You just enjoyed a nice meal, then a few hours later your head is throbbing. You may be pointing fingers and cursing the weather changes, bright lights, or everyday stress for causing a migraine attack, but you should also consider what you eat and drink.

Why are you getting headaches after eating?

You may experience migraine attacks or headaches after eating from a bad reaction to certain compounds in food or a food allergy.

Certain foods and drinks, like processed foods and alcohol, can negatively affect your brain and blood vessels. The amount, and even temperature of the food, can determine the severity and frequency of your migraine attacks.

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There can be several reasons behind dealing with a headache after eating. Sometimes the culprit is the food we eat, but it could also come from jaw issues.

Postprandial hypoglycemia

After you eat, your body utilizes carbohydrates as energy. Carbs break down into glucose (aka sugar) which temporarily raises your blood sugar levels until your cells use that sugar for fuel. Postprandial hypoglycemia (aka reactive hypoglycemia) means you have low blood sugar levels after eating a meal. It can happen about 2 to 5 hours after eating.

According to a 2019 article, the increased secretion of insulin from hypoglycemia is linked with migraine attacks. (Insulin’s the hormone that helps lower your blood sugar). A small 2015 study also found that women who experienced migraine attacks had higher levels of blood insulin levels after consuming sugar.

Food allergy or intolerance

Food allergies don’t always cause hives or difficulty breathing. They can be the reason behind your migraine attack. When you have a food allergy, your body views it as an invader. This kicks your immune system into gear to fight it off with antibodies, such as immunoglobulin G (IgG). A 2021 cross-sectional study found that participants who had one or more food-specific IgG antibodies also had more frequent and severe migraine attacks.

Food intolerances, which don’t create an immune reaction like allergies, may also cause migraine attacks. It’s more common for them to affect your digestive system, though.

Temporomandibular disorder (TMJ)

Have you ever noticed a clicking in your jaw when you eat? This could be caused by issues with your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) which connects your jawbone to your skull. Other symptoms could include pain in your jaw and difficulty chewing.

A 2017 article states that individuals who have TMJ are also more likely to deal with headaches or migraine episodes. Thankfully, TMJ can be managed by physical therapy in order to help prevent migraine attacks.

Cold stimulus

Ever heard of an ice-cream headache or brain freeze? When you eat cold foods or drink cold beverages quickly, you may be causing probs for your noggin. While these types of headaches typically only last for minutes, it’s possible they can last up to an hour. It’s more often associated with cold foods, but it can also occur from cold weather. ❄️

The compounds found in certain foods may be what’s triggering a migraine attack in susceptible people, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Here’s what to look for.

  • Caffeine. This can come as a surprise since many headache medications contain caffeine as an active ingredient. That’s because caffeine has the ability to narrow blood vessels which helps reduce the pain. However, if you consume caffeine regularly, your body becomes dependent on it and it can become less effective. Trying to cut back on caffeine can lead to withdrawal symptoms, including a migraine attack.
  • Tyramine. Tyramine is produced when the amino acid, tyrosine, breaks down. While researchers don’t completely understand its link to migraine attacks, a 2021 article states that it could be due to its effect on your brain and blood vessels.
  • Phenylethylamine. This compound is also derived from amino acids. According to a 2020 article, phenylethylamine can reduce brain blood flow and affect the circulatory system in a similar way as migraine does. You’ll typically find it in chocolate.
  • Nitrate. Nitrates are common food additive that can trigger a migraine attack by exposing the brain to nitric oxide which constricts blood vessels. It can trigger pain within an hour.

The following are specific foods that can contain one or more of these compounds:

Most individuals dealing with migraine can’t pinpoint exactly what food is causing them pain, but the most commonly reported food triggers are alcohol (33 percent) and chocolate (22 percent).

FYI: According to a 2020 review, there’s still some controversy around whether or not many of these foods or compounds actually trigger migraine attacks. It may depend on how much of the food or drink you have.

Regardless of whether a migraine attack came from the food you ate or something else, you want to stop it in its tracks or at least reduce how severe it is. Some helpful home remedies and medications include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. This is usually the first-line treatment for a migraine. There are several OTC options including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NAIDs), like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. Acetaminophen (which is found in Tylenol) is another option if you can’t take NAIDs. Some medications, like Excedrin, combine aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine for treatment.
  • Prescription medication. If the first-line treatment isn’t working, a chat with your doctor might determine you need something a bit stronger. Triptans are FDA-approved migraine treatments and work similarly to serotonin (a brain chemical) to help narrow arteries and block pain signals to the brain.
  • Acupuncture. If you’re open to getting tiny needs poked into your skin to stimulate relief, then you should give acupuncture a try. A 2016 review found that people who had 6 days of migraine pain per month were able to cut that in half adding acupuncture to their usual care.
  • Cold compress. Holding a cold towel over your forehead, temples, or the back of your neck may help to reduce inflammation and pain caused by migraine according to an older 2013 trial.

If you’re affected by migraine attacks, you know that you would do anything to avoid getting one again. While it might be impossible to remove all potential triggers from your life, there are many ways to prevent the frequency and length of a food-induced migraine.

1. Keep a “pain” diary

Keeping a diary of what you do and eat during the day can be helpful to see a common link when migraine attacks occur. The American Migraine Foundation states this can be an easy way to eliminate the believed food trigger to test out whether it was the culprit.

2. Eat more whole foods

Many compounds that are suspected to cause migraine come from processed foods or those that contain preservatives and artificial sweeteners. Focusing on a diet that consists of mostly fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean protein, and whole grains can provide the nutrients your body loves and possibly prevent future migraine attacks.

3. Drink lots of water

Almost 1 in 3 people with migraine say that dehydration is a big trigger. If you’re consuming foods and drinks that can cause dehydration (like coffee, alcohol, and salty foods), drinking enough fluids can be key to avoiding migraine attacks.

Certain foods and drinks can be common triggers for individuals who get migraine attacks. Keeping a record of what you eat regularly can help you pinpoint what specific food may be the culprit. Overall, a diet that limits processed foods and artificial sweeteners may be helpful in preventing future head-pounding pain.