It is estimated that one person in four in the UK suffers from migraine headaches, which affect women more than men. Migraine attacks are extremely debilitating and can put you out of action for days at a time, causing excruciating pain, nausea and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
Migraines are not like ordinary headaches, which are caused by tension in the muscles at the back of your head. Instead, they involve changes to the blood vessels in your brain and typically affect one side of your head only. Most researchers believe that narrowing of the arteries in your brain, followed by their over-dilation, is responsible for migraine pain, by stretching the tiny nerves that encircle your blood vessels.
Conventional medicine treats migraines with drugs that alter brain chemistry, relax blood vessels and block pain signals. But these can cause unpleasant side-effects, such as drowsiness, weight gain, chest tightness and sleep disturbance. And yet, this distressing condition can often be completely controlled simply by paying careful attention to your diet, and taking certain nutritional and herbal supplements.
What causes the excruciating pain of migraine symptoms?
Studies indicate that food sensitivity may be linked to as many as 90 per cent of migraines (Lancet ii: 865-9, 1993). The major culprit is cow’s milk, followed closely by wheat, eggs, oranges and tomatoes.
Chemicals called amines, which are present in certain foods as well as being produced in your body, are thought to play a large part in triggering attacks (Rev. Neurol. 129: 534-8, 1996). Foods which contain amines, include figs, dates, raisins, pineapples, beans, potatoes, pork and turkey.
Tyramine is the most notorious dietary amine and high concentrations are found in hard cheeses (especially blue cheese), yoghurt, yeast extract, pickled herrings and canned fish. Chocolate is a common migraine trigger too, the guilty amines here being mainly phenylethylamine and phenylalanine. Some amines which are produced in your body are also present in certain foods – for instance serotonin in bananas, and dopamine and histamine in cheese, sauerkraut and cured meats.
For most people, dietary amines pose no threat, as they are quickly broken down by monoamine oxidase enzymes in your gut and blood platelets. In migraine-sensitive people, however, these enzymes may be deficient. It is thought that naturally occurring chemicals, such as flavonoids in citrus fruits and red wine, may be responsible for preventing these monoamine oxidase enzymes from working properly.
Why the weather could be causing your migraine pain!
Stress, weather changes, smoking and too much or too little sleep can all cause migraine headaches – by triggering hormonal or nervous system changes that affect the production of amines in your body.
Low blood sugar and excess blood insulin levels, as a result of missed meals or sweet snacks, also promote amine production. High oestrogen levels can in turn raise insulin output, leading to migraines linked to the menstrual cycle, the contraceptive pill and HRT.
Bacterial toxins in foods also cause migraines. This may explain the difficulty some sufferers have in identifying specific foods as migraine triggers, since the same food may be well tolerated when fresh, but migraine-producing a few days later when bacteria have multiplied. Artificial additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), sweeteners (particularly aspartame), nitrites and nitrates in cured meats, flavourings and colourings can all cause migraines, too.
Eight ways to help banish migraines for good
Following this nutritional treatment approach can help break the chain of events that leads to painful migraine attacks:
** Identify food sensitivities. An exclusion diet that initially eliminates dairy products, wheat and other gluten grains (rye, barley and oats), eggs, oranges and tomatoes will cover about 90 per cent of food sensitivity cases. Keep to this for a month and then, if you haven’t suffered from a migraine in this time, reintroduce one food at a time, allowing four days for a reaction to occur. Meat and animal fats should also be avoided during the elimination diet, since these tend to promote the production of arachidonic acid, which causes pain and inflammation.
** Eliminate harmful amine chemicals from your diet. Cut out any amine-containing foods – chocolate, aged cheese, tinned and pickled fish, sauerkraut, dates, figs, raisins, pineapple, bananas and yeast extract.
** Cut out caffeine. Caffeine is a bit of a paradox, since it can both cause and relieve migraines. It stimulates adrenaline production, which causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of your arteries), so it can either contribute to the initial phase of a migraine or relieve symptoms temporarily during the second phase, when most of the pain is due to over-dilation of your arteries. It is best, however, to exclude coffee from your diet entirely, in addition to other drinks which contain caffeine, such as tea and fizzy drinks. A gradual reduction is advisable to avoid a withdrawal headache. Drink plenty of water instead, since dehydration leads to histamine release and vasoconstriction, which can trigger migraines. Stay clear of alcohol and tobacco, too.
** Eat plenty of fresh foods to avoid the build up of bacteria. Base your diet on the freshest, most natural foods you can obtain. Plan meals and shop frequently, so food doesn’t stay in your fridge for days. Avoid food additives as far as possible, especially nitrites in cured meats, MSG, tartrazine and aspartame.
** Balance your blood sugar levels. Follow a low-carbohydrate diet and include plenty of fibre from fresh vegetables and salads. Avoid sweet foods, refined flour products (even if you do not suffer from a wheat sensitivity) and potatoes, as they can cause blood sugar levels to rise fast. A supplement of 200-600mcg of chromium picolinate taken daily can help keep your blood sugar stable.
** Correct hormonal imbalances. A natural diet and supplementation with essential fatty acids, B group vitamins (especially B6) and magnesium will help to avoid female sex hormone fluctuations, which can result in migraines. Herbs such as dong quai and agnus castus have also been shown to help (Am. J. Chin. Med 15 (3-4):117-125, 1987). Natural progesterone cream (currently only available on prescription in the UK) has also been shown to prevent menstrual cycle migraines.
** Benefit from the healing power of herbs. Feverfew can reduce migraine frequency in about two thirds of cases (Brit. Med. J. 291:569-73, 1985). Cayenne pepper, valerian, goldenseal and ginger have also been used successfully to prevent or treat migraine (Pharm. Rev. 38: 179-226, 1986; J. Ethnopharmacol 29(3), 1990). But be careful to avoid St John’s Wort if you are a migraine sufferer, since it blocks the action of monoamine oxidase enzymes that break down amines.
** Natural relief for migraines. Magnesium and calcium can reduce the severity of blood vessel spasms and prevent the onset of a migraine. Vitamins B2, B3, B6, C and E can also help and appear to work by preventing vasoconstriction or inhibiting blood platelet clumping, which occur during attacks. Essential fatty acids in fish oils reduce the production of inflammatory prostaglandins, which contribute to migraine pain.
Simply altering your diet and taking the natural remedies outlined above, can help prevent migraines – meaning that you don’t have to live under the constant fear of the next attack.
Bear in mind all the material in this email alert is provided for information purposes only. We are not addressing anyone’s personal situation. Please consult with your own physician before acting on any recommendations contained herein.