Chocolate and Headache

Confused about chocolate? What about the connection between chocolate and headache? You're not the only one.

'Health by Chocolate' Buffet
Korea Herald, Jan 2005
Reporting on a new buffet and extolling the benefits of chocolate

Good reasons to eat more chocolate
Natural Health, Nov 2004
Reporting on a study that chocolate can be good for the arteries

Why chocolate is hot in the medical world
Belfast Telegraph, Jan 2005
The many benefits of chocolate

Refuting chocolate and beef's bad reputation (bad reputation? Are you kidding?)
USA Today, Jan 2002
Chocolate in a lowering-cholesterol diet

Chocolate can cause heartburn (finally, another voice!)
EuroFood, Jun 2001
Concerns from the University of Michigan

The Chocolate Myth Factory - health claims of chocolate
Nutrition Action Healthletter, Mar 2001
Actually, chocolate really isn't that good for you.

Is Chocolate a Health Food?
Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Feb 2001
Ok, it may protect your heart, but it also may cause kidney stones!

While some are warning us about migraines, acne and fat, others are extolling chocolate as a health food, which helps to prevent cancer and depression, and is good for the heart. Check out these headlines to the right! Is chocolate and headache a bad combination, or can chocolate help aleviate headache?

The truth about chocolate

So what's the truth? Let's see if we can sort through the story of chocolate, especially chocolate and headache...

1. Chocolate is a trigger for some migraineurs, and not for others
Chocolate and headache are often linked, and it's true that chocolate is a trigger for some people. But read on! Many people who think they should avoid chocolate may not have to. Others will simply have to avoid it no matter what. But for some, the chocolate and headache link may be that chocolate gets rid of the headache once it starts.

The culprit may be phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA is the chemical in chocolate that may cause the blood vessels to expand and contract. However, it's also a natural mood enhancer, stress reliever and memory enhancer. So once again, it may have more good than bad for some people. The chocolate and headache connection is still unclear.

A study at the University of Pittsburgh suggested that the role of chocolate as a migraine trigger may be over emphasized.

Read about chocolate and headache and other facts in this article (scroll to the bottom to read about the University of Pittsburgh study)

2. Will chocolate make you fat?
Chocolate varies greatly in the amount of fat. I did a quick survey of some popular chocolate candy, and found that it was all over 30% calories from fat (30% is the recommended maximum in your overall diet). Cadbury's Dairy Milk, for example, had about 49% of calories from fat, and about 220 calories in a 40 gram bar. You would have to eat about 52 medium-sized apples to match that fat intake, and three apples to match the calories (in spite of the fact that fruit contains a lot of sugar itself). Which do you think is going to be better for you?

3. What kind of chocolate?
The question is, can milk chocolate or white chocolate even be called chocolate? There tends to be very little cocoa bean left by the time it gets to milk chocolate. Some countries require that a minimum of 10% of the "chocolate" is actually cocao (or cacao), so some bars are only a little more than that. White chocolate either contains no cacao at all, or only cacao butter. So when you see studies extolling the benefits of chocolate, remember that they're usually talking about the cacoa beans, not all the sugar, milk, vanilla, artificial flavours and oils. The chocolate and headache link may be worse or better depending on the amount of cacoa and other ingredients. See below on advice about the type of chocolate to buy.

4. The good and the bad chocolate and headache and health
Chocolate is a good source of folic acid, copper, and magnesium. Magnesium is beneficial for migraineurs. It is also rich in antioxidant polyphenols, including flavonoids. Chocolate had more "antioxidant capacity" than fruits and vegetables in a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There is some evidence that some parts of cocoa may lower cholesterol, but other parts raise it. So chocolate isn't quite as good as olive oil yet.

One of the chemicals that may be negative are oxalates. They may cause kidney stones, but you'd have to eat large quantities. Chocolate may also cause heartburn in some people. A possible culprit when it comes to migraine may be the tannins in chocolate. Generally, when it comes to negatives there are two things to remember. First, don't eat huge quantities. Moderation is very wise when it comes to many things, diet included. Second, many foods can cause problems in some people. Just because chocolate gives your friend a migraine doesn't mean it will do you any harm.

Surprising news for parents on chocolate milk. If you're worried about sugar, you may be interested to know that flavoured milk has less sugar than many juices and soft drinks.

More on the positive side. Research at the University of Michigan found that eating chocolate causes the body to produce more serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to migraine and depression. (Excessive serotonin may also cause heartburn - eat in moderation!) Serotonin is a clue to a positive chocolate and headache link.

5. Theobromine and caffeine
One interesting chemical in chocolate is theobromine. This is the chemical that is bad for dogs (yes, never give your dog chocolate!).

As far as humans go, theobromine isn't harmful. It's like caffeine, but milder. The effect tends to last longer, and works more as an anti-depressant than the stressful action of caffeine. It's also a muscle relaxant. There's even some evidence that it can suppress nerve activity that leads to coughing (according to the Royal Brompton Hospital's Prof Peter Barnes). All these things sound pretty good for the headache patient! The chocolate and headache link isn't all bad.

But wait - doesn't chocolate contain large amounts of caffeine too? The surprising answer is no.

Amounts of alkaloids in chocolate vary depending on the bean used (alkaloids include caffeine and theobromine). Theobromine, not caffeine is the main alkaloid in chocolate. In fact, some sources (such as the Food Composition and Nutrition Tables (Medpharm/CRC Press, 2000) list no caffeine at all in chocolate, indicating that the amounts may be negligible. Some sources list caffeine only in chocolate, but they may be lumping the two alkaloids together.

Chocolate does cause headaches in some people, but if you're avoiding it just because of the caffeine, you may want to give it another try.


(If even dark chocolate is a migraine trigger for you, try white chocolate. White chocolate is made from cocoa butter and not the other chocolate ingredients, so it may not trigger a migraine. However, you don't get any of the benefits of chocolate either.)

The best way to eat chocolate

Ok, so if eaten in moderation, chocolate may have some health benefits. Maybe the chocolate and headache link is more positive than we thought. If you're ready to give it a try, here are some tips to get the most out of it:

A. Eat it in moderation as a part of a healthy diet.
B. Eat good quality, dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa (see below)
C. Avoid milk chocolate, or eating dark chocolate with milk. This will maximize the amount of antioxidants that get to your blood stream, according to a study at the National Institute for Food and Nutrition Research

The world's best chocolate

Where do I find good quality chocolate, with plenty of that healthy cocoa in it? How do I find a positive chocolate and headache benefit? Try Galler chocolate.   Look for chocolate with at least 70% cocoa - I suggest Galler Chocolate Noir, such as this gift bag or this premium Galler Noir with cocoa nibs.

Why do I recommend this brand?

This is some of the world's best chocolate. First, it's Belgian chocolate - world famous. But there's a lot of different Belgian chocolate. These are the people that provide the chocolate for the Belgian royal court! Can you beat that?

Remember, real chocolate is dark, somewhat bitter, and very strong. But it's worth trying!  Some brands are far better than others - this one is fantastic.


References for chocolate and headache used in this article: Hersheys web site (www.hersheys.com); USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17 (2004); information gathered by Mark Chocolate Canizaro at his website www.mrkland.com; Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Feb, 2001 by Melvyn R. Werbach; Nutrition Action Healthletter, March, 2001 by Bonnie Liebman; the Belfast Telegraph quoting Prof Peter Barnes; Merk Source at www.merksource.com; Food Composition and Nutrition Tables (Medpharm/CRC Press, 2000); Wiley Encyclopedia of Food Science and Technology, edited by Frederick J. Francis; Shape, Feb, 2004 by Ramin Ganeshram quoting a study by the National Institute for Food and Nutrition Research in Rome; online article by Alan Greene MD FAAP July 11, 2002; University of Pittsburgh University Times, Sep 1995; What Your Doctor May NOT Tell You About Migraines, Drs Mauskop & Fox