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What's Eating You: How Diet Impacts Migraines

A 2016 study confirms that diet can directly impact the prevalence of migraines. The saying, "you are what you eat" could not be truer when discussing diet and migraines. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines are a serious neurological disease affecting roughly 38 million Americans. It is the sixth most disabling illness in the world. Certain beverages, foods and food additives are known to trigger migraines and reducing or eliminating them completely can provide noticeable relief.

According to a study conducted by Vincent Martin, MD, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, diets high in alcohol, MSG and nitrates contribute to migraines. But it can be difficult for many to eliminate things like MSG and nitrates from an everyday diet. MSG is a flavor enhancer and is found in many processed foods, salad dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauce and seasoning salts. Nitrates are found in processed foods like hot dogs, bacon, sausage and lunch meats. Martin suggests the key to eliminating these headache-inducers from your diet is to simply eat less processed foods and focus on consuming more natural foods, like fruits and vegetables.

Martin’s study also suggests "one of the most promising diets for those with more frequent attacks of migraine is one that boosts your omega-3 fats while lessoning your omega-6 levels and that means tossing out polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, canola and soy) in favor of flaxseed oil. Foods to consume would include flaxseed, salmon, halibut, cod and scallops while those to avoid would be peanuts and cashews."[1]  

Minimizing caffeine and alcohol are also important in reducing migraines, however, some level of caffeine may be beneficial in easing swelling that can cause migraines. This is the reason several over-the-counter migraine medicines, like Excedrin, contain small amounts of it.  

Malnourishment and dehydration are also prime culprits for migraines. Eating five to six, minimally processed, rich in nutrients, meals and drinking eight glasses of water a day can help in combatting these two migraine triggers.

Another important factor in preventing migraines is adequate rest. The American Migraine Foundation highlights these key points with regard to sleep and migraines:  

  • Allow yourself to sleep 7-8 hours per night.
  • Regular, adequate sleep leads to fewer headaches.
  • Sleep loss and oversleeping are common headache triggers.
  • Nightly snoring can cause daily headaches. Habitual snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea. Treating apnea can reduce or even eliminate headache.


Dr. David Buck, a neuromuscular dentist in Washington state, sees many patients who suffer from chronic migraines. One of the main things they almost all have in common is they suffer from either sleep apnea or temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ. While both conditions are treatable, they severely impact sleep and restfulness and can cause other serious issues. 

"Most of the patients I see are chronic pain patients," Buck said. "Over time, that pain moves and presents in different ways such as fatigue, anxiety, depression and malaise throughout the whole body."

Because these migraines can be debilitating, it’s important for patients to seek treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, current migraines treatments include pain medication, including pain-relieving and preventative medicines, acupuncture, biofeedback, massage therapy, herbs and supplements and cognitive behavioral therapy. Yet for some patients, these treatments provide little to no relief. Buck offers an alternative treatment that continues to work for his patients. It involves realigning the bite.

"We use a custom appliance that we call an orthosis, which is safe and reversible, and changes the whole bite system," Buck said. "It essentially puts the teeth in a different position, and their headache goes away. They’re able to sleep for the first through the night without pain."

For patients whose migraines are caused by issues like sleep apnea or TMJ, Buck’s treatment method is promising. Yet no matter what the cause of the migraine may be, as the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine suggests, diet continues to play a key role in controlling migraine flare ups.   


[1] University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center. "Diet can impact migraines." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 November 2016.

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