Headaches & migraines
How to use optimum nutrition to solve painful headaches and migraines
Heaches and migraines can be completely debilitating and there are a number of causes or triggers that are worth exploring and eliminating if you are suffering. These include:
- Blood sugar issues
- Food intolerances
- High homocysteine
- A lack of B vitamins and magnesium
- Pollution & over-use of mobile phones
- Neck misalignment and muscle tension
The sugar connection
The first common cause of headaches and migraines is a blood sugar dip. Consequently, diabetics are more prone to headaches. When blood sugar concentration increases, your body tries to dilute the excess sugar concentration by triggering thirst, so you drink more water. If you ignore this signal, the combination of dehydration and blood sugar peaks and troughs can often trigger a headache. The solution is to eat a diet that keeps your blood sugar level even – and avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. This means never skipping breakfast, eating slow releasing carbs (such as wholegrains, brown rice, lentils and beans) with protein, and snacking on low glycemic index fruit, such as apples, strawberries and pears. Following my low GL diet can make all the difference.
Hidden allergies & intolerances
Another exceedingly common cause of headaches and migraines is hidden allergy or intolerance. In fact, headaches are one of the most common symptoms of allergy. If you do suffer from headaches, it is very important to find out what you are allergic to. The most common offenders are wheat, gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats), dairy products, citrus foods, and yeast. it is best ot have an IgG food intolernace test such as Yorktest's FoodScan. A number of additives have also been found to trigger migraines, including caffeine, MSG and aspartame. I discovered that dairy products were one of my migraine triggers. For some people, cheese and chocolate are especially bad news.
The Niacin Cure
I believe that most people who experience headaches have a number or triggers, and thus, a combination of factors can ‘break the camel’s back’. By reducing the triggers, you reduce the chances of headache or migraine. But what do you do if you have one? Instead of taking one of the more common vasoconstrictive drugs, which constrict the blood vessels, try taking 100-200mg of niacin, which is a vasodilator. Start with the smaller dose. This will cause a ‘flushing’ sensation, as well as a feeling of increased heat, but it can often stop or reduce a headache in the early stages. Medical studies have shown substantial relief of migraines by supplementing either vitamin B2 or B3 (niacin). In one study, those taking niacin halved their number of migraines by taking 100mg of niacin every day. I personally take niacin at the first sign of migraine symptoms, and find it’s best to do so at home in a relaxed environment.
Homocysteine and Migraines
Homocysteine is a naturally-occurring protein in the blood that can have a profound effect on blood vessels, which is why high levels are linked to heart attacks and strokes. Dr H Kowa from the Institute of Neurological Sciences Faculty of Medicine at Japan’s Tottori University wondered whether homocysteine might have anything to do with migraines. He recruited 74 patients who had frequent migraine headaches and 261 normal, healthy controls. After testing them for the MTHFR gene mutation, which indicates a tendency to overproduce homocysteine, he found that, compared to controls, more than twice as many of the migraine sufferers had the mutation. And sufferers who experienced ‘aura’ symptoms before a migraine (blurred vision, bright spots in their field of vision, muddled or confused thinking, extreme exhaustion, anxiety, numbness or a tingling sensation in one side of the body) were four times more likely to have the mutation and high levels of homocysteine.
This study suggests that the tendency to migraines might be inherited in many people, due to the MTHFR gene mutation, and that high homocysteine levels might also be involved. That has yet to be proven, but if so it would suggest that a homocysteine-lowering diet and supplement programme, including B2, B6, B12 and folic acid, might prove enormously helpful for migraine sufferers. In one study, those taking high-dose vitamin B2 for four months had substantially less migraines. My recommendation is to test your homocysteine level and supplement with homocysteine-lowering nutrients daily, including B2 (100mg), B6 (100mg), B12 (150mcg), folic acid (2000mcg) and TMG (3000mg).
There is growing evidence that a dip in magnesium level can trigger a migraine, and giving a high oral or intravenous dose can stop it. One recent study found that, among migraine sufferers, the odds of having a migraine increased by 36 times when magnesium levels dropped below normal levels. Another reviewed 10 studies giving high dose oral magnesium and 11 giving intravenous magnesium, both of which showed a dramatic and significant relief of symptoms. Most studies gave 1,000mg of magnesium.
The strongest evidence for magnesium’s effectiveness is in patients who have, or have had, aura with their migraines. Magnesium may prevent the wave of brain signaling, called cortical spreading depression, which produces the visual and sensory changes associated with aura. Magnesium also improves platelet function and decreases release or blocking of pain transmitting chemicals in the brain. Magnesium may also counter the narrowing of brain blood vessels caused by the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Pollution and mobile phones
Some people find exhaust fumes or gas fumes can trigger a headache. Many years ago I used to commute by car into London, which involved an hour in heavy traffic. My headaches returned. However, if I went in by train, I was much less likely to get a headache. In the short-term it isn’t easy to change your exposure to things like exhaust fumes, but in the long-term, it’s worth considering such factors. For instance, if you ride your bicycle through traffic to work, try to find a less crowded route. Many people find they are more likely to get headaches when they use their mobile phones frequently. Nobody in the science community or the government seems to be able to make up their minds on the information about the link between mobile phones and health problems. Research is very conflicting, but there is some evidence that shows that antioxidants minimise the effects of the electromagnetic radiation you get from mobile phones. However, no research has really been done on reversing symptoms such as headaches caused by over-exposure to mobile phone radiation. Therefore, I recommend reducing your mobile phone use as much as possible.
To reduce the negative impact of exposure to pollution, radiation and harmful chemicals, you can improve the way your body processes these ‘oxidants’. To do this, you need a good supply of antioxidant nutrients, so eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables – especially the red, orange and purple varieties such as berries, apricots, sweet potatoes, peppers, and carrots.Probably the best weapon against oxidants is a watermelon smoothie – just put chunks of it in the blender, whiz it up – seeds and all – and you’ve got a refreshing drink loaded with antioxidant nutrients. Also make sure you’re drinking at least 1.5 litres of filtered water a day, and avoid things that burden your body, such as coffee and alcohol. You should also supplement an antioxidant complex that contains at least 5000mcg of vitamin A (as mixed carotenoids), 1200mg of vitamin C and 130mg of vitamin E. I would also supplement with omega-3 and omega-6 essential fats (EFAs), namely 300mg of EPA, 200mg of DHA, and 100mg of GLA. EFAs help to build nerve and cell membranes that are particularly susceptible to damage by radiation.
Last, but by no means least, don’t rule out psychological and physical causes of headaches. Misalignments of the cervical vertebrae in the neck,(particularly C2/C3) can trigger headaches and are usually the result of stiffness in the back and shoulders.I recommend that anyone experiencing headaches or migraines visit a chiropractor or osteopath.
Migraines, in particular, force a complete shut down. Not only does the sufferer want complete sensory deprivation (no light or sound) but the digestive system also shuts down. Therefore, once a migraine is in full bloom, it is neither advisable to eat, nor take nutrient supplements. Finally, this sensory shutdown may be your body’s way of saying take a break. So, if you are pushing yourself beyond your capacity, you may need to reappraise your priorities, especially if you find that emotional upsets can trigger headaches.
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Reference 1. H Kowa et al, The homozygous C677T mutation in the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene is a genetic risk factor for migraine, American Journal of Medical Genetics (2000), vol. 96(6), pp. 762-764.
Assarzadegan, F. et al. Serum concentration of magnesium asan independent risk factor in migraine attacks: a matched case-control studyand review of literature. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 2016 Sep;31(5):287-92.
Chiu, H.Y. et al. Effects of Intravenous and Oral Magnesium on Reducing Migraine: A Meta-analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials. Pain Physician. 2016Jan;19(1):E97-112.