Beware: Certain holiday foods are a migraine waiting to happen

If you’ve powered through a holiday gathering with a pounding migraine, chances are spending hours with your family isn’t the only cause. Mom’s baked Brie or your best friend’s chocolate bark could be causing the migraine, since so many of the preserved and sweet eats we load up on during holiday celebrations top the list of the most common migraine triggers.

Aged cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan, nuts like walnuts and pecans, and chocolate are all notorious migraine triggers that contain tyramine, a naturally occurring chemical that can cause pain. Add to the list: processed foods — particularly those containing nitrates that are found in cured meats like bacon and those in antipasto; MSG, which is commonly linked to Chinese food but is also in many flavored salty snacks, soup stocks and casseroles; and artificial food color, which can show up in salad dressings, maple syrup and cookies.

“Even though it’s tempting to indulge in these treats, they can quickly shift our hormones and neurotransmitters,” says neurologist Trupti Gokani, MD, founder of Zira Mind & Body Center in Glenview, Ill. Even though doctors don’t know how these foods cause head pain, it’s thought that sudden changes in body and brain chemistry activate the pain response in those who get migraines.

Holiday foods, from aged cheeses to red wine, are classic migraine triggers. (Photo: Getty Images)
Holiday foods, from aged cheeses to red wine, are classic migraine triggers. (Photo: Getty Images)

Other holiday eats that can stir up migraines are dishes especially high in sugars, gluten, egg and dairy. “These have been proven in my center to be intolerant for many with migraines,” says Gokani. Also, indulging in super-cold foods like ice cream can excite the brain (in a bad way), as well as eating hot, spiced holiday recipes that can increase reflux and inflammatory peptide production, says Gokani — all of which aren’t good for people prone to these debilitating headaches.

Sometimes migraineurs can get away with eating some of these foods very lightly or during the day, but eating meals later at night or in excess can overburden the liver. “Our liver cleanses inflammation and toxins from the body,” says Gokani. “When the liver is unable to clear, it backs up into the gut, leading to slowed, weak upper digestion called gastroparesis, which is directly linked to migraine and nausea with pain,” says Gokani.

OK is there anything you can eat at that holiday party? Your best bet is to keep it simple in what you put on your plate. “The easiest thing to do is eat foods in unprocessed forms — think fresh fruits, vegetables or simple proteins like fish and chicken,” says Gokani.

Since appetizers can be a minefield of triggers — think cheese, cured meats, gluten and wine — having eaten a little something at home first will help you resist what isn’t good for your brain, and you may just need to skip appetizers altogether. Drinking a cup of soup, noshing on a protein bar or a hardboiled egg or two (that is, if eggs are not migraine triggers for you; some people are perfectly fine with eggs, others are not) can help you make better choices once you’re at the party.

To navigate the dessert table, it’s not a bad idea to bring your own safe dessert to give as a gift to the hostess and to help keep yourself pain free in the process. Look to nut-free paleo recipe sites for ideas; think gluten-free and no refined white sugar versions of desserts like oatmeal or snickerdoodle cookies, cupcakes, cinnamon rolls and pie. Dates, applesauce and bananas are often good recipe substitutes for sweetener or chocolate.

Drinks are another battle zone, since alcohol — especially red wine, which is heavy in sulfites — is closely linked to migraines. Add artificial sugars like aspartame in soda and mixed cocktails showing up in most holiday office party and family gatherings, and it can seem impossible to enjoy a glass of anything. Apple cider can be too rich in tannins (found in the peel of red apples) for migraineurs — and hot chocolate is often a no-go too.

Gokani suggests mixing seltzer water with fresh lemon or pomegranate juice as an option that is gentle on the brain. Many migraineurs can tolerate a glass of white wine like Pinot Grigio, Riesling or Chardonnay. Hydration is also key to migraine prevention. “If you’re going to drink, follow it with a glass of water,” suggests Gokani.

For a warm cup of something to enjoy with dessert, try herbal tea like chamomile or mint, both of which help ease the migraine brain. A virgin hot toddy, usually made with hot water, cloves, lemon, honey and cinnamon sticks, can be another option that helps keep your holiday cheery — and pain free.

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