Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrates and Nitrites.  Migraine triggers?  What are they and what’s the difference?

Well now, that’s a tricky question.  The two words are tossed around and confused with one another, and really the "layperson" may not need to know all the details.  They are two different things – nitrate is a salt of nitric acid, and nitrite is a salt of nitrous acid.  Does that help?

Nitrates are found all over the place.  It’s found in some processed meats, many vegetables, and drinking water.  It’s naturally occurring, but there are concerns that too much can be a problem.  This is why water needs to be tested for nitrate levels.  Some heart medications also contain nitrates.

Nitrite is much more toxic, and is commonly used in cured meats for colour and to inhibit growth of bacteria.  Though use of nitrites is strictly regulated around the world, there is less regulation on labelling.  Meat may read "no nitrite added", for example, when in reality natural sources of nitrite were used (read more about nitrite labels here).

Hot dog headache?
Photo courtesy of scottfeldstein

Nitrates and nitrites do seem to be migraine triggers for some people.  The term "hot dog headache" has come in to use to refer to headaches that are triggered by meats like hot dog wieners.

It’s tricky to know what is truly causing the headaches, because there’s an intertwining of related triggers in many of these foods – MSG, tyramine and nitrites.  But many people have found that avoiding foods with nitrates/nitrites has helped cut down their migraine attacks.

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