Hot Dogs and Headaches: Saying ‘NO’ to Migraines


Nothing can be more interrupting in your day than the onset of a painful, light-sensitive migraine. We’ve all been there before - one moment you’re fine and then the next, you feel an overhaul of pressure building along your temples. This pain can be all-consuming. It can leave you debilitated and unable to work, socialize, or do normal daytime activities. Some migraines can last hours, others days. Each person can experience a wide array of other symptoms such as nausea and aches. For most, medications may dull the pain but for many, sleeping seems to be the only respite. But is the answer really in developing stronger pain medications?

Doctors have determined a number of reasons why a person may be experiencing the onset of a migraine, including predispositions of other conditions. However, more and more health professionals are looking toward dietary triggers that might be responsible. More recently, nitric oxide has become a well-evidenced culprit of migraine development.

Say ‘NO’ to Migraines

For years, many patients with angina or heart disease have been prescribed several types of drugs, however nitrate supplements have become increasingly common. Nitrates, when consumed, are converted into nitric oxide (or NO) that acts as a vasodilator used to relieve high blood pressure. NO relaxes the veins and arteries, dilating them to slow blood flow that often helps patients experiencing heart failure. The benefits of NO aren’t restricted to the chronically ill, either. More and more, athletes have been utilizing dietary NO supplements to optimize their work out and improve blood flow during training.

Yet, the benefits of nitric oxide with the heart may have a darker side, as some of the most common side effects reported in cardiac patients is the onset of headaches or migraines. Researchers back this up, reporting many migraine patients testing very high with circulating nitric oxide. However, these study participants weren’t diagnosed with poor cardiac health, and they weren’t athletes taking NO supplementation. Where was this increased production of NO coming from? Could it be sourced from their diet?

The Hot Dog Headache Syndrome

In general, nitrates have held a controversial role in our diet. Though they may be used in special cardiac cases, nitrates - and their sister compounds nitrites - are commonly found in processed meats such as salamis, deli meats, and our All-American hot dogs. Combined in a salt formula, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are commonly used to help preserve these meats and have been found to have some unhealthy side effects. Interestingly, the onset of migraines seems to be one of them.

Commonly referred to as “the hot dog headache,” consumption of these foods can increase the production of NO and induce painful headaches.

When scientists began examining this correlation, they found something strange. They took both oral and fecal samples from a number of Individuals with increased incidences of NO and studied the levels of various bacteria that thrive inside both microbiomes. What did they find? Individuals with migraines showed higher levels of microbes that contributed to NO production.

Using Probiotics to Fight Migraines

Considering how connected we know our gut microbiome is to our brain via the gut-brain axis, it may not come as a surprise how complex and interconnected various systems in our body are. Whether by sending signals up our vagus nerve that connects the gut to the brain, or by the production of many of our neurotransmitters, our gut microbiome plays an essential role in the health of our head. For headaches, changing the balance of our gut ecosystem and promoting a more balanced flora might mean changing how frequently you’re reaching for aspirin and other headache medications. Already, scientists are testing this theory - including the largest study to ever examine the connection of probiotic use and migraines.

This study showed that 10-weeks of a diverse probiotic supplement reduced the frequency of migraines, the severity, and how often participants took pharmaceutical pain relief. Though this investigation is only one study, it shows our potential to manipulate our gut microbiome to provide potential relief from severe headaches. As researchers continue to investigate and examine the network of our gut microbes with our health, we’ll continue to see new potential uses for specialized probiotics. Maybe in the future, you’ll have an opportunity to purchase probiotics customized for you - built to help you combat your tendency toward migraines, or fight your constant bloat. In fact, that future might be closer than ever imagined.

But until then, how can you fight your risk of hot dog headaches?

For one, you can start with reducing your consumption of processed meats. At Viome, when you get your results from your Gut Intelligence Test, your recommendations include assessments that can shed light on your nitrate and nitrite consumption. Your Ammonia Pathway is a score that examines all microbial pathways that produce ammonia (NO3). This gas is often made by microbes as a byproduct of breaking down proteins or foods rich in nitrate or nitrite molecules.

Outside of NO and migraines, these molecules can induce pro-inflammatory pathways that can wreak havoc on your body in many ways, like damaging your gut lining. Yet another great way your personalized insights can reveal what is happening inside you.

We might be learning a little more each day about the impact of the gut microbiome and our head, but we still have a lot to learn. And with Viome, you’re right there with us learning about the science on what makes us healthy, and what keeps us healthy. Starting from our heart, to your head, and to the whole world’s gut - we’re in this together.

The information on the Viome website is provided for informational purposes only and with the understanding that Viome is not engaged in rendering medical advice or recommendations. Viome is providing this educational information to share the exciting developments being reported in the scientific literature about the human microbiome and your health. Viome products are not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease.