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Do High-Nitrate Foods Cause Migraines?

author image Janet Renee, MS, RD
Janet Renee is a clinical dietitian with a special interest in weight management, sports dietetics, medical nutrition therapy and diet trends. She earned her Master of Science in nutrition from the University of Chicago and has contributed to health and wellness magazines, including Prevention, Self, Shape and Cooking Light.
Do High-Nitrate Foods Cause Migraines?
Identifying triggers helps reduce migraines. Photo Credit pixelheadphoto/iStock/Getty Images

If you're familiar with the excruciating pain of a migraine, you are likely motivated to identify factors that increase your chances of experiencing a migraine attack. Various things can trigger a migraine in vulnerable individuals, depending on their unique sensitivities. Everything from stress, high altitude, lack of sleep and skipping meals can trigger a migraine, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Substances in your diet, such as nitrates, can also trigger a migraine attack.

Nitrates and Migraines

In general, any food has the potential to trigger migraines in susceptible individuals. However, nitrates and nitrites are more closely linked to triggering migraines than other substances. Nitrates are found naturally in certain vegetables, such as collard greens, broccoli and root vegetables, and nitrites are typically used to preserve processed meat. Definitive clinical data is lacking, but migraine sufferers have reported a sensitivity to nitrites, according to Texas Neurology. Because the body can convert nitrates to nitrites, both substances may pose a problem for migraine sufferers.

How Nitrates May Trigger Migraines

The body produces nitric oxide, which is a gas that expands blood vessels. Nitrates increase the production of nitric oxide, and the result appears to trigger migraines in sensitive individuals, according to a study published in the June 2010 issue of the journal "Cephelalgia." The study found that nitric oxide stress preceded migraines in sufferers. Nitric oxide stress occurs when there's an imbalance in the body's ability to neutralize free radicals that result from the production of nitric oxide. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells. This data suggests that eating high-nitrate foods may trigger a migraine by increasing nitric oxide and thereby raising the potential for nitrogen oxide stress in susceptible individuals.

Nitrate-Rich Foods

The level of nitrates necessary to trigger a migraine headache varies among susceptible individuals. Because nitrates are used to preserve food and cure meats, they are found in processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, ham, bacon and luncheon meats. However, vegetables contain varying levels of nitrates as well. Beets, celery, lettuce, radishes and spinach provide the most nitrates in the typical diet, according to EatRight Ontario.

What You Can Do

If you suspect nitrates are triggering your migraines, talk to your doctor about the best way to reduce your nitrate intake. Your physician can prescribe an elimination diet designed to identify how much nitrate you can tolerate and from which sources. Avoiding processed and cured meats can help lower your exposure. However, some nitrate-containing foods, such as vegetables, are otherwise healthy. You may find that you need to restrict certain vegetables. Purchasing organic produce may further reduce your nitrate exposure. Organic vegetables are typically lower in nitrates than conventionally grown veggies, according to EatRight Ontario.

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