Migraines Aren’t just in Your Head
Symptoms of a migraine are hard to ignore. Migraine headaches have an onset of significant pain that can last hours even days. Typically these one-sided, pulsing headaches are accompanied by nausea, vomiting, photophobia (light makes the headache worse) and phonophobia (sounds make the headache worse). Some migraines have sensory warning symptoms, or auras, which precede the migraine, though about eighty percent do not. Auras can manifest as flashes of light, or other changes to vision as well as tingling in an arm or leg or even neurological or mental symptoms like confusion. Migraines are very unique, each with their own manifestations, auras, characteristics and causes. Each individual who has migraines needs to be treated uniquely and looked at as a whole person, because hormones, diet, sleep and even stress management may all be part of treating them.
Many people suffer from migraine headaches, however, migraine symptoms can occur in other places in the body. Migraine variants are manifestations of a migraine without head pain, though there could be a history of migraine headaches. Ocular migraines can occur with head pain, but unlike visual disturbances of a normal migraine, bouts of blindness occur in one eye. Abdominal migraines are another manifestation of migraines, where stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and cramping occur. These are more common in children and often have many of the same triggers that migraine headaches have.
One of the main focuses of anyone suffering from migraines is their triggers. As there are many factors that contribute to migraines, understanding the causes and triggers can be difficult.
A neurotransmitter that is responsible for a sense of well being in the body, serotonin has been implicated in the biochemistry behind migraines. In fact, some of the medications used to treat migraines work on the serotonin pathway. Some of these medications work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. A large amount of serotonin in our body is outside of the brain, and is also responsible for our perception of pain.
Research suggests supporting this pathway helps many individuals prevent headaches and migraines. Melatonin, the hormone that helps promote sleep, and 5 HTP, a precursor to serotonin, are sometimes helpful in increasing serotonin levels, however, production of serotonin can be diminished for several reasons. Addressing the cause of imbalance is just as important as restoring it.
Cortisol is the major hormone produced when our bodies are under stress. Chronic stress, inflammation or infection may alter cortisol levels in the body. When these levels are increased, the production of serotonin is decreased. From our ancestors’ perspective, this made sense. If you were in “fight or flight” mode, your cortisol increased so you could either fight a bear or run away from it. This was not the time to help promote a sense of well being or restful sleep, our ancestors needed the extra nutrients to cope with the immediate stressor. However, chronic stress can level this pathway depleted.
Often times with stress, poor dietary choices, less exercise and other less healthy lifestyle choices may creep into our lives, which may also promote migraines. Stress management should always be a consideration in migraine management.
At some point in our lives, fifteen to twenty percent of us will experience migraine symptoms. Interestingly, women are more likely to experience migraines more than men. Of the women who get migraines, sixty to seventy percent experience them around their menstrual cycle. Birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy have been shown to increase incidences and risk of migraines. On the other hand, the shift in hormones during pregnancy frequently makes migraines disappear. Balancing estrogen and progesterone levels in the body may help not only other monthly symptoms, but also migraine prevention!
There are numerous nutrients that have been shown to help prevent migraines. B vitamins, particularly riboflavin and B6, have been studied to prevent migraines, potentially because they promote hormone detoxification as well as serotonin production. Magnesium is another nutrient associated with migraine prevention, perhaps by relaxing smooth muscle as well as promoting serotonin production. Omega 3 essential fatty acids are healthy fats that our body cannot make, but can help in reducing inflammation and pain as well as promoting hormone and neurotransmitter balance. Spikes and dips in blood sugar may also be a trigger, along with dehydration.
Food allergies and sensitivities have also been implicated with migraines as a trigger. Some foods have been identified as more common potential triggers than others. Dairy, peanuts, chocolate, caffeine, wheat and egg are some of the top offenders, but everything from rice to carrots can be a culprit. An elimination diet and migraine dairy can help sort out trigger foods, otherwise food allergy and sensitivity testing may be helpful as well.
Migraines, like most pain, do not let you ignore your body. They make you stop whatever you are doing, and focus on yourself. Taking the time to listen to them and learn how to keep your body more balanced will help not only prevent them but also keep yourself healthier as well.
Dr. Lauren Young is a board certified naturopathic physician, accepting new patients for her family practice in Manchester, CT. Dr. Young is in network with most insurance companies. For an appointment or more information, please call (860)533-0179 or visit www.ctnaturalhealth.com.