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Preservatives That Trigger Migraine Headaches

By Andrea Abbe

In your quest to prevent migraines, you may overlook diet as a factor. Although there is no scientific proof that certain foods consistently trigger migraines, those who experience these debilitating headaches have been able to identify common culprits. A few preservatives have made it to the top of the list.

Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite often come as a pair. They are used primarily to cure and preserve the color of processed meats. Cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage and bacon are among the usual suspects to watch out for, but you don't have to completely cut these meats out of your diet. Natural and organic versions of lunch meats and bacon, uncured hot dogs, and turkey or chicken sausage are less likely to contain these preservatives. Read the ingredient list to double-check.

Monosodium Glutamate

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is often added to salty foods; Asian food restaurants in particular have a history of using it in their menu items as well. Ask how your favorite local eatery prepares their food if you suspect they use preservatives. Foods to check at the grocery store include snack chips and crackers, boxed pasta or rice dishes, canned soups, taco seasoning and salad dressing.


Foods and drinks with high levels of sulfites include dried fruit, wine, molasses, lemon and lime juices, and grape juice of all kinds. Sulfites are typically used to prevent browning or discoloration in foods. Fruits and vegetables don't generally contain sulfites, but some dried potatoes may contain a moderate amount of the preservative. Read ingredient lists of any processed foods if you are trying to strictly eliminate your consumption of sulfites.

Identifying Your Triggers

You can use two approaches to determine whether preservatives could be causing your migraines. One is to eliminate all processed foods with common preservatives, then gradually add them back into your diet. Another is to eliminate one category of preservatives at a time from your diet to see if there is any improvement. Either way, it's important to keep a headache log -- a record of what you ate and when, with a note next to times and dates when you got a migraine. Over time, if preservatives are to blame, you will be able to tell from the patterns in your food log. If you need further help identifying other triggers, see your doctor.

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