Prone to Migraines? Watch Out for These Tricky Holiday Foods

“There are so many temptations out there in terms of food during the holiday.”

Loading the player...

The holiday season can bring a number of migraine triggers, from chaotic holiday shopping to budget stress. But one big migraine trigger that might get overlooked is the holiday party spread—those festive foods and drinks on your table.  

“There are so many temptations out there in terms of food during the holiday and, a lot of the times, as someone who has migraine, one might know that those same foods can be a trigger,” says Cynthia Armand, MD, neurologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

But let’s be honest: Your entire eating and drinking patterns tend to change around the holidays (it’s not just what is being served). You might eat larger meals, later in the night, while your aunt keeps refreshing your drink.

Here are the things that might trigger a migraine during your holiday dining:

  • The holiday treats: “Whenever we go to the holiday gatherings, what do we see? We see dips. We see processed meats. We see cheeses. All of these things can trigger migraine,” says Dr. Armand. 

  • Dehydration: When stripped of your usual routine, you might drink less water than usual—especially if you’re too busy drinking eggnog.

  • Alcohol: You’ll likely be tempted to imbibe more than usual during the holidays. Researchers aren’t exactly sure how alcohol causes migraines, except by increasing the risk of dehydration and sleep disruption.

  • Skipped meals: Whether you skip a meal because you’re busy holiday shopping, or because you’re “saving your calories” for the big feast later (which is not recommended), fasting is a major trigger for migraine—possibly more than any individual food trigger.

Knowing your holiday feast may be infested with migraine triggers can be overwhelming. “A lot of times, individuals can feel very deprived during the holiday season and feel as though they’re missing out because of their migraines,” says Dr. Armand.

How to Prevent Holiday Migraines (Without Feeling Deprived)

Preventing a holiday migraine doesn’t mean you have to show up and nibble on iceberg lettuce all night. Here are tips to enjoy the holiday season sans migraines:

1. Drink in moderation

Obviously, there is no *need* for alcohol, and many people choose to give it up altogether. However, if that choice isn’t for you, just stick to one or two glasses, and be sure to drink plenty of water in between alcoholic beverages.

2. Eat before attending holiday gatherings

Have you ever arrived at a party hungry, only to realize the food won’t actually be ready for another two hours? This can be extra challenging if that pre-meal charcuterie board is filled with migraine-triggering foods like processed meats and cheeses.

A key to migraine prevention is consistency—and that includes eating regularly. Waiting too long to eat may cause blood sugar dips and spikes, which may cause a migraine. Consider having a snack before leaving the house, or pack something simple that you can munch on.

3. Bring a dish (if the host is OK with it)

If you’re worried about whether there will be anything “safe” for you to eat at a holiday gathering, consider bringing a dish of your own. After all, the stress alone of wondering what you will eat could trigger a migraine.

4. Understand your triggers

The holiday spread can be especially disappointing if you assume you have to avoid *all* migraine trigger foods. The truth is, people who get migraines may each have their own unique set of triggering foods. For example, some may be able to eat chocolate, or processed meats, or red wine. 

“The best way to [know your triggers] is to keep a diary and see if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship to you,” says Dr. Armand. “A migraine diary can be very powerful during the holidays because we are exposed to foods that we may not eat all the time.”

5. Enjoy in moderation

Total abstinence from the charcuterie board might not be necessary. Again, this depends on your own triggers and your tolerance of different foods—which is another reason to keep that migraine diary handy.

6. Find substitutes for migraine triggers

Instead of a meat and cheese board, try a mezze platter: pita bread, hummus, babaganoush, olives, etc. Instead of a cheesy spinach and artichoke dip, make a spinach and artichoke hummus, or use a dairy-free “cashew cream” as a base. Consider making holiday mocktails for your event.  

Remember, it’s okay to concentrate on your health during the holidays. “Take the guilt away from that. Concentrate on yourself,” says Dr. Armand. “It’s important for you to breathe, relax, concentrate on yourself … so that you can be present for everyone else and live life.”