Anyone who has experienced the pain of a migraine knows how debilitating it can be. These vise-like headaches can come without warning and may be accompanied by bright lights, nausea, anxiety, and disturbed thinking. They can last for hours or days, upsetting your life and the lives of people around you.
Migraines affect up to 30 percent of women, twice as many as men. There’s no one cause, so you may need to be a bit of a detective to figure out what causes your headaches and what solution might be best for you.
One possible cause is an abnormality in blood vessel constriction and dilation caused by unstable blood vessels. Here, large blood vessels are dilated (widened) and smaller blood vessels are constricted, preventing normal blood flow and causing pain.
Chronic stress is one cause of migraines. In this case, the headache is triggered by the production of a pain-producing substance by nerve cells called “substance P.” Substance P dilates blood vessels and releases allergic compounds such as histamines. Both food allergies and chronic stress may be implicated in this type of migraine.
Allergies to foods high in chemicals called amines, including phenylethylamine (chocolate and cheeses) and tyramine (red wine, dairy, nuts, citrus, and beans), are also associated with triggering migraines.
Serotonin: A major cause of migraine headaches is a brain chemical called serotonin. Platelets and small blood vessels store serotonin, chemical that helps blood vessels relax and constrict. Some people with migraines have platelets that clump together more than normal and release excessive amounts of serotonin. Migraines occur when serotonin levels increase. Often, a mitral valve prolapse is present as well. This condition, known as a leaky heart valve, can damage platelets, which only continues the circle of pain.
Migraines may be caused by too much or too little serotonin. The drugs Imitrex and MAO inhibitors increase serotonin production and are used for migraines that originate from too little serotonin. If you’re taking these medications, you should know that 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), a natural serotonin-precursor found in natural food stores can give you similar results without side effects.
Vitamin B6 is also needed to help produce serotonin, so be sure to get enough of both 5-HTP and B6. I suggest 25 mg of vitamin B6 along with 100-200 mg of 5-HTP three times a day. Using these nutrients for two or three months may prevent your migraine from recurring.
Low blood sugar is another cause of migraines. Some people have a defect in the way their bodies utilize glucose, causing dips in their glucose levels. Low blood sugar, or fasting, can either prevent or trigger a migraine. If refined sugar, alcohol, potatoes, or other foods that turn into sugar quickly trigger your headache, look to your blood sugar for the cause and solution to your pain. Chromium is a mineral that helps regulate blood sugar levels. Try taking 200- 400 mcg of chromium piccolinate three times a day.
Alkalosis: Florida dentist, Steven N. Green, DDS, has found that alkalosis (too little acid) can bring on a migraine. His solution is to take two grams of a powdered vitamin C with mineral ascorbates every hour until the migraine subsides. If you’re prone to migraines, keep a dozen packets of easily available Emer’gen-C handy. Dr. Green uses the Super Gram III, which can be found in natural food stores, many drug stores, and some supermarkets.
Copper can trigger a migraine, especially if you have an abnormal copper metabolism or consume high quantities. Some alcoholic beverages, such as red wine, beer, and whiskey, are distilled in copper stills and some water supplies travel through copper pipes. Foods high in copper include shellfish, wheat germ, chocolate, and nuts. Citrus increases your body’s absorption of this mineral. Talk with your health-care practitioner about getting a hair analysis or other assay of your copper levels. Avoid the above foods and beverages and make sure your multivitamin is free of copper.
Magnesium: If you’re a long-term reader of my newsletter, Women’s Health Letter, you know I’m a big advocate of magnesium. I find that a magnesium deficiency is implicated in an unusually high amount of health problems including migraines. Magnesium helps smooth muscles relax, and is needed to produce serotonin. Low magnesium reduces blood flow to the brain and changes the way serotonin receptors work.
Magnesium helps reduce inflammation and prevents veins from spasming. The body uses up its stores of magnesium when you’re under stress. It’s no wonder that brain magnesium levels were 19 percent lower in people having a migraine headache than in people with no headaches.
A number of scientific studies found low levels of magnesium in people with migraines. Over a decade ago, Dr. Guy E. Abraham conducted studies on women with PMS and found many women with monthly migraines have low blood levels of magnesium. Magnesium is difficult to measure accurately through regular blood tests, so you may want to simply increase your magnesium intake.
Feverfew: Feverfew reduces inflammation and improves blood vessel tone. Its leaves contain a chemical called parthenolide that seems to reduce headaches. Some herbalists suggest you chew a few fresh feverfew leaves, but the bitter leaves have caused mouth ulcers, a sore tongue, and swollen lips. Instead, use a standardized extract or capsules with 0.2 percent parthenolide. Some commercial products have been found to have little or no parthenolide.
Numerous studies have shown that taking the herb feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines and their symptoms or even stop them completely. This herb inhibits the release of substances from platelets that cause blood vessels to dilate. Feverfew also reduces the production of inflammatory hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins.
You can take either 150 mg of freeze- dried feverfew extract or 200-400 mg of feverfew in capsules two or three times a day to prevent migraines. But you may need more than this. Higher amounts —— one to two grams a day —— might be necessary if you are having an attack. A study reported in The Lancet (July 23, 1988) noted that one capsule of feverfew per day was enough to reduce the number and severity of attacks in participants. I suggest you begin with the smaller amounts and increase the dosage until you get the results you need.
Feverfew is a prolific perennial with small daisy-like flowers and strong-smelling chartreuse leaves. The active ingredient is in the leaves, which can be chewed, or dried and ingested. You may want to grow some feverfew in your garden to have your own supply, if you find it’s effective in preventing your headaches.
Traditionally, migraines are treated with various pharmaceuticals from ibuprofen and antihistimines to stronger drugs such as Inderal and Imitrex. These medications tend to have unpleasant side effects.
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) has been used for migraines for more than 50 years. But the amount of riboflavin needed to reduce headaches is much more than you get in any multivitamin. A 1997 Belgian study found it took 400 mg of riboflavin to reduce the frequency of migraines. But it was reduced by 67 percent! Riboflavin can be effective, but it doesn’t work overnight. Give it at least a three-month trial. When it’s combined with magnesium and feverfew, it may work more quickly.
A “Magic Trio”
Alexander Mauskop, MD, director of the New York Headache Center in New York City, and author of a book on migraines, tried feverfew, magnesium, and riboflavin (Vitamin B2) both individually and together. He found that this trio outperforms any one nutrient. His supplement, called MigraHealth, can be ordered by calling 800-548-8686.
Dr. Mauskop used this triple therapy on thousands of headache patients over 15 years. He talks about it in great detail in his book, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Migraines (Warner Books, 2001). Like many other combinations, there appears to be a synergistic activity in this formula between the three nutrients that causes them to work better together than alone.
Start treatment early
Up to 60 percent of people with migraines get a warning up to a day before the headache begins. It’s called a prodrome, and its symptoms include depression, food cravings, fatigue, yawning, and urinary retention. Pay attention to how you feel prior to a migraine. If you have a migraine prodrome, you can begin treatment before you have a full-blown migraine. By acting quickly you could even prevent its onset.
Green, Steven N, DDS. “Migraine,” The Townsend Letter for Doctors, November 2000.
Murphy, J.J., et al. “Randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial of feverfew in migraine prevention,” The Lancet, July 23, 1988.
Murray, Michael, ND, and Joseph, Pizzorno, ND. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 2nd Edition, Prima Health, 1998.
Werbach, Melvyn R., MD. Textbook of Nutritional Medicine, Third Line Press, 1999.
Werbach, Melvyn R., MD, and Michael T. Murray, ND. Botanical Influences on Illness, Third Line Press, 1994.
Zand, Janet, Lac, OMD, et al. Smart Medicine for Healthier Living, Avery Publishing, 1999.
Rozen, T.D., MD. The Lancet, February 14, 2004