Migraines Linked To Gut Bacteria: New Research Could Lead To Probiotic Cure

A new study suggests that people who suffer from migraines may have different gut bacteria than others, and the findings could lead to the development of a simple probiotic remedy to prevent the debilitating headaches.

The Guardian reports that researchers found that migraine sufferers tended to have higher levels of bacteria involved in processing nitrates. This could explain why some foods often trigger migraines and could lead to the development of something as simple as a probiotic mouthwash to alter the balance of oral bacteria and prevent migraines.

Nitrates are higher in some foods such as processed meats, food preservatives, leafy vegetables and some wines. These have long been linked to migraines, but scientists were unsure of the reason. Now researchers are theorizing that migraine sufferers may actually have gut bacteria that is more efficient at breaking down nitrates, causing blood vessels in the brain and scalp to dilate.

“There is this idea out there that certain foods trigger migraines – chocolate, wine and especially foods containing nitrates,” explained lead author Antonio Gonzalez. “We thought that perhaps there are connections between what people are eating, their microbiomes and their experiences with migraines.”

The study was published Tuesday in the American Society for Microbiology’s journal, mSystems.

Researchers reported that they found small but significant differences in the nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide levels of migraine sufferers compared to those who didn’t suffer from the debilitating headaches.

Using high-throughput sequencing technologies, we detected observable and significantly higher abundances of nitrate, nitrite, and nitric oxide reductase genes in migraineurs versus nonmigraineurs in samples collected from the oral cavity and a slight but significant difference in fecal samples.

When people consume nitrates, they are broken down by bacteria in the mouth and gut and converted into nitric oxide in the blood stream. Nitric oxide is a chemical that dilates blood vessels and improves circulation, but cardiac patients often report that drugs containing nitric oxide cause severe headaches.

Indeed, the researchers noted that about 10 percent of cardiac patients cannot tolerate nitrate therapies at all because of unbearable headaches.

Only bacteria can break down nitrates, not human cells. This led the researchers to believe that this leads to “a symbiotic relationship” by which oral microbes maintain heart health by using molecules present in our food.

Chocolate has long been linked to migraines, but doctors now think that it may be an issue of correlation and not causation. Past research suggests that chocolate may not be a true trigger for migraines at all, but people may crave sweet foods before the initial symptoms of a migraine appear and then blame the chocolate if they give in to the craving and the migraine followed.

Migraines affect approximately 12 percent of the population, according to the Migraine Research Center. They are more common in women and children than in men, and tend to run in families.

While most migraine sufferers only experience migraines once or twice a month, more than four million people experience chronic daily migraines, which means they have at least 15 migraines a month.

Migraines are characterized by throbbing, severe head pain, usually on one side of the head. They are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness, visual disturbances and extreme sensitivity to lights or sounds, among other symptoms.

Migraines typically last between four and 72 hours and are so disabling that sufferers are unable to attend work or school.


This new research may eventually lead to the development of a probiotic product that could change the balance of bacteria in migraine sufferer’s mouths and digestive tracts. For now, researchers advise avoiding foods that contain nitrates.

Headache and Migraine News reports that probiotics and healthy bacteria are extremely important for a healthy body, but fermented foods may not be the best options for migraine sufferers. They point out that fermented foods like yogurt tend to be triggers for migraineurs, and should be consumed with caution. Instead, they recommend sources of healthy bacteria that are not fermented, such as supplements or probiotic drinks.

[Featured Image by Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock]