Are your favourite foods triggering migraines?

Back in 2008, I had migraines nearly every day for months and months. Migraines were not a new experience, I’d had them in cycles all my life. But never with this frequency. It was not a fun time!

I’d wake in the morning and immediately check how I felt. Sometimes the throbbing that had plagued me as I lay down my head the previous night had subsided and I’d feel hopeful – maybe today is the day when it stays away?

But inevitably by mid morning, the tell-tale signs behind my eyes and in the back of my head would start to show. If I was lucky and took the painkillers in time, the worst of the pain would stay away. But the general feeling of being steam-rollered would stay until bedtime. If I hesitated to take the meds, or mistimed them, migraine would hit and it was a struggle to get through to the end of the day. Which was a nightmare when I had 2 young children to look after and a very stressful job working in a neuro intensive care unit.

I was not alone in struggling to function with migraines – 6 million people in the UK experience them at some point with an estimated 190,000 attacks happening every day. Women are more prone than men and to be honest there’s little help or effective treatment out there.

Certainly, I received very little help. In hindsight, maybe I should bugged my GP about it more, but I felt so brushed off when I did go, it put me off. Being told just to keep taking the pain killers wasn’t a good enough answer.

Being a nurse, I knew the long term effects of taking NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) like ibuprofen were not good, and I really didn’t want more problems. And the only tablets that worked for me were combined with codeine which can be addictive for some people over time.

So I rather than just dealing with the symptoms with medication, I decided to find out the cause and started a process of elimination. My eyes were fine and I aced a neurological examination. I was super stressed, but my Buddhist practice helped with that. Could it be food? I went on a detox diet (as I was also overweight at the time) and suddenly felt so much better. I’d cut out meat, dairy, fish, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed foods……basically I was eating wholegrains, fruit and vegetables! And felt great! But which item was the offending one?

At that time, I knew very little about nutrition. I had an interest so thought I knew a bit, but when it came to elimination diets and eating well with whole food groups missing, I felt out of my comfort zone big time. Going online to do some research, I discovered food intolerance tests. Maybe it wasn’t perfect but it seemed reasonably scientific so I went for it.

I used to love these cakes!

The results came back just before my 40th birthday – I was intolerant to dairy and yeast. So all my favourite foods like cake, bread, cheese and wine were making me feel sick – literally! I was so annoyed. And distressed. How could I ever live without these foods?

Once the birthday celebrations had passed (I wasn’t missing out on birthday cake!) I made a decision to cut them all out. It was not easy – never let anyone tell you it is! The foods that make you feel sick are often the very ones you crave, that you’re addicted to. I don’t think I was a very pleasant person to live with. But very quickly, I realised that it was worth it. I felt so much better. Incredibly so.

That was 13 years ago now and how things have changed! I learnt a lot about food intolerances and health, how gut health is key, and how to thrive on amazingly tasty whole plant food that supports the body and gut in a positive way. I still avoid dairy and indeed all animal products and can eat a few yeast-containing products but try to avoid most. Do I still get migraines? I won’t lie – yes I do. But rarely. And usually after I’ve eaten out where the risk of cross-contamination is huge.

cheese wine and bread
All my favourite foods? Not anymore!

In my nutrition clinic, I see a lot of people with migraines caused by undiagnosed food intolerances. Often my clients are astonished how good they can feel when they cut out the offending food. Dairy is a very common trigger (something you don’t tend to see on mainstream medical sites!), so is yeast and fermented products. Gluten, nitrate containing foods, and chocolate as well. But in reality, you can be sensitive to anything if your gut is inflamed and leaky.

It’s Migraine Awareness Week this week, which is why I wanted to write about this now. I’ve discovered that it’s not just about eliminating the offending foods and all is well. To really deal with the underlying cause, you need to:

  • improve your over all nutrition, flooding your body with real, whole foods packed full of amazing compounds that will help you heal.
  • increase the amount and variety of fibre to help the gut heal
  • be fully hydrated to flush out toxins and keep your cells functioning well
  • manage your stress to support both your head and your gut
  • get the help you need to guide and support you

If any of this rings a bell with you and you’d like to make positive changes to feel better maybe I can help? I offer free 15 minute discovery calls, a no obligation chat where we can explore what’s underlying that throbbing head so I can help you starting feeling better right away. Just click on this link or send me a message.


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2 thoughts on “Are your favourite foods triggering migraines?

  1. Hi Karen
    That’s really interesting, but how does that kind of food intolerance relate to the work that Womash have done on FODMAPs?
    The foods you found to be problematic are high in FODMAPs, but then again I know that you eat many other high-FODMAP things without adverse reaction.
    Although Womash do say that many people can tolerate some categories of FODMAP, but not others. And they recommend selective reintroduction by category, in perhaps a similar manner as you worked out for yourself.
    Could you have been a FODMAP pioneer?
    best wishes

    1. Hi Anthony. I think to key to all of this is gut health! Food intolerances arise from an inflamed gut. Reaction to food high in fermentable fibres is definitely due to a struggling microbiome. We are only as healthy as our flora! Working out what is going on to make the right changes is complicated though. Which is why I am doing more microbiome testing with people in my nutrition clinic. It’s fascinating stuff!

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