Food, Stress, and Sleep – The 3 Culprits to Migraine

There are many triggers to a migraine, but three of them top the charts in terms of probability. Those are food, stress, and sleep. Avoiding certain foods, managing stress better, and getting regular, good sleep all minimize the distraction and pain of a migraine. Let’s take a look at each of these 3 triggers together.

Avoiding Certain Foods Can Minimize Migraines

About 10% of migraineurs experience food triggers. That’s a large enough percentage to make it clear that regulating your food intake should play a big role in eliminating your migraines. Some of the most common trigger foods include:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheese
  • Cured meats
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • MSG
  • Smoked fish
  • Food preservatives with nitrates and nitrites

That’s not an inclusive list, however. Essentially, any food can be a trigger.  If you’re struggling to figure out which food may be the culprit, try the elimination diet.  

Foods with tyramine – a suspected chemical in protein-rich foods that trigger headaches – should be avoided at all cost. Foods that are fermented, cured, aged, or spoiled have a lot of tyramine in them.  Therefore, look out for cheeses, processed meats, alcoholic drinks and the yeast in breads and cakes. Chemicals like MSG, aspartame, and nitrates are often added to foods for flavor, but they are very common triggers.  Keep an eye on those labels in the grocery store!

Some of this sounds complicated, I know! But, taking out each of these foods or food groups one at a time, and then slowly reintroducing them will help you identify the ones that are most troublesome to you.

Eliminating Stressors Can Reduce Migraine Occurrence

Stress is tied to an increase in brain activity which means a more sensitive nervous system, and likely, a tightening of blood vessels in the brain. It is often a subtle culprit to migraines, but one that can be managed more easily if you are self-aware of what stresses you out.

Anyone who’s dealt with migraines understands that stress can make them a lot worse, no matter what your “normal” triggers are. Stress causes both a physiological and mental response, which cause hormones to fluctuate.  

But, how do you eliminate or even reduce stress?  Playing all the different roles in daily life can drain your systems and hormone stores, leading to exhaustion, irritability, and even more stress. So, what gives?

Well, managing stress is, of course, essential to good health, and there are tons of techniques you can learn to help you reduce levels such as breathing exercises, affirmations, written or visual reminders to stay calm, etc., etc.; however, stress management goes hand-in-hand with addressing the other two culprits as well.  A poor diet can stress the body, and lack of sleep can make dealing with stressors more difficult.

Good Sleep Can Help You Avoid Migraines

Sleep is not just essential; it’s not just necessary.  It’s our natural state of being. Google scientist and renowned sleep expert, Matthew Walker, theorizes that sleep is actually the state of mind we’re supposed to be in and that wakefulness causes low-level brain damage because of what we have to endure during waking hours.

Quite a theory, isn’t it?  After spending years researching sleep and its affect on migraineurs, I can’t help but agree with this sentiment.  Sleep is so restorative, so essential, and so demonstrably catastrophic if insufficient that it’s hard to deny the fact that sleep is what our mind and body most want and need.  It’s “home.”

During deep sleep, the body and mind restore and heal. Our mind paralyzes the body so that we can sleep and recover safely, without acting out our dreams and putting ourselves in danger. During these hours of quality “incarcerated” rest, the glands restore necessary hormones and different areas of the body physically repair themselves.  

Further, insufficient sleep is scientifically linked to conditions like:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Depression and suicidality
  • Anxiety


Accidents, medical errors, violence even!  They can all be connected to poor sleep. There is no doubt that sleep is our life support system.  Therefore, it should never go to the back burner. Everyone needs it, so everyone should be paying attention to it. Check out this blog for sleep tips, but don’t forget to read up on how supplements may be able to help resolve sleep deprivation.  

Many migraines occur in the early morning hours, between 4 am and 9 am, called an “awakening migraine,” which is directly tied to sleep patterns. Sleep loss, oversleeping, and quick shifts in sleep schedule are common triggers for migraines, so do what you can to create a regular routine.

Sleep is the foundation on which good health is built. Diet and stress are secondary concerns, but still just as important.  Try to address all three culprits together to increase the likelihood of a successful regimen.



WebMD Migraine Trigger Foods

AMF Understanding Migraine

Women’s Health Migraine