The Scientific Reason Wine and Chocolate Gives You Migraines

October 21st 2016

Lucy Tiven

A sharp migraine headache can zap the joy out of even the most decadent of desserts.


In a new study published in the American Society for Microbiology's journal mSystems, researchers investigated why some people experience migraines after eating wine, chocolate, and processed foods, yet others can indulge headache-free.

The study's authors — a research team from the University of California in San Diego — linked these migraines to bacteria present in the human mouth and gut.

"There is this idea out there that certain foods trigger migraines — chocolate, wine and especially foods containing nitrates," lead author Antonio Gonzalez said in a statement reported by Science Daily. "We thought that perhaps there are connections between what people are eating, their microbiomes and their experiences with migraines."

Over 38 million Americans suffer from migraines, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.

The authors tested oral and fecal samples taken from the American Gut Project, a collaborative research endeavor based out of UC San Diego.

They found that study participants who suffered from migraines had higher levels of the kind of bacteria that breaks down nitrates — chemicals present in processed meat, wine, chocolate, and other foods in their mouths than those who were migraine-free.


From mSystems:

"These results show for the first time a potential link between bacterial nitrate, nitrite, and nitric oxide reducers and migraines, by reporting their higher abundances in the oral cavities of people with migraines than in the oral cavities of those who do not suffer from migraines."

So what's the deal with these nitrates and nitrites?

Nitrate chemicals are converted into fuel and produce the byproduct nitrite as a result. Bacteria present within the mouth play an important role in this process, as Quartz explains:

"Food like wine, chocolate, processed meats, and even green vegetables contain chemicals called nitrates. These compounds are composed of a nitrogen atom along with three oxygen atoms. Some bacteria that live in our mouths—in particular, Rothia mucilaginosa and Haemophilus parainfluenzae—break down these nitrates for their own fuel. In doing so, they remove one of the oxygen atoms from nitrates, which results in a chemical byproduct called a nitrite. When nitrites enter the bloodstream, they can be converted into nitric oxide (with just one oxygen atom), which has been linked (paywall) to migraines and other kinds of tension headaches."


These chemicals are also present in certain medications. For example, the study noted that nitrates prescribed for heart conditions cause severe headaches in over 80 percent of patients.

The authors caution that the connection between bacteria and headaches identified in the study should not be taken as a definitive cause for migraines.

While their findings shed light on why a piece of cake or glass of evening vino can leave certain people clamoring for Excedrin, the authors stress that more research is needed on the connection between migraines and the chemicals and bacteria discussed in the study.

[h/t Science of Us]