As a migraine sufferer for over 20 years, I find myself always having to explain that migraines are much more than “just a headache.”
They involve the whole body and nervous system, interfere with your vision, make you feel physically ill and leave you in a “brain fog.” In other words, migraines can render you unable to fully function, sometimes for days.
I do whatever I can to avoid migraines. This problem has meant learning to recognize my triggers. My strongest triggers seem to involve hormones fluctuations, barometric pressure due to weather variability, sleep disturbances and stress. I’ve also found certain foods contribute to my migraines, most notably excess caffeine and alcohol (a huge disappointment!).
Everyone has different triggers. Most experts recommend keeping a “migraine diary” so you can pinpoint what yours are. Still, it’s helpful to have some kind of guide as you begin.
Let’s look at some of the most common products and ingredients that might be contributing to your migraines. These are factors you can control (unlike hormone fluctuations or barometric pressure) to offer a simple, easy way to jumpstart your path toward migraine-free living.
1. Monosodium Glutamate [MSG]
Monosodium glutamate is an additive sometimes found in some soy sauces, Asian cuisine, meat tenderizer and other pre-packaged foods. MSG can act as an “excitatory amino acid in the brain” and activate a migraine, explained Dr. Mark W. Green, Director of the Center for Headache and Pain Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, are problematic as well, Dr. Green said. Aspartic acid, found in aspartame, is another excitatory amino acid that can prompt migraines. Brands containing aspartame include Equal and NutraSweet.
There are several reasons alcohol is thought to cause migraines. One has to do with the preservative called sulfite found in alcoholic beverages such as red wine. Another contributing factor could be increased blood flow to the brain caused by alcohol, as well as the fact that alcohol can dehydrate you. According to the Cleveland Clinic, red wine, beer, whiskey, Scotch and champagne are the most common types of alcohol believed to cause migraines.
4. Birth Control
The effect of birth control on female migraine sufferers differs from woman to woman.
“Birth control pills make headaches worse in a quarter, better in a quarter and have no effect on half of migraine sufferers,” said Dr. Alexander Mauskop of the New York Headache Center. Dr. Green explained it’s usually estrogen withdrawal that causes migraines among birth control users, so using progestin-containing birth control (which has no estrogen) is least likely to exacerbate the issue.
5. Volatile Organic Compounds [VOC]
According to the EPA, Volatile organic compounds [VOCs] are gases emitted from certain organic chemicals, and can cause short and long-term health effects. Common sources of VOCs include paints, varnishes and wax, as well as many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic and degreasing products. Dr. Colleen Doherty, an internist specializing in migraines, wrote in Verywell Health that VOCs can indeed cause migraines, and suggested migraine sufferers limit exposure to substances with VOCs as much as possible.
For some people, consuming caffeine at the start of a migraine can actually relieve symptoms. But for others, excess caffeine can elicit symptoms. Caffeine withdrawal can also be an issue, with abrupt withdrawal commonly contributing to headaches and migraines.
7. Household Products With Strong Odors
Any cleaning products with a strong scent — or any strong scent in general — can trigger migraines, Dr. Mauskop said. Migraine sufferers may have to avoid strong perfumes, the smell of gasoline, pungent food smells and heavily fragranced cleaners or air fresheners. Once a migraine has already begun, osmophobia (aversion to odors) is a commonly experienced symptom.
8. Aged Cheeses
Cheese high in tyramine, naturally occurring in certain foods, can cause migraines for some people. According to the Cleveland Clinic, tyramine is formed when protein in foods break down as they age. The more a high-protein food ages or ferments, the more tyramine is released, which is why certain cheeses are more likely to cause migraines. Blue cheeses, brie, cheddar, feta, gorgonzola, mozzarella, muenster and swiss are all — very sadly — high in tyramine.
Getting a Clear Head
I know reading lists like these can feel overwhelming and depressing, especially if you are just beginning the journey of identifying your migraine symptoms. The good news is these foods and substances are not triggers for everyone — it really is that individualized when it comes to migraines.
Again, the best thing to do is be mindful of what you consume and note whether it seems to cause symptoms. Remember, too, that you may not have to completely eliminate a trigger from your life; just reducing it might be enough for you.
Fewer migraines and an increased sense of well-being will be worth it, no matter how many glasses of wine or slices of delicious cheese you need to bid farewell.
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