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What is a migraine headache?

A migraine attack can be debilitating. An untreated attack usually lasts four to seventy-two hours and consists of a throbbing, painful headache on one side of the head. It is often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, aversion to light, aversion to sound, a need to avoid movement because movement worsens the pain. Many researchers believe that migraine sufferers have inherited a more sensitive nervous system response than those who do not suffer from migraine attacks. During a migraine attack, changes in brain activity produce inflamed blood vessels and nerves around the brain.

Migraines are also unique in that they have distinct phases. Not all individuals experience each phase, however. The phases of a migraine headache may include:

  • premonition phase - a change in mood or behavior that may occur hours or days before the headache.
  • aura phase - a group of visual, sensory, or motor symptoms that immediately precede the headache. Examples include hallucinations, numbness, changes in speech, and muscle weakness.
  • headache phase - period during the actual headache. Throbbing pain occurs on one or both sides of the head. Sensitivity to light and motion is common, as are depression, fatigue, and anxiety.
  • headache resolution phase - pain lessens during this phase, but may be replaced with fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Some individuals feel refreshed after an attack, while others do not.

Migraine classification helps to guide treatment. The categories below help to narrow down the classification process.

  • migraine without aura - this more common type of migraine does not include an aura phase (symptoms that come just before the headache).
  • migraine with aura - fewer migraine sufferers have this type of migraine, which is preceded by aura symptoms such as a flashing light, or zigzag lines, for example. These symptoms usually appear within 30 minutes before an attack.

What causes a migraine headache?

Certain factors can act as triggers for a migraine attack. These include routine stress, sleep disturbances, high altitudes, glaring or fluorescent lights, certain foods, changes in weather conditions, and hormonal fluctuations. One reason that women are more likely to experience migraine attacks is that the female hormone estrogen influences serotonin levels, which can result in the expansion of blood vessels in the brain and nerve irritation. Although some triggers such as hormonal fluctuations and changes in barometric pressure are unavoidable, there are some triggers that are avoidable.

Changing your diet can help

Often dietary triggers are not recognized because their effect can be delayed for up to a day or more. Also, by themselves they do not determine whether or not someone gets a migraine, but act with other factors at stimulate the migraine attack. A person may not get a migraine attack every time a trigger food is eaten, but this food can stimulate an attack if other factors, such weather changes, are present.

It has been suggested that a more effective plan for migraine sufferers is to prevent attacks by eliminating all potential offending foods, rather than trying to treat the attack after it has already started.

What foods should I avoid?

  • Caffeine
    Caffeine is found in regular coffee, tea, chocolate, colas and some other carbonated beverages. Since suddenly eliminating all caffeine from your diet can actually stimulate an attack, it is recommended that you decrease these caffeine sources in your diet over a two week period.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
    Monosodium glutamate is used as a flavor enhancer in many foods such as frozen entrées, soups, snack foods and seasoning mixes. Read labels for foods containing MSG. It may be labeled as hydrolyzed vegetable, soy, plant protein; natural flavorings; yeast extract; Kombu; broth; or stock.
  • Nitrates and Nitrites
    Nitrates and nitrites are primarily used in processed, aged, canned, cured, marinated, or tenderized meats.

Food Group

Foods to Avoid



Regular coffee, regular tea, regular cola beverages. Other carbonated beverages containing caffeine, such as Jolt, Mr. Pib, and Mountain Dew.

Alcoholic beverages, especially aged alcohol such as red wine, champagne, rum, ale, beer and other dark or heavy drinks.

Decaffeinated coffee, tea and cola beverages are tolerated by most people. Vodka is usually the best tolerated alcoholic beverage.

Breads and Starches

Fresh-baked, yeast-risen bread products, doughnuts, sourdough breads, breads or crackers containing cheese, any containing chocolate.

Breaded foods, croutons, bread stuffing. Corn chips, potato chips.

Regular commercial breads are usually well tolerated.

Dairy Products

Cultured dairy products such as buttermilk, yogurt, and sour cream. Chocolate milk, chocolate ice cream, chocolate pudding. All aged cheese, which means all cheese except American, processed cheese slices, cream cheese and cottage cheese. Cheese dips.


Bananas, raisins, red plums, raspberries, canned figs. Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes and pineapples, and their juices.

Diets may need to be supplemented with vitamin C.


All aged, dried, fermented, salted, smoked, and pickled meats and fish, including processed meats (bacon, sausage, liverwurst, hot dogs, corn dogs) and luncheon meats (corned beef, pepperoni, salami, bologna, ham), canned meats, beef jerky, frozen dinners, pot pies, caviar.

Remember to eat foods as fresh as possible. After you purchase perishable food, make sure you eat it within the next 2 days.


Dried, packaged or canned soups, sauces and gravies. Accent seasoning, salt substitutes, seasonings, salad dressings, relishes, bacon bits, baking mixtures. Fermented soy products, such as miso and soy sauce. Chinese restaurant food. Aspartame (NutraSweet). All vinegar, except white vinegar. Nuts and nut butters, such as peanut butter.

Check labels for ingredients such as meat extracts; yeast extracts; hydrolyzed soy, vegetable, plant protein; natural flavorings.


Broad, lima, fava, and navy beans; pea pods, sauerkraut, onions.