Can chocolate give you a migraine?
A migraine is the worst headache you can imagine; throbbing pain usually on one side of your head that is accompanied by sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells, with nausea and or vomiting. I used to suffer from relatively frequent migraine attacks that would last up to 5 days; I would get strange sensations and feelings of numbness across one side of my face and the only thing I could do was lie in a dark room. I am very grateful I hardly ever get them these days and I never did identify a trigger, not food anyway but tiredness and stress seemed be a common theme (not that I feel particularly chilled out and sprightly these days!)
Why does a migraine happen with chocolate?
1. Migraines are thought to be caused by changes in the chemicals of the brain; particularly the levels of serotonin that I talked about yesterday. Low levels of serotonin can make the blood vessels in your brain go into spasm. This suddenly makes them narrow, reducing the flow of blood and might explain some of the warning signs of a migraine called ‘aura‘ – flashing lights, aching arms or stiffness of the neck. Soon after, the blood vessels relax and open up, which is thought to cause the headache as the blood surges through again.
The reason for the fall in serotonin is not yet fully understood and I am not exactly sure how chocolate (which is a common trigger for migraine) would lower the serotonin level as it contains tryptophan………….surely this would increase serotonin levels as the tryptophan makes serotonin? Maybe the next point below will help explain?
2. Chocolate contains the amino acid tyramine; this has been thought to trigger headaches by reducing serotonin levels in the brain and so causing that spasm-relaxation effect of the blood vessels. Tyramine (and phenylethylamine for that matter that I also mentioned yesterday and may also be a trigger) are such minor compounds in chocolate that I don’t think anyone has properly studied how they differ in the different varieties of chocolate. Tyramine is found in so many other common foods, it would be hard to blame chocolate entirely for upping your intake of this compound. Tyramine is quite an old theory too but I think its worth putting it on the ‘most-wanted‘ list.
3, Tannins are also found in chocolate (and tea and red wine) and give foods their characteristic astringent taste (that dry, pucker-up sensation in your mouth). Again the evidence is weak and mostly anecdotal so I am struggling to find anything really concrete. One things is for sure, the higher the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate, the more of these compounds they will have.
4. Fat. A study found that migraine patients with the diets high in fat tended to have more frequent headaches so certainly with milk and white chocolate, this could explain something…..I’m grasping at straws now really 🙂
Other complicating factors include:
- Foods are often triggers only when they are combined with other triggers. For example, they may act as triggers only when stress or hormonal changes are also at work (like a menstrual migraine)
- Whether you get a migraine from a food or beverage may depend on how much you consume. You might not have a problem with a small amount of chocolate but it might be a different story when you eat the whole giant bar.
- You may not get a headache for several hours to several days after eating a trigger food. This makes it very hard to find the connection between migraines and certain foods or drinks.
So migraines are a very individual thing; if you think chocolate might bring on an attack, cut it out or certainly avoid the dark stuff.
Check out The Migraine Trust Fact Sheet for more info.
See you, same time again tomorrow………………….