Most people, at some time in their life, will experience the pain of a headache. Often, it is just an annoyance, an inconvenience. Many will take an over the counter pain reliever, but some will not even do that. Headaches commonly occur from stress or tension, lack of sleep, or some sort of head trauma.
Migraines, on the other hand, seem to be more random and can completely alter the course of your day. At best they make your head pound, and bright lights hurt your eyes, while over the counter medications only just dull the pain. At its worst, a migraine affects the whole body; not just a pounding in the head, but an intolerance to light, and vomiting and diarrhea that lasts for days. In severe cases, stroke-like symptoms may include numbness on one side of the face, disorientation, dizziness, trouble concentrating, ringing in the ears, visual disturbances, and sensitivity to smells may be present. Often, the only relief comes from a trip to the doctor or emergency room for an injection of a prescription pain killer and anti-nausea medicine.
If you’ve never had a migraine, it can be difficult to comprehend. Doctors don’t even fully understand the mechanics of a migraine. There is a lot of speculation about what causes them, but that speculation covers a broad area. The suspected causes are labelled “triggers”. The most common triggers are thought to be from foods, but can include environmental triggers, and even changes in barometric pressure.
As a migraine sufferer, this subject is near and dear to my heart. I have done extensive research on the subject and have compiled a lot of data. Using this data, along with years of personal experience, I have extrapolated some plausible theories of what causes migraines, how to treat them, and how to avoid them.
The potential for having a migraine runs in the family. This lends to the belief that it begins on a genetic level. A large part of the reason that someone may suddenly develop a migraine headache comes from histamines. Histamines are released by the body in response to something consumed or breathed in that the body views as a threat. I am referring to a kind of allergic reaction. The list of food triggers is long and somewhat overwhelming, but includes alcohol/red wine, chocolate, caffeine, cheese, MSGs, nuts, preservatives in food such as nitrites, nitrates and tyramine, and sugar.
Pollutants, contaminants, and chemicals can also be responsible for inducing a migraine. Preceding the onset of a migraine you may suffer from severe nasal and sinus congestion as a result of histamines being released by the body, causing swelling of blood vessels and tissue in the head, much like with seasonal allergies.
Artificial colors, artificial flavors, and artificial sweeteners are all toxic to the nervous system and cause an immune response that elevates blood pressure and heart rate, which can be enough to induce a migraine.
Dehydration is also a major culprit for migraines. Most people today simply do not drink enough water to properly hydrate their cells and brain. This causes blood to be thicker and harder to move through your arteries and veins, thereby, also putting a stress on your heart and all your organs.
For someone who suffers regularly with migraine headaches, the situation can be exacerbated by treating it with caffeine and over the counter pain relievers. Rebound headaches, as they are called, occur as a kind of withdrawal symptom when you become dependent on the very things that help you cope with the migraine. It is a vicious cycle if you use, say caffeine, to treat a headache today, tomorrow you may develop a headache when you don’t consume any caffeine.
Not to mention that many women suffer from migraines prior to and during their menstrual period. This is due to hormonal fluctuation, particularly with estrogen.
These are things that doctors “know” about migraines. So why do different people have different triggers at different times? For migraine sufferers, it can be frustrating to try to identify something that triggers a migraine every time. One time chocolate may be suspected of causing a migraine, and the next time it is consumed, no headache at all.
Each person has their own level of tolerance for managing stressors. When a person is well rested, well hydrated, avoiding processed foods, actively managing stress, and getting some form of exercise, they are less likely to have a migraine headache. With each additional trigger, the body’s ability to handle the stress placed upon it decreases. Once the level of tolerance is exceeded, it is just a matter of time until the migraine strikes.
Someone with undiagnosed food allergies may continually live on the edge of getting a migraine for seemingly no reason at all. The same can be said for someone who is under a lot of stress day in and day out.
For some women, birth control pills tip the balance of the body’s ability to handle the “trigger load” due to the amount of estrogen in the pill. Birth control pills that use higher levels of progestins verses estrogen seem to cause fewer problems.
Unfortunately, many prescription drugs, diet pills, and herbal stimulants can be triggers as well.
At least for some migraine sufferers, the gall bladder seems intricately tied into both the onset and the climax of a migraine. As I said, the tendency for having a migraine runs in the family. Both my mother and my grandmother suffered from migraines, as do I. That is until they developed gall stones and had their gall bladder removed. One doctor even told my grandmother that she would no longer get migraines! He was right; that is not to say that she no longer got headaches. Both my mother and my grandmother still had occasional headaches, but nothing like a migraine. As for myself, my migraine headache always reaches its climax with vomiting or diarrhea. These two events are initiated by my gall bladder purging itself. So for many people, making sure the gall bladder is functioning properly every day is key to avoiding a migraine.
Something as simple as adding a magnesium supplement to your daily routine will help decrease the likelihood of getting a migraine. Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer which helps with stress and tension. If you have occasional cravings for chocolate, your body may be trying to tell you that you are low in magnesium. The problem with chocolate is that it is a trigger for many people. If you simply must have chocolate, try a higher quality chocolate that has less chemical additives. When you take a daily magnesium supplement, make sure you take it with calcium for better absorption.
A form of light exercise is often enough to keep migraines at bay. If you have a job that keeps you sitting at a desk, just 30 minutes of walking everyday will help immensely. Get up from your desk frequently and walk around. Go for a walk at lunchtime and/or after work. A minimum of 30 cumulative minutes will raise your tolerance for stressors and reduce the likelihood you will get a migraine.
Spending time outside enjoying nature is also a good stress reducer. Spending quality time with pets is proven to reduce stress; combine both and you get double benefit. Or try some form of meditation. It doesn’t have to be lengthy or complicated; the goal is to remove yourself from everything that keeps you stressed out and put you back in tune with your own body. It’s like taking a mini vacation. You know, the ones that feel like you have run away and you are never going back! You can have that feeling every day in just 10 or 15 minutes with meditation.
There are many natural supplements and herbs that can help with stress too. Lavender, chamomile, and peppermint are all effective treatments for migraines. They can be used topically, aromatically, or in tea. Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, holy basil, and astragalus are important adaptogens that fight stress and help you feel more relaxed.
Lastly, I am going to mention sugar. The typical American diet is high in sugar and carbs. This leads to both an unhealthy high blood sugar level as well as unstable blood sugar. Both conditions are dangerous. Studies have shown that elevated blood sugar levels lead to damage in all organs of the body due to the fact that is raises cortisol levels in your blood, which raises inflammation in your joints, blood vessels, and all your organs, including your brain. Cortisol is one of the hormones released by your body when you are faced with a stressful situation. So a diet high in sugar and/or simple carbohydrates will increase the effects of the stress you are already under. In addition, cortisol causes weight gain, particularly around your midsection. That is why belly fat is considered a risk factor (more like a risk indicator) of heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. A diet that is low in sugar/simple carbohydrates, and has balanced proportions of protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrates will not only lower your risk for developing a migraine but also will make you healthier overall.
Don’t forget to talk to your doctor about your migraine headaches. In severe cases, he can prescribe medication to treat or prevent them. You can also request a blood test to identify foods that you may be allergic to. Managing seasonal allergies can also help reduce the frequency of migraines (just be aware that decongestants can be triggers). Many chiropractors can treat all of these things by making sure that your spine is properly aligned. Spinal misalignment inhibits your body and organs from functioning optimally, which leads to an increase of your overall stress level, and exacerbates other unhealthy conditions.
With a good combination of a healthy diet (including staying well hydrated), light exercise, and stress management you can see a dramatic decrease in the frequency and severity of migraine headaches.
Buchholz MD, D. (2002). Heal Your Headache. New York: Workman Publishing.