I love going out to restaurants. It’s a real treat not having to cook an entire meal myself or enjoying dishes that are too complicated or time-consuming to make at home. Every once in a while, I like having someone wait on me, even if I’m only having a cup of tea or coffee with a fresh muffin while I read a book. No matter how much I may love dining out, however, there are many times when visiting a restaurant has triggered a migraine. Though I avoid known triggers and call potential ones to a manager’s attention when I’m out, it’s sometimes too late: the migraine has already started. I don’t want restaurants to become sterile, uninviting places, but I do wish that all restaurant owners, managers, and employees knew some of the most common triggers of migraines so these triggers could be eliminated before people with the neurological disorder of migraine even walk in. Their customers would then feel safer enjoying that meal away from home.
1. Control the Temperature
Temperature control is very important for most people who suffer from migraines since extreme variations and quick changes can trigger those pounding, one-sided headaches. For some of us, heat is a trigger, so, no thank you, we don’t want to sit at that table with the full sun shining on it. If there are blinds or shades, please do put them down even if our table is not right next to the windows. For many of us, that cold air blowing down from the air-conditioning unit will trigger a migraine. We’re not trying to be difficult when we ask to be moved to a different spot. We just want to enjoy our meal without getting stabbed in the head by the icepick-pain that is our migraine. Moderate temperatures probably work best for all customers, but it’s imperative for those who suffer from migraines. Please keep the restaurant at a more moderate temperature, neither stifling hot nor freezing cold.
2. Eliminate Any Flickering Lights
Whether it’s from those romantic candles on each table, from that television hanging in the corner above the bar, or from a failing fluorescent bulb in a ceiling fixture, lights can cause debilitating headaches in almost all of us diagnosed with migraines. If I ask to be seated someplace where I can’t see the flashing lights of sporting events or commercials, I’m trying to take care of myself, not annoy you. I can blow out a candle on the table to keep its flame from triggering a migraine, but I can’t fix that flickering fluorescent light on the ceiling, and moving to another table doesn’t always keep that blinking light from my peripheral view, and that, too, can trigger a migraine. Please check all the ceiling lights before opening each day, and replace any bulbs that are humming or flickering. Don’t light candles on individual tables unless the patrons request it or agree to it when they’re seated. We, too, may love romantic lighting, but nothing kills romance faster than the excruciating pain of a migraine. Please be aware that flickering lights are triggers, and eliminate them whenever possible.
3. Turn Down the Noise
I’ve only walked into a sports-bar restaurant once, and I immediately left because there were big-screen televisions everywhere, each turned to a different sporting event, all with their sounds blaring. When popular restaurants have the sound on the bar’s television turned completely off (sometimes with closed-captioning on for patrons who want to watch television while dining out), I’m very grateful. But that loud music pumping through the restaurant’s speakers can cause just as many headaches for those of us who suffer from migraines, and not because we don’t like whatever music you happen to be playing. If you have live musicians and we ask if their microphones could be turned down, we’re not trying to insult your musicians. We just want to eat our meal without having a migraine triggered by the noise. When patrons talk even louder to be able to hear each other over the already loud television volume or music, the migraine triggers are compounded. Keep ambient noise to a lower level so everyone can enjoy their dining experience, not just those of us who have migraines.
4. Avoid Strong Odors
Of course, anyone may encounter unfamiliar smells at a restaurant, especially if it serves ethnic food or other dishes with which patrons may not be familiar. Those kinds of smells don’t usually trigger a migraine for me, but that chlorine bleach or Lysol with which you cleaned your restrooms almost instantly causes a migraine. Cleaning product odors can trigger fierce headaches for countless people with migraine. I realize that you have a large volume of traffic in your restaurant, and that you want to keep your patrons safe from germs and contagious illnesses, but there are plenty of natural products free of such triggering odors, products that also disinfect and keep germs at bay. If you are prohibited from switching to more natural, less offensive-smelling disinfectants for some reason, you might clean your bathrooms a few hours before opening, and avoid cleaning them with strong-smelling products while diners are present in the restaurant to keep those powerful odors from triggering a migraine in the middle of a patron’s meal.
5. List All Food Ingredients & Additives
There are many food ingredients, natural and manufactured, that can trigger migraines. Those artificial sweeteners in your restaurant’s diet sodas and desserts may be fine for most patrons, but they cause migraines for many of us. Food allergies can trigger migraines — or worse, anaphylactic shock ( a life-threatening allergic reaction). As someone allergic to bees, I can’t have honey, raw or cooked, but honey is rarely listed as an allergen in restaurant foods.
MSG is a known migraine trigger, and restaurants that specialize in oriental foods are not the only ones that use it. MSG could be in the packaged gravy mix your cook uses for the homemade meatloaf, in the seasoned salt he sprinkles on the fish or meat, or in the bouillon cubes he tosses into the soup to make it taste richer. Other ingredients, like soy or yeast extract, can also trigger migraines even if the patron is not actually sensitive to MSG.
Some restaurants have their wait-staff memorize the ingredients in each dish; other restaurants have all ingredients hanging in the kitchen so the list can be consulted if patrons have questions. The wait-staff needs to be informed about such food and beverage triggers, and then trained to be diligent and knowledgeable when serving patrons. Even better, having every ingredient in every dish listed and available to patrons on request will protect all your patrons with food allergies, not just your customers with migraines who might be triggered by a dish’s ingredients. Any initial expense of printing all the ingredients would soon be recouped by loyal patrons who know they can eat your restaurant’s meals without fear of having a migraine triggered.
Though I don’t go out to eat regularly, I appreciate having a safe environment when I do go out to a restaurant. If the manager monitors the ambient noise level, is aware of climate control, and watches for any flashing or flickering lights, they can protect customers from being inadvertently exposed to migraine triggers. Additionally, I scrupulously avoid known food triggers, so when the wait-staff, cook, or manager can readily provide me with the complete ingredient list of any dish I order, they’re helping me take care of my own health and inspiring customer loyalty.
For more of my migraine articles,
see my Migraine & Chronic Pain page.