These 11 foods can cause headaches. How to find your trigger, according to a doctor

Foods and migraines have a deep connection, something Dr. Fred Cohen knows personally about. When he sees patients suffering from headaches, he knows all too well what they’re going through.

Cohen says he’s had severe headaches once a week for as long as he can remember — at least since kindergarten.

“That was just my life and what I thought was just a normal thing. Once a week, I’ve got to end my day early, go home and sleep,” Cohen, a headache specialist and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, tells

“The pain was severe … a 10 out of 10 throbbing pain in your head.”

It wasn’t until he was in his 20s and in medical school that he understood his episodes were migraines — recurring headaches that often come with severe pulsating pain on one side of the head, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

His own journey to find relief inspired Cohen to become a headache specialist. He says migraines are the “bread and butter” of what he does — almost 30 million Americans suffer from migraines, most of them women, the Office on Women’s Health notes. Migraines are the No. 1 cause of disability among young women, studies have found.

Cohen also sees patients with other types of headaches — cluster, tension, and those that involve the face and the neck. A recent patient complained of a primary sexual headache, “which is at climax, they feel like their head is about to explode — a severe sudden pain,” Cohen says.

Can foods trigger migraines and headaches?

Yes, foods and drinks are often triggers for migraines because the condition involves neuroinflammation, and what people eat can promote an inflammatory state, he adds.

Other factors that can trigger headaches and migraines include hunger, stress, changes in sleep and airline travel, he notes.

Cohen’s own dietary trigger is alcohol, so he avoids it because he knows a drink would result in what he calls a “nasty migraine attack” a couple of hours later.

Everyone’s headache is different, but Cohen says there are 11 common dietary triggers.

“How each of these works is essentially when it’s digested and broken down, it’s annoying something in your body. They each have their own mechanism,” he notes.

Cohen doesn’t suggest avoiding all these foods, but using the list as a guide to find your own culprits:


Found in coffee, tea, chocolate and certain soft drinks. “Caffeine is a double-edged sword. For many people, it helps their headaches and migraine,” Cohen says. “But there are people for who caffeine can make all things worse. … It could be both a treatment and a trigger.”


Particularly red wine, beer and spirits.


Including milk, yogurt, ice cream and aged cheeses, such as blue cheese, cheddar and parmesan. “Some people are lactose intolerant, some people have dairy that triggers their headaches,” Cohen notes.


Found in processed meats like hot dogs, sausages and deli meats.

Citrus fruits

Such as oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits. This may seem surprising, but Cohen says citrus can cause an increased inflammatory response in some people.

Artificial sweeteners

Such as aspartame and sucralose, found in diet sodas, processed food and baked goods.

Tyramine-rich foods

Tyramine is an amino acid found in some foods and can be part of a chain reaction that leads blood vessels in the head to narrow and dilate, which causes throbbing pain, according to the National Headache Foundation. Tyramine can be found in aged meats, smoked fish, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and kombucha.


This includes foods cooked with onions, green onions and shallots.

Nuts and legumes

Such as peanuts, walnuts, almonds and cashews.


Including breads, baked goods, cereals, barley and rye.


Monosodium glutamate is a common food additive. It can be found in processed foods and snacks, used as a flavor enhancer or a spice.

How to identify migraine trigger foods

Cohen advises keeping a headache diary to record when an episode happens, how long it lasts and what you were doing when it happened.

If you suspect a food trigger, he recommends an elimination diet, which involves excluding one item at a time from the list above from your diet for four to six weeks.

At the end of that period, check your headache diary: Were things better? If so, you found a headache trigger. If not, move on to another food from the list and stop eating it for four to six weeks.

“You want to give it ample time because we’re changing chemistry here,” Cohen says. “You don’t just do one day — these might be slow changes.”

Most people do find answers, but will likely still get headaches and migraines — just not as frequently if they avoid the triggers, he adds.

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