Hard to believe, but we are two months into our journey to tame the migraine beast. If you’ve been playing along at home we’ve covered a lot of ground over the past eight weeks. So let’s start with a recap, then we’ll treat ourselves with some chocolate. Yes, you heard me right, chocolate, because my friends, there is no scientific reason or evidence that chocolate is a migraine trigger.
We first started off by making some lifestyle changes that are starving the migraine beast:
- Removed chemical, nitrates and nitrites, and natural, celery and rosemary extract, preservatives from your diet;
- Limited your consumption of foods naturally high in nitrates and nitrites such as wine, celery, rosemary, watermelon and beetroot; and
- Began making active choices towards foods that have a high lysine to arginine ratio.
These healthy lifestyle choices reduced the availability of fuels for the nitric oxide (NO) pathway, the biochemical mechanism that causes all migraines. In effect you’ve taken steps away from the physiological threshold for the migraine.
In the long term it will take more fuel than before to initiate the migraineur’s super sensitive NO pathway.
Then we learned how not to poke the migraine beast into action. There are some things in our day to day life’s that we have no control over that move us towards the physiological threshold for the migraine. But there are many things that we do have control over, that if we stop doing them we can let the sleeping beast lie:
- Avoiding MSG and glutamates in all their hidden forms;
- No longer cooking with aluminum foil; and
- Being mindful of comingling during cooking of healthy foods with migraine-triggering foods.
By making these informed choices you’ve stopped ingesting harmful amounts of substances that your body detoxifies by excessive NO production. Excessive production of NO is the underlying cause of all types of migraines.
Congratulations, that’s a lot of new knowledge and ground to cover in two months. As I look back on it, a lot of doom and gloom really. So it’s time for some good news. If you have truly made these informed, healthy lifestyle changes your body is ready for it.
One of the things migraineur’s hold as true, is that chocolate is a trigger. This has always perplexed scientists and practitioners because there is no theoretical or empirical evidence to support it. Now before you get your knickers in a bunch please follow along.
First and foremost is that scientists and practitioners define chocolate as the roasted and ground preparation of Theobroma cacao seeds that is used as a flavouring or ingredient for other foods. Anecdotally a migraine sufferer will tell you that chocolate is a trigger because “One bite of a (insert the name of any commercially processed candy) or a mug of (insert name of commercial drinking chocolate) and I have a migraine for days.”. Nearly all candy and chocolate drinks have added migraine triggering glutamates in the form of soy lecithin, malted barley, maltodextrin as well as preservatives. In some cases more of those than the chocolate itself!
Yet the migraine sufferer declares the devil to be the chocolate. Considering that cast of guilty characters that’s a pretty long bow to draw. It’s like drinking a bottle of wine and blaming your hangover on the water used to make the wine.
The most recent review of the scientific literature finds that there is no link between chocolate and migraines. The authors go on to state:
“The results of the double-blind studies are instead unequivocal, and clearly demonstrate that the risk of developing a headache attack after ingestion of chocolate is as likely as administering placebo in patients with migraine.”
This even includes a study with the provocative title Chocolate is a migraine-provoking agent where the authors state that there was no statistical difference in frequency of migraine between chocolate and placebo consumption. Talk about false news, based on their data that title should read Chocolate is not a migraine-provoking agent.
The catch is that it needs to be pure cocoa and chocolate. Cocoa is easy, it is nearly always 100% pure cocoa; so try different types until you find one you like. Cooking chocolate is a bit more difficult as soy lectin is commonly added as an emulsifier to bind the cocoa butter and cocoa together. One “Master Chocolatier” even adds malted barley to all their chocolates and drinking chocolate. Which interestingly enough, in an ongoing packaging change the new labels now read “natural flavours”. Soy lectin and malted barley are naturally high in glutamates and should be avoided by migraineurs. The moral is to carefully read the label of your cooking chocolate.
If you are looking for a migraine-friendly cooking chocolate start with organic varieties. Here in Sydney I couldn’t find any migraine-friendly cooking chocolate at the supermarket, only at whole food shops. My local Harris Farm, who kindly let me photograph their collection, had 12 different types of pure cooking chocolate.
The good news is that 100% cocoa and pure cooking chocolate have nutritional benefits for migraineurs.
First cocoa and cooking chocolate are loaded full of migraine defensive minerals potassium and magnesium. Potassium is great because it helps to protect the blood vessels from damage by excessive amounts of NO. As for magnesium, deficiencies have been found in migraine suffers. When they were given magnesium supplements the incidence of migraines was significantly lower than those given placebo.
Chocolate is so balanced in nutrients that a glass of low fat chocolate milk is the best post-exercise drink. Chocolate milk out performed both electrolyte sports drinks and protein shakes in rehydration and exercise capacity. It is a surprisingly good balance of protein from the milk and electrolytes from the chocolate. If it’s good enough for our Olympic Athletes training at the Australian Institute of Sport, it should be fine for us weekend warriors.
The second thing is that a pure cocoa drink every day can significantly improve mood. The biochemical processes are unclear, but it is theorized that the naturally high levels of serotonin in chocolate are the mood elevators. Like potassium and magnesium, serotonin is a good defensive nutrient for migraineurs. The most commonly prescribed drugs to abort migraines, sumatriptan, belongs to a class of drugs known as the triptans. Triptans are designed to physically resemble the serotonin molecule and thereby invoke a serotonin response. Migraines have been linked to low levels of serotonin than logically increasing levels of serotonin could be preventative. Chocolate needs to contain at least 85% cocoa to have enough serotonin to evoke a response.
In the wisdom of the Finnish:
“Happiness is a place between too little and too much.”
because chocolate does have a dark side. Chocolate is also touted for its high levels of flavonoids, which are antioxidants. Flavonol enhanced cocoa has been found to increase NO production resulting in vasodilation in the heart and brain. I want to be abundantly clear here that this was a specially made cocoa where flavonoids were added during manufacturing to be 25 times that of normal cocoa. The normal cocoa used in the study did not cause increased NO production. Infact, low, habitual cocoa intake has been shown to have no effect on vasodilation. However, this can explain why bingeing on chocolate, especially if it is consumed in the adulterated form of commercially made candy loaded up with glutamates, can result in a migraine.
So my friends, a daily hot chocolate made from 100% cocoa, sugar and milk, and you can find my recipe for Migraineur’s Hot Chocolate here, might just be the ounce of prevention you are looking for. Please don’t use commercially available hot chocolate mixes as I have yet to find one that is free from added MSG.
As always, whenever making lifestyle changes be sure and consult your healthcare team. Under no circumstances should you stop or start taking medication or supplements without their consent.