If you suffer from debilitating migraines, you know the pain is not all in your mind. In fact, the cause may be in your gut. Recent research at the University of California San Diego suggests imbalances in gut bacteria may be to blame for at least some migraines.
The Migraine-Gut Connection
How could gut bacteria have such a profound and agonizing impact on the brain, the organ farthest from the gut? The gut flora in question are very efficient at breaking down nitrates, so when they encounter foods, they quickly saturate the blood with nitric oxide, a product of the nitrate-conversion process. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to dilate.
So elevated levels of nitric oxide in the bloodstream appear connected to migraines, which is in turn linked with the presence of higher levels of bacteria that break down nitrates and produce nitric oxide efficiently. An intriguing piece of evidence that supports this is that drugs high in nitrates are given to patients with heart issues because they increase blood flow — by dilating blood vessels. And four out of five heart patients report severe headaches.
At the moment, researchers can’t say for sure why dilated blood vessels in the brain and scalp might cause migraines. Perhaps dilated vessels put pressure on parts of the brain.
Migraines And The Nitrate Problem
It may seem that you need to cut back on nitrates in your foods to avoid migraines. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Nitrates may be good for you, and cutting them back can be a problem. The science is not definitive on the subject.
Research suggests a link between consuming red meat and elevated risks for cancer. Nitrates and their cousins, nitrites (which convert more readily to nitric oxide), are used in red meats as preservatives.
However, nitrates and nitrites occur naturally in green leafy vegetables, and in much higher doses than in red meats. And consuming green vegetables has been linked to a reduction in the risks of cancer.
The issue, where migraines are concerned, appears to be less to do with the presence of nitrates and more to do with the rapidity of conversion into nitric oxide. The gut bacteria linked to migraines are extremely efficient at this conversion. So the fact that nitrates and nitric oxide are present may not be the issue. The fundamental problem may be a sudden spike in the presence of nitric oxide in the blood, leading to rapid dilation of blood vessels in the brain and scalp.
Managing Your Nitrate/Nitrite Levels
If you suspect your migraines are a result of elevated nitrate levels, you can try a diet that reduces the amounts of nitrates. Reduce red meats, a wise course of action regardless. As nitrate-rich vegetables and fruits are also extremely healthy, you may want to try a grazing approach rather than three meals a day. Rather than include large quantities of vegetables at dinner time, consume smaller portions throughout the day.
Your Gut Bacteria
It’s also wise to use probiotics and foods that encourage properly balanced gut bacteria. This may reduce the amounts of the bacteria that are efficient in converting nitrates into nitric oxide. Probiotics won’t target these bacteria directly. However, they may encourage your microbiome to diversify. This ensures that these nitrate-eating bacteria are fewer in number relative to the other beneficial bacteria you depend on.
Other Suspects in Migraines
Of course, gut bacteria may not be the only factor in your migraine headaches. If your migraines have been frequent, it’s a good idea to book an appointment with one of our doctors. Constant headaches can be symptomatic of other serious health issues. Our doctors can check for other factors that may be at play – for example, most people are deficient in magnesium, and in some that’s a factor in their migraines. We can do a magnesium deficiency blood test in our office, and advise you on increasing magnesium in your diet. You can also book acupressure or acupuncture treatment at our office that may provide some quick relief with migraines.