Despite being an increasingly common affliction, affecting 38 million Americans, the cause of migraines has never quite been solved. Doctors have understood that certain factors such as chocolate, wine and processed meat can trigger migraines, but they have never known why.

However, recently a team of researchers from the University of California San Diego have analysed oral and stool samples from roughly 2,200 individuals and discovered that those who suffered the most from migraines have a higher level of microbes which are known to alter nitrates from certain foods into migraine-inducing chemicals.

Nitrates are found in foods such as wine, chocolate, processed meat and even green vegetables. They consist of a nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms. Some bacteria that live in our mouths break down these nitrates for fuel, and in doing so remove one of the oxygen atoms from the nitrate, resulting in a chemical called a nitrite. On entering the bloodstream, these nitrites can be converted into nitric oxide (only one oxygen atom). Nitric oxide has been linked to migraines and other tension headaches. Thus, in theory, migraine suffers should avoid nitrate-rich food. However, the researchers have speculated that the nitrites produced by the microbes may also benefit us by improving our heart health. In fact, may patients with heart failure are prescribed nitrites to regulate conditions and will endure the side-effects of migraines.

Applicants for Biological Sciences, Biomedicine and Medicine, should look in more depth about the research into the causes of migraines and the other effects that microbes can have on our health and body. Chemistry and Biochemistry students should investigate the chemical reaction that causes the change from nitrate to nitrite to nitric acid, and other similar chemical processes that happen in the body.

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