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Is Your Gut Making You More Sensitive to Migraines?

More than 38 million men, women and children in the United States experience migraine headaches. New research has identified a potential link between the digestion of certain foods and triggers for these debilitating attacks.


According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraine headache is the third most prevalent illness in the world and the sixth most debilitating. Women tend to be affected more so than men – in fact, three times as much. Many have daily headaches, affecting daily functioning and quality of life.

Certain foods have been linked to an increase in symptoms – most notably alcohol, caffeine and MSG. Another food component that may be involved is nitrate.

Antonio Gonzalez with the University of California San Diego has published research to suggest that migraine sufferers have higher levels of bacteria in the gut that are involved in processing nitrates. Because these are broken down more efficiently and converted into nitric oxide in the blood stream. This chemical dilates blood vessels in the brain and scalp – increasing the risk of headache.

Nitrates are found primarily in processed meats and in some wines. They are also naturally occurring in some vegetables. It is also a prescribed medicine for cardiac patients – likely explaining why many who take nitrate containing drugs for chest pain or heart failure report severe headache as a side effect.

Dr Brendan Davies, a consultant neurologist at the University Hospitals of North Midlands, says the idea of gut bacteria playing a role in migraine was medically intriguing. “There’s something called a hot dog headache, where nitrates are suspected to be involved,” he said. “This is interesting work, but would need to be confirmed.”

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To reduce the amount of nitrates in your diet, focus on limiting processed and cured meats first, including hot dogs, sausage, and cold cuts. Check food labels that list sodium or potassium nitrates and nitrites as ingredients. You may also want to have your drinking water tested, especially if you are on well water.

While certain plant foods might have naturally occurring nitrates, remember that these also have other components (including vitamin C) that actually reduce the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines. So it is not necessary to avoid salad to prevent migraine headaches.

In addition to food triggers, migraine sufferers are encouraged to get adequate sleep and reduce stress.

Journal Reference:
Antonio Gonzalez et al. Migraines Are Correlated with Higher Levels of Nitrate-, Nitrite-, and Nitric Oxide-Reducing Oral Microbes in the American Gut Project Cohort. mSystems Oct 2016, 1 (5) e00105-16; DOI: 10.1128/mSystems.00105-16

Additional Resources:
Healthy Child.org
Migraine Research Foundation

Photo Credit
By Shanghai killer whale - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons