It’s common wisdom that chocolate is a migraine trigger—yet the common wisdom might not be correct. Studies have failed to establish a clear link between chocolate consumption and migraine attacks.
In one well-designed study of 63 women with migraine, tension-type headache, or both found that chocolate was no likely to trigger a migraine than carob was. The study’s abstract concludes, “Thus, contrary to the commonly held belief of patients and physicians, chocolate does not appear to play a significant role in triggering headaches in typical migraine, tension-type, or combined headache sufferers.”
An article that reviewed the research on chocolate and migraine, published last December, found that chocolate was far less likely to trigger migraine attacks than stress, fasting, lack of sleep, or alcoholic beverages. Researchers found that chocolate was as likely to be a migraine trigger as a placebo was (read: unlikely) and say that “the widespread belief that chocolate and cocoa containing foods should be absolutely avoided by migraine patients lacks of a reliable scientific basis.”
Why is chocolate so often considered a migraine trigger?
There are several factors at work here. One is that people tend to crave sweets before a migraine attack. It could be that you were craving chocolate in the first place because you already had an attack coming on. Or you could be more likely to consume chocolate at times when you have other trigger factors at play, like ties of high stress or when you’re wrung out from lack of sleep. And, unfortunately, chocolate is a migraine trigger for some people. The research shows that there’s no reason for everyone with migraine to absolutely avoid chocolate, but it doesn’t rule it out as a trigger for everyone.
Does this mean you’re safe to finish off the bowl of leftover Halloween candy in one sitting? Maybe... but probably not. Like with so many migraine triggers, it’s not that straightforward.
Tips for eating chocolate when you’re not sure if it is a trigger
Take notes. Make a note of when you eat chocolate and what kind and how much of it you eat. Then make note of when you get migraine attacks. After a while (it depends on your migraine frequency), you should be able to establish whether chocolate is a trigger for you. Your notes don’t need to be detailed or complicated. Just jot the basic information down on a calendar, send yourself an email with a searchable phrase that will let you pull up all your relevant notes at once, or keep a tally on a sticky note inside a cabinet. It’s important to have notes across multiple attacks because something can be a trigger one day, but not another.
Watch out for other ingredients that could be the culprit . Nuts, gluten, caffeine, sugar, and corn (and it’s derivatives) are all cited as migraine triggers for some people. If you’re sensitive to any of these ingredients, their presence may overrule that of cocoa.
Quantity matters. You might be fine with three pieces of Halloween candy, but not four. The threshold varies from one person to the next.
Consider the context. If you eat candy as a meal or scarf it down after not eating all day, you’re probably not going to feel great. There’s not a clear scientific explanation for this, but the anecdotal evidence is strong that eating junk food can make a person feel ill. If you’re prone to migraine, that ill feeling might be a migraine attack. (I write this after a few days of eating lots of carbs and sugar and I’m feeling it. It’s back to fruits, veggies, and lean protein today.)
Food sensitivities are weird . As much as food is implicated in migraine and other health conditions, there’s very little research on the topic. And, according to my dietician, it’s unlikely that there will ever be much research, since there’s little funding for it. That’s why it’s so important to determine your unique triggers. You can only really know if chocolate, or any other food, is a migraine trigger for you once you know your own body, migraine patterns, and trigger thresholds.
Maybe it’s worth it. If you love, love, love chocolate or can’t imagine Halloween without your favorite treat, you may decide that the ensuing migraine attack is worth it for you. I’m an advocate for occasional indulgences, just be sure you have your meds close by.
Marcus, D. A., Scharff, L., Turk, D., & Gourley, L. M. (1997). A double-blind provocative study of chocolate as a trigger of headache. Cephalalgia, 17(8), 855-862.
Lippi, G., Mattiuzzi, C., & Cervellin, G. (2014). Chocolate and migraine: the history of an ambiguous association. Acta Bio Medica Atenei Parmensis, 85(3), 216-221.