Updated 04 July 2014

Blinding migraine?

It hurts just to open your eyes. It's migraine time again. So what can you do to stop this from happening again?


Most people who have suffered from a real migraine would do whatever it takes to prevent getting another one. Cutting out certain foods, reducing alcohol intake, making lifestyle changes.

So what do the scientists say? New research has shown that migraines are evidently caused by excessive activity in certain parts of the brain.

In other words, the neurons or building blocks of the nervous system, seem to go into overdrive and produce cascades of electric signals which cause those blinding headaches, the nausea, the vomiting and the general feeling that your head is in the grip of a demon.

Read: Symptoms of migraine

Migraine triggers

Scientists are at present trying to figure out what triggers these neuron explosions which cause such havoc in many lives. Possible triggers are certain foods, hormones, and stress.

Food as a trigger
We have know for a long time that certain foods, especially those that contain a chemical called tyramine can trigger migraines in susceptible individuals. This does not mean that every migraine sufferer is sensitive to tyramine-rich foods.

However, those persons who are sensitive to tyramine or other foods that cause migraine as part of an allergic reaction, can control their headaches relatively successfully by cutting out those foods.

Food containing tyramine
Tyramine is a so-called biological amine that occurs in a number of foods. Tyramine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and causes a rise in blood pressure. The following foods are rich in tyramine:

  • Cheeses, especially Cheddar which can contain up to 20 mg per portion

  • Red wines

  • Biltong

  • Avocado and bananas

Read: Diagnosing migraines

So if you suffer from migraine, be careful when next you attend a cheese-and-wine function. Imagine if you are sensitive to tyramine and eat lots of different cheeses washed down with red wine and nibble biltong in between, and eat crackers heaped with avocado dip, what kind of a super-migraine you will suffer from the next day!

Other food triggers

People who are sensitive or allergic to milk, dairy products, nuts, soya, alcohol, preservatives, colourants and other additives, often also develop migraines in reaction to the offending food or drink.

If you suffer from an allergy and also get blinding headaches, then be extra careful to avoid the foods that give you a reaction. When an allergy is caused by preservatives or other additives, you need to read every food label to make sure that you are not inadvertently eating a harmless food laced with trigger allergen in the form of a preservative.

Read: The causes of migraine

How to beat migraines

The following tips may help you to conquer migraines and get to live a normal life again.

  • Get sufficient sleep. Not too little, but also not too much.

  • Get plenty of exercise. This is relaxing and helps oxygenate the brain

  • Eat a balanced diet and regular meals to prevent hypoglycaemic attacks, which may also trigger migraines

  • Keep a food/drink diary to help you figure out if you are sensitive or allergic to certain foods, drinks or food additives

  • If you discover a pattern where you always develop a migraine after drinking red wine or eating cheese, then cut these foods or drinks out totally

  • Learn to relax, using any method that helps you to achieve calmness (regular exercise, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, etc.)

  • If your doctor has prescribed medication for you, then take a dose the moment you start getting that fuzzy feeling or develop the slightest trace of a migraine aura

  • If you don’t catch the migraine in time, take your medication, lie down in a darkened room, put an ice pack on the area of worst pain, breathe deeply and regularly, do relaxing exercises (nothing too strenuous - this will only make the pain worse), and sleep, if possible

  • If the migraine attack has made you nauseous or if you have vomited, take small sips of iced water, or suck an ice cube to control the nausea

  • In the aftermath of a migraine, simple, light, non-fatty food, such as fresh fruit or fruit juices, and plenty of water will help you to recover more rapidly.

    Read more:

    Figuring out migraine triggers is tricky

    Know your migraine triggers!
    Hormonal changes trigger migraines

(Dr Ingrid van Heerden, dietician, update June 2007)


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Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

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