Does Chocolate Cause Headaches?

If someone asked you to describe a headache, a one-size-fits-all answer would be hard to pin down. That's because headaches can be experienced differently by everyone. For some, a headache can feel sharp and jarring, while for others it can feel like a slow, growing throbbing sensation (via Mayo Clinic). A headache can last mere minutes or for days, but despite the differences, all headaches can be classified as pain experienced anywhere within the head.

When it comes to what causes headaches, the reasons can be just as varied as the headaches themselves. Most headaches are caused by a stiffening of the neck and head muscles, otherwise known as tension headaches (via Harvard Health Publishing). These headaches can be prompted by hunger, stress, sleep deprivation, or even changes in the weather. Migraines, while similar to headaches, are a result of pain generated by hypersensitive nerve endings in the brain, and are often experienced as a more severe form of a headache. Migraines may be brought on by smoke or bright lights, as well as some food items such as cheese, avocados, peanut butter, and sour cream. Is chocolate also one such food item to avoid?

Different ingredients may improve or worsen a headache

In a 2020 review published in the scientific journal Nutrients, researchers investigated patient claims of chocolate being the top food trigger for their migraines by examining a series of past studies. Evidence as to whether chocolate is the direct cause of a headache was not significant enough to definitely determine. However, experts believe that certain ingredients in chocolate, such as caffeine, could be a contributing factor (via Healthline). An additional ingredient found in chocolate, beta-phenylethylamine, has been shown to impact cerebral blood flow, demonstrating a potential link to the onset of migraines (via American Academy of Neurology).

On the other hand, chocolate also contains cocoa, an ingredient that experts at the National Headache Foundation believe may actually help relieve headaches. Based on study findings, study author Paul Durham of Missouri State University's Center for Biomedical & Life Sciences states, "Our data is the first evidence to support that diets enriched in cocoa increase proteins that prevent your nerve cells from becoming excited and releasing inflammatory molecules that are thought to be involved in migraine pathology."

While migraine sufferers will respond differently to different types of foods, the National Headache Foundation does not recommend chocolate treats as a means of symptom relief, due to the fact that the cocoa content is minimal, and instead, the caffeine and tyramine present will likely stimulate a headache.