Migraine can be regarded as a conserved, adaptive response that occurs in genetically predisposed individuals with a mismatch between the brain's energy reserve and workload. Given the high prevalence of migraine, genotypes associated with the condition seem likely to have conferred an evolutionary advantage. Technological advances have enabled the examination of different aspects of cerebral metabolism in patients with migraine, and complementary animal research has highlighted possible metabolic mechanisms in migraine pathophysiology. An increasing amount of evidence - much of it clinical - suggests that migraine is a response to cerebral energy deficiency or oxidative stress levels that exceed antioxidant capacity and that the attack itself helps to restore brain energy homeostasis and reduces harmful oxidative stress levels. Greater understanding of metabolism in migraine offers novel therapeutic opportunities. In this Review, we describe the evidence for abnormalities in energy metabolism and mitochondrial function in migraine, with a focus on clinical data (including neuroimaging, biochemical, genetic and therapeutic studies), and consider the relationship of these abnormalities with the abnormal sensory processing and cerebral hyper-responsivity observed in migraine. We discuss experimental data to consider potential mechanisms by which metabolic abnormalities could generate attacks. Finally, we highlight potential treatments that target cerebral metabolism, such as nutraceuticals, ketone bodies and dietary interventions.