Diet, Health Studies
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How Wine and Chocolate Cause Migraine Headaches

Few maladies are more miserable than a migraine headache. To add insult to injury, migraines are often triggered by the very food and drink people enjoy most, such as wine and chocolate. Now scientists believe they have figured out why this is true. It’s all about intestinal microbes and the way they interact with the chemicals in food.

The chemicals in question are nitrates. They are present in chocolate, wine, processed meats, and many other foods. In the gut, they are converted into nitric oxide byproducts which in turn cause the splitting headache.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) analyzed 172 oral samples and 1,996 stool samples from a database they maintain for their American Gut Project. (Yes, that is a thing). They learned that people who suffer from migraines had higher levels of the intestinal microbes that convert the nitrates.

Researcher Antonio Gonzalez says:

There is this idea out there that certain foods trigger migraines – chocolate, wine, and especially foods containing nitrates. We thought that perhaps there are connections between what people are eating, their microbiomes, and their experiences with migraines

Intestinal bacteria access the nitrates present in food and drink and use them as fuel. The waste products produced by the nitrates become nitric oxide in the blood. Nitro oxide is useful because it dilates blood vessels and boost blood circulation, but this very dilation and inflammation raise the risk of migraine.

Nitrates are often prescribed for heart patients, and more than 80 percent of those report a side effects of headaches. The scientists speculate that bacterial microbiomes are the cause.

The UCSD research team used a bioinformatics software program called PICRUSt (pronounced “pie crust”) to determine the genes likely to be found in the microbes of each individual. The researchers found the genes that encoded nitrate, nitrite, and nitric oxide-related enzymes were present to a high degree in the mouths and intestines of migraineurs (individuals who regularly suffer migraines). This evidence strengthens the hypothesis that intestinal and mouth bacterial might provide the link between nitrates in food and migraines, but scientists say more research is necessary to prove the argument.

American Gut Project manager Embriette Hyde, who worked on the study, says:

It remains to be seen whether these bacteria are a cause or result of migraines, or are indirectly linked in some other way.

The researchers will conduct follow-up studies. If the suspected link is proven, it could lead to a range of treatments for migraines. Gonzales suggests there could even be a “magical probiotic mouthwash.”

Meanwhile, if you suffer these devastating headaches, your best course may be to avoid wine and chocolate.