Could Tannins Explain Classic Migraine Triggers?
by Jeanette Navia

List of foods containing tannins | List of herbs containing tannins
  List of foods NOT containing tannins | Migraines and tannins
Tannins and bread

Chocolate, red wine, some cheeses, some ice creams, "caffeine," beans, nuts, cinnamon, bananas, smoked foods, cigarette smoke, some sour creams, and fermented foods all have at least two things in common.  They have all been repeated on numerous lists of possible dietary migraine triggers.  And they all, though some may need some explanation, have tannins.

Tannins are naturally occurring complex polyphenolics found in many plants, particularly those with a woody habit.  Their main function in nature seems to be one of protection; animals are deterred from eating plants high in tannins because of the bitter, astringent taste.  Tannins are complex compounds with molecular weights between 500 and 3,000.   There are many different tannins, often divided into two groups: hydrolyzable tannins and condensed tannins.  The most often observed property of all  tannins is their affinity to bind with proteins, starches, cellulose and minerals.  Tanners have taken advantage of this strong protein binding ability to produce leather from animal hides for centuries.

Though widely studied in agricultural circles since the 1960's, tannins have been the subject of very little medical research. The human studies that have been done mainly concern the effects of tannins in regard to cancer and heart disease.   Current research in polyphenols is mostly focused on their beneficial antioxidant properties, with no eye toward possible detrimental effects of tannins. There seems to be little if any research into how tannins may effect human digestive function, and none into how tannins may effect human neurology.

Although researchers are not certain what the exact mechanism is behind migraine, most are currently in agreement that the neurotransmitter serotonin is involved.  Could phenolic compounds interfere with serotonin receptors? Some researchers suggest that, at least in some cases, low levels of utilizable serotonin may account for a propensity to migraine.  According to agricultural studies, tannins are believed to bind with nutritional components in the digestive tract, and to bind to the wall of the digestive tract itself.  Although proline absorption appears to be most effected by tannins' complexing with proteins, other amino acids, including tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin), are also effected.  Starches, needed by the body in the production of serotonin, are easily bound by tannins.  It seems possible that as a result of this binding, diets high in tannins could result in reduced utilizable levels of serotonin.  In individuals who are susceptible to migraine, such a reduction of serotonin may lead to an increase in the number and severity of their migraines.

One migraine trigger often cited by patients is their going several hours without food.  This may indicate the same mechanism as the anti-nutritional effects of tannins.  Tannins may be reducing the availability of nutritional elements in foods that are eaten, resulting in the body (brain?) not getting the nutrients it needs in the same way as going without any food for several hours results in a deficiency of these nutrients.   Studies on chicks and rats indicate that the effects of tannins in a diet may not be only a result of the anti-nutritional effects of this binding.  Systemic effects of tannins observed in lab animals were too rapid in onset to have resulted from decreased nutrition. (As reviewed in Singleton's "Naturally occurring food toxicants," see Resources)

Researchers in the human medical fields have very little information on tannins.  Because of the well-known effects of tannins on livestock and experimental animal nutrition, several researchers have called for further research into tannins in the human diet.  How tannins effect human nutrition, and ultimately human health, including neurology, is a field of study ripe for exploration.

Women and men most likely consume tannins, on average, in equal amounts.  If tannins are responsible for triggering migraines, one may think that men would have as many migraines as women.  It seems obvious from the medical literature that hormones do play a role in migraine.  What that role is remains to be discovered. Perhaps the rate of serotonin production vs. consumption can vary, in general, with varying hormone levels and the attendant physiological variations.  If there are threshold levels for serotonin-related effects in individuals, then in some people the levels could routinely drop into a detrimental range.

Migraine triggers seem to be cumulative.  These triggers may include hormone fluctuations.  Therefore, a woman may be more susceptible to the effects of dietary tannins on some days of a month and less so on others.  Weather fluctuations, strobe lights, bright lights and strong smells (whether related to tannins or not) may be more likely to trigger a migraine when tannins have been recently consumed, and/or when hormones are at certain levels.

Many of the items containing tannins also contain tyramine and other amines.  Some patients and researchers have suggested that vaso-constrictive amines may be responsible for triggering migraines.  In fact, nearly every popular migraine book or article includes lists of tyramine-containing foods as foods for migraineurs to avoid.  However, some research indicates that tyramine may not be the (or the only) substance in tyramine-containing foods that produce migraine.  Perhaps because of the overlap in foods containing tyramine and those containing tannins, it has been assumed that tyramine is what is triggering migraines when it may instead be tannins.  When some patients adopt a diet that cuts out tyramine-containing foods, they find their migraines reduced.  This could be because, by cutting out tyramine-containing foods, they are coincidentally cutting out tannin-containing foods.

Although it is possible and may seem logical to assume   that the vasoactive amines play a role in migraine, other components of the foods thought to trigger migraines have not been widely studied.  Tannins appear to be common to most dietary triggers whether these triggers contain vasoactive amines or not.

Food items containing tannins are not always apparent.  Tea, coffee, wines, nuts and berries are generally known to be high in tannin content, but these and other food items may need a little explanation.  Please note that although my library research indicates that the following food items contain tannins, it would be desirable for someone with a background in lab research to verify what I have found.

Cheeses have often been cited as migraine triggers, but it seems that not everyone can agree on which cheeses trigger migraines.  If the tyramine hypothesis is correct, then aged cheeses would be the triggers.  If the tannin hypothesis is correct, yellow cheeses, rather than all aged cheeses, may be the culprits.  A check of yellow cheeses in the local supermarket shows that annatto is a food dye used to color cheeses and margarines, sometimes butter and other products.  Annatto is a yellowish red dye obtained from the seeds of the tropical annatto tree.  These seeds are high in tannins.  Cutting out yellow cheeses, rather than all aged cheeses, may give migraineurs more variety in the cheeses they choose to consume.

Smoked foods
Tannins from the wood of the oak, mesquite, cherry and other woods used in smoking are present on the surface of smoked meats and fish.  Also, some smoked fish is colored with the yellow/orange food dye annatto.

Fermented foods
Not all fermented foods contain tannins.  Foods with certain polyphenols before fermentation often have those polyphenols transformed into condensed tannins after fermentation.  Green tea has some hydrolyzable tannins before fermentation, which may in large quantities trigger some mild migraine; however, after fermentation, the black tea is very high in condensed tannins, triggering many more, severe migraines. Cacao beans are fermented in the process of making chocolate.  Chocolate has always been viewed as a major migraine inducer.  Soy beans, which are white in color, have few tannins before fermentation.  Perhaps after fermentation, the brown of the soy sauce indicates that these tannins are transformed into condensed tannins.

Sour cream
A quick check of sour creams at the local supermarket shows that some brands contain the additive carob bean gum, a gum used as a stabilizer made from tannin- rich carob beans.

Red wines
Red wines are produced in a way that increases the tannin content.  White wines, however, are produced in such a way that their tannin content is minimal.  White wines aged in wooden barrels, however, do pick up the tannins from the wood of the barrels.

The hops used in some beers contain high amounts of tannins.  Bitter, more "hopped" beers may be worse offenders than the lighter, less bitter beers.

Citrus, fruit juices
Although citrus fruits themselves do not appear to contain tannins, orange juices and orange-colored juices may contain food dyes that contain tannins.  Many fruit drinks contain apple juice, which is high in tannins.  Tannins are often added to juices,  as a clarifying agent, and, in some apple ciders, it's added to increase the  "mouth feel" (astringency) of the juices.  Grape juices and berry juices are relatively high in tannins.

Alcoholic beverages
As mentioned previously, red wine and some beers seem to be the big alcohol- containing migraine triggers.  These both contain tannins.  What seems to be unique about these triggers is that the effect is very quick within a half hour after consumption, migraine is produced.  Other tannin-containing foods, with the exception of caffeine-containing foods,  take up to eighteen hours to produce migraine.

Caffeine-containing foods and beverages
Chocolate and caffeine-containing beverages have often been considered migraine triggers.  Researchers have attributed migraine to the caffeine, though other components of the beverages exist.  Black tea and chocolate contain high proportions of condensed tannins.  Green tea and coffee contain less deleterious hydrolyzable tannins, although if drunk in large portions, these may trigger migraines as well as black teas and chocolate.  Colas and other soft drinks may contain tannins in the form of food dyes.  Empirical evidence suggests that caffeine appears to speed up the process of tannin-induced migraines somewhat, but not as much as alcohol.  It seems to take about an hour or two for migraine to be produced from chocolate and other tannin-and-caffeine containing foods.

Herbal teas and herbs
Most herbs contain tannins.  Herbs, including feverfew, and herbal teas are often used to treat migraine, however these herbal remedies do not work for all migraineurs. That herbs are reported to help some people prevent or abort migraines may indicate that there are several different mechanisms in how migraine is produced.

Several people on the internet newsgroup have recently reported increased migraines while taking St. John's Wort.

Herbal teas have been suggested to migraineurs as alternatives to caffeine- containing black teas.  Rose hips, used in a popular rose hip tea, have been measured to contain at least 20,000 ppm tannins. Rose hips are also often used in Vitamin C supplements; these supplements may need to be avoided.  Alfalfa is sometimes used a filler for herbal products and vitamins.  High in tannins, alfalfa may produce or exacerbate migraine.  Vitamin and herbal supplement shoppers should read labels to make sure they are not buying supplements with these herbs and others, like the currently popular black cohosh, bilberry, and willow bark.

Ice creams
Although some people get a completely different kind of headache (an "ice- cream headache") immediately after cold temperature of ice cream hits their palate, others have found they get migraines a few hours after eating ice creams.  A quick check of the local supermarket indicates many ice creams include tannin- containing carob bean gum, aka locust bean gum, as an additive.

Many nuts contain tannins.  Walnuts are one of the highest tannin-containing foods.  Pecans, cashews, pistachios, filberts and the skins of peanuts andalmonds contain tannins.  Skinless peanuts and blanched almonds should be okay for migraine patients to eat.

Cinnamon, cloves, cumin, tarragon, thyme and vanilla are condiments that contain tannins.  Cinnamon is the subject of many complaints and queries by migraine patients on

Most legumes contain some tannins.  Of the varieties of beans, red-colored beans appear to contain the most tannins.  Tan-and-red speckled cranberry beanscontain quite a lot of tannin.  Black beans contain a moderate-to-high amount of tannins.  Chick peas, yellowish in color, contain small amounts of tannins. White-colored beans, however, contain few if any tannins.  In migraine-trigger lists, legumes are often listed, but the various types of legumes are not distinguished.  Migraineurs who have shunned all beans in the past may be able to eat Cannellinis and Great Northern Beans with no problem.

Cigarette smoke
People have often complained that their own or second-hand smoke causes them to have migraine.  Tobacco leaves have been measured to contain 30,000- 70.000 ppm tannins.  Tannins are in the smoke when a cigarette is burned.  Because smoke from cigarettes does not get into the digestive system, this may indicate that tannin's migrainous effects are not solely from the anti-nutritional binding of nutritional elements in the gut.

Questions that would need to be answered in tannin-migraine research:
1.  Do tannins trigger migraines directly after entering the bloodstream and acting on the blood vessels, indirectly by binding with nutritional elements in the diet, or both?

2.  If the anti-nutritional aspects of tannin binding is the only direct effect, could these effects be eliminated with increased starch consumption and with supplementation of the diet with certain amino acids, enzymes, thiamine, etc. necessary for the production of serotonin?

3.  What are the different tannins?  Are hydrolyzable tannins much less migraine- producing than condensed?  Are there other differences among tannins that render some more likely to produce migraine than others?

4.  Are there properties of tannins that we need in our diet?  (Should we migraineurs not cut out all tannins?)

5.  What other food items, food additives contain tannins?

6.  Do perfumes and paint fumes contain tannins?

7.  Are tannins present on the surface of pollen particles?  If so, do the tannins enter the body via nose, eyes and skin?  Is that why migraines seem more common in the spring?

8.  More often now than ever in the past, children, even young babies, are regularly given apple juices and other juices that, while "natural," may be interfering with nutrition.  They are also fed processed foods that are possibly compounded with tannin-containing additives.  Should these practices be evaluated?

9.  If the effects of tannins are found to have significant adverse effects on  the serotonin system, what other neurotransmitters, bodily systems and functions might also be effected?

Copyright 1998 Jeanette Navia

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Updated Tuesday, January 08, 2002