How BBQing Can Trigger Migraines (+ Tips to Keep on Grillin’)

“All the foods that we love in a barbecue can trigger migraine.”

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Nothing says the arrival of summer quite like firing up the grill—the smell of charcoal, the sound of crackling flames, the sight of smoke curling up to the sky. 

Unfortunately, if you’re someone who’s prone to migraines, this orchestra of summer grilling can pose a challenge. “A lot of the foods that are used during barbecues can [contain] certain preservatives and certain ingredients that [are] really bad migraine triggers,” says Cynthia Armand, MD, neurologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. 

Think of what usually goes on the grill: hot dogs. These are the quintessential processed meat in the United States. Hot dogs commonly contain nitrates, which are chemicals used as a preservative to prolong shelf life in processed meats. Plus, common hot dog condiments like relish and sauerkraut also contain preservatives that can trigger migraines. 

Burgers aren’t totally off the hook. While you can buy burgers that are nothing but beef at the store, certain burger products that come pre-spiced might be more processed and could trigger a migraine.

Plus, people are more likely to grab alcoholic beverages or diet sodas at outdoor BBQs. Alcohol and artificial sweeteners are both migraine triggers themselves. To make it worse, alcohol can worsen dehydration under the hot sun, another migraine trigger.

“In order to reduce the risk of migraines at barbecues, I always tell my patients to go fresh,” says Dr. Armand. “I know it's very easy to buy something that's pre-packaged, but there's something to be said about fresh ingredients and the amount of control that you have in the spices that are used in helping to prevent migraine.”

More specifically, avoiding processed foods with lots of preservatives can help you avoid migraine triggers like nitrates and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Season your burgers yourself instead of buying pre-seasoned patties, or wow your friends and family with homemade condiments, like guacamole, salsa, or chutney. 

Unfortunately, it’s not just the food and drink that can trigger summer migraines. The smoke, the bright sun, the heat, and the smell of bug spray and sunscreen can all be migraine triggers. Find out tips to prevent migraine from the summer sun here.

“If someone is having trouble with certain foods during the summertime and migraine attacks, it's very important to have a medical evaluation with a headache specialist because there might be something else that can be contributing,” says Dr. Armand. “In order to pinpoint what that is, a full evaluation and a discussion and consultation is definitely necessary.”