Migraines are horrible headaches, so it is no wonder that people who suffer from recurrent migraines will go to great lengths to avoid one. Chocolate has a reputation for triggering migraines; is it deserved? That is what this reader wonders.
Q. My wife loves chocolate, but she read that it can trigger headaches. Now she won’t eat it, even on special occasions. I used to buy her great chocolate for Valentine’s day and her birthday and she really enjoyed it.
I never remember her getting a headache right after eating chocolate, but she does occasionally suffer from migraines. Can you tell me why chocolate is a problem?
Chocolate as a Migraine Trigger?
A. Chocolate has long been blamed for triggering headaches because it is high in tyramine. This substance is thought to release serotonin and make blood vessels contract and expand.
There are some indications of an association between migraine headaches and either chocolate or cheese, both of which are rich in tyramine. One study found that about 16 percent of migraine sufferers reported a connection with these foods and their subsequent headaches (Headache, June 1995). In another study, about one-third of the patients questioned reported reacting to foods, particularly cheese or chocolate (Panminerva Medica, Mar. 2002).
Other researchers have found that women who experience migraines tend to avoid chocolate, ice cream, hot dogs and processed meats (Cephalalgia, Aug. 2015). It is not clear whether they do so because they believe, like your wife, that this is prudent or because they have found that this helps reduce the number of headaches they suffer.
Double-Blind Study Cast Doubt on Chocolate:
A double-blind study years ago at the University of Pittsburgh found that many headache sufferers may not be susceptible to chocolate (Cephalalgia, Dec. 1997). In a carefully designed study, 63 female headache sufferers were given either carob or chocolate bars (mint flavored to cover the obvious taste difference). There was no significant association of headaches with chocolate bar consumption.
Your wife might wish to perform her own experiment to see if she really is sensitive to chocolate. She may be depriving herself needlessly. And since cocoa flavanols have health benefits, that would be a double shame. She might also be interested in our Guide to Headaches & Migraines, for more information about triggers and treatments.