Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Migraines, Marijuana, and Chocolate

Dietary choices that might actually help

Regular supplementation with some nutrients can reduce the frequency and intensity of migraine. First, what is a migraine? Medical science has yet to provide a definitive answer to this question although the recent application of sophisticated scanning techniques have provided some important insights into what's actually happening inside the head of migraine sufferers.  Migraine is currently viewed as a sporadic disorder of brain excitability.  Studies of blood flow using a variety of methods, including computed tomography (CAT scans), positron emission tomography (PET scans), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scans) studies show significantly decreased blood flow within specific brain regions. In some people, this is followed by a sustained increase in blood flow that correlates with the actual migraine attack.  Although these findings suggest that the problem is with blood flow, additional studies suggest that changes in blood flow are neither necessary nor sufficient for a migraine headache to occur.  Many of the contemporary drug therapies are thought to work by constricting blood vessels, yet some evidence suggests that this is not the primary mechanism by which migraine drugs produce their therapeutic benefits (J Neurol 1991;238:245).

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Partially because no one is certain what causes a migraine, finding a treatment has been extremely challenging.  Many migraine sufferers have turned to alternative therapies when standard prescription medications have failed to provide relief.  The National Headache Foundation lists many options as possible alternative therapies, three of these are found in chocolate: magnesium, riboflavin and a cannabinoid similar to marijuana

Magnesium: Hundreds of enzymes in the body require magnesium to work properly; many of these enzymes are critical for normal brain function. Inadequate levels of magnesium in the brain can induce very dangerous neurological dysfunctions. When present at optimal concentrations, magnesium acts similar to some of the most successful migraine medications on the market today: it blocks calcium channels.  Magnesium may also interact with other dietary and genetic factors to increase the threshold for when a migraine attack can occur (J Neurol Sci 1996;134:9). Chronic stress, a common trigger for migraine headaches, induces the body to increase its excretion of magnesium via the urine (Magnes Res 2006;19:102).

Chocolate: Magnesium levels tend to decrease during menopause (J Trace Elem Med Biol 2002;16:9); this is a time when migraine headaches also become more common.  Women in their fifties, the typical age when menopause symptoms begin, often develop sudden strong cravings for chocolate. Why? Chocolate contains significant levels of magnesium salts (about 2.6 mg/gm), the absence of which in elderly females may be responsible for the common post-menopausal condition known as chocoholism.  Fortunately, eating magnesium salt tablets can reduce these bothersome chocoholic urges.

Marijuana: Chocolate also contains a small amount of the marijuana-like chemical called anandamide that can easily cross the blood-brain barrier.  Anandamide, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and many of the ingredients of the marijuana plant, such as cannabidiol, cannabidiol and cannabigerol, have relatively potent pain-reducing and anti-inflammatory actions within the body. These effects are several hundred times more powerful than that of aspirin (Planta Med 1991;57(Suppl.):60). All of these compounds are capable of stimulating the brain's marijuana receptors; this action has therapeutic potential during a migraine headache (J Pharmacol Exp Ther 2007;320:64) in two important ways.  First, stimulation of marijuana receptors in the brainstem changes in the activity of the trigeminal nerve (Neurosci Lett 2009;461:116); the activity of this cranial nerve is thought to be responsible for the pain associated with the migraine headache.  Second, the brain's marijuana neurotransmitter system can exert a gating effect upon incoming pain signals via its control over descending serotonergic pathways (Eur J Pharmacol 2010;649:183).  Therefore, until medical science finds a cure for migraine headaches, some sufferers might find modest relief by enjoying a piece of dark chocolate. 

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010)

See also: Marijuana and Coffee are Good for the Brain.

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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