraine which can help tip you off to future attacks. If you learn that a certain food, say potato chips, is what your body craves prior to a migraine, then you might choose to start your migraine treatment protocol when you find yourself reaching for the chips, rather than waiting for the pain to become full-fledged. As we all know, early detection and treatment of migraine can improve the chances of stopping it in its tracks.
Food as Prevention
To decrease the frequency and severity of migraines, many people take daily supplements as preventatives. There are countless anti-inflammatory supplements that many believe can help prevent migraines if taken regularly (magnesium, vitamin E, turmeric, bromelain, fish oil to name a few). Certain foods, if incorporated into the diet regularly, have natural anti-inflammatory properties as well (garlic, ginger, salmon, green leafy vegetables, berries, etc.). There are tons of resources online for those wanting to learn more.
Alternatively, or additionally, many utilize nutrition to respond to migraine at the first sign of pain in hopes of offsetting a full-fledged attack. I reach for the spiciest ginger ale I can find. Sometimes the drink alone is all I need to offset the nausea. And if taken at the right time I can happily avoid my prescribed anti-nausea medication and the 8-hours of extreme drowsiness that comes along with it. I know many fellow migraineurs who, at the first sign of a migraine, reach for a cup of coffee or a coke, any kind of jolt of caffeine – as they have learned that doing so can offset a migraine altogether if they catch it early enough. Everyone is different, so the key is to find what works for you through research and experimentation.
Food as a Trigger
Stress, bright lights, strong smells, loud noises, hormones, alcohol, foods- when you live with chronic migraine, you can start to feel as if triggers lurk around every corner because pain is so frequent. That said, it can be very helpful to identify your personal triggers so you can avoid them and lessen your migraine frequency. I learned a lot about my food triggers by doing a cleanse (there are many kinds out there, the one I found most useful is called The Clean Program) which removes certain foods from the diet and then slowly reintroduces them to test for triggers. If the reintroduction resulted in an uptick in pain, I knew it was something I should avoid going forward. For me, that means I now no longer consume gluten, dairy, red meat, alcohol, or caffeine. Identifying and removing triggers increased my overall energy, brightened my skin, and lessened the severity of my pain, but not the frequency.
When we are experiencing severe pain we are of course desperate to find comfort in any form. From our favorite pillow to our favorite snack, we just need to feel better. And when we feel like crap, we often eat like crap. I know I do. To top it all off, with chronic migraine, we feel badly so frequently, it can be a constant battle to eat anything but comfort foods. When I’m in the throes of pain, it’s very hard to reach for the anti-inflammatory kale salad with turmeric. Despite being convinced that we are what we eat, if I’m hurting, I cannot deny the pull toward the cookie jar. There are no easy answers here. I have found it helpful to keep low calorie snack foods around, like cheerios and apples. Foods that keep my hands and mouth busy to distract me from the pain but that aren’t terrible for my health or triggers for migraines.
Eating, Breathing & Living Migraines & Then Throwing Caution to the Wind
Chronic migraine asks us to live in the most regimented of ways with regular sleep and eating schedules being key to keeping migraines at bay. Yet sometimes, no matter our actions, the migraines show themselves. It’s not lost on me that when we work so hard to address and focus on our diet, we are desperately trying to control or at least impact migraine in our lives.
Life with migraine, after all, often feels as if we are living in the back seat, at the whim of a random force that chooses our schedule for us. It decides how much we can accomplish in a given day – where we can go, who we can see, even the quality or quantity of our sleep.
For all these reasons, arming ourselves with as much information as we can about nutrition and its repercussions can’t hurt. Still, there’s a balance to be sought. As important as it is to feel in control, it’s just as important to enjoy your freedom! Each of us has to find out where we land in terms of how much time and energy we want to dedicate to thinking about migraines when we already HAVE migraines so much of the time. It’s smart and important to educate yourself about your triggers... and then…it’s wonderful and freeing to throw all that out the window and have some fun once in a while and live life to its fullest. Sometimes that migraine you’ll have the next day is totally worth it.
Are there any foods or drinks you reach for at the first sign of a migraine? Have you found that you have any food triggers? Are there any foods or drinks that help you ease the symptoms of migraine?
Are the family and friends you will be seeing this holiday season understanding about migraine?