Have you ever had a migraine headache? If so, you know that you’d do just about anything to never have one again. As a functional medicine doctor, I run in to my fair share of patients that have been dealt headache medications as a first line of defense, before they could realize that there are better options out there that are healthier, safer, and sometimes, downright simple. Not to mention infinitely better than a lifetime prescription. Close to 18% of women and 6% of men in the US suffer from migraines, and surveys indicate that 1 in 4 women will experience a migraine in their lifetime.
Is My Headache a Migraine?
Typical migraine symptoms include severe head pain, often accompanied by photophobia (sensitivity to light), phonophobia (sensitivity to sounds), nausea, and vomiting. A “classic migraine” includes some type of aura—sensations that signal a migraine is coming, such as flashing lights, wavy lines across your field of vision, certain sounds or smells depending on what part of the brain is affected. Some people experience additional symptoms that can be frightening, as they can mimic the symptoms of a stroke. These symptoms can include numbness or weakness on one side of the body, sudden partial or complete loss of vision, difficulty speaking (dysarthria), hearing loss, etc.
Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine – Which Approach Makes Sense to You?
Not only are there a variety of symptoms that accompany migraines, but even people with the same migraine symptoms may have very different underlying causes. That’s where Functional Medicine comes in. In conventional medicine the approach is almost always to prescribe medications to stop your migraine symptoms when they start (abortive therapy), and then, if the migraines persist, to try one strong prescription medication after another until something helps prevent them (prophylactic therapy). Prophylactic medications include antidepressants, antiepileptics (for seizures), and others, and often for the rest of your life. We can’t blame these doctors, that’s the only tools they have!
Many of these medications have significant enough side effects that out of 1,200 migraine sufferers questioned in a recent study, “two-thirds delayed or avoided taking their current prescription medications because of treatment side effects. Of those taking triptans — the most commonly prescribed class of drugs for recurring headache pain — patients listed sleepiness and fatigue, racing heartbeat, nausea, and difficulty thinking as common side effects.”
Despite all of this, rarely is there any discussion about what might actually be causing the migraines in the first place. Does that sound like an approach you want to take?
Common Triggers of Migraines
A deeper look will uncover that the actual causes of migraines stem from genetics and the C2 nerve root at the top of the spine. This paper explains it great!
While the causes are being addressed, migraine triggers should also be avoided if possible. Let’s look at some of the known triggers of migraines, and then we will go over effective means of treatment.
1. Hormonal Imbalance
This is a common cause of migraines in women. Many women find that their migraines are tied to their menstrual cycles. This is often caused by imbalances in estrogen and progesterone resulting in too much estrogen, and not enough progesterone. So, what causes the imbalance? Several things can contribute, including stress, lack of sleep or exercise, or too much alcohol, sugar, flour, or starch in the diet. A medical doctor might not think of it, but try looking into such things like pregnenolone and DHEA to help maintain that hormonal balance in a safer way than prescribing sensitive hormones.
2. Sensitivity to foods or chemicals.
Many people react to foods like peanuts, dairy or eggs. We have had many patients who have suffered with migraines for years and years, and by simply identifying particular foods or chemicals they were reacting to and avoiding those, the migraines disappeared! It is our goal to fortify the body in a way that if those foods are encountered, you can continue to thrive. One of the more common that people are told to avoid is gluten. Your adverse reaction to gluten could be an actual allergy, a sensitivity, or an intolerance. In all of these instances the gluten creates a lot of inflammation in the body and can contribute to migraine headaches. Increasingly, people are discovering they are sensitive to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt. While it is becoming more common for providers to run food sensitivity panels on patients and tell them they can’t eat a list of foods, that is NOT the Balanced Health Care way. Here we build you up while teaching you the things to avoid that drag you down.
3. Vitamin or Mineral deficiency.
Vitamin or Mineral deficiency is a simple cause of migraines that is often overlooked. For example, some people who don’t get enough riboflavin (vitamin B2) get migraines. Magnesium deficiency is something we see frequently in our clinic. Magnesium is considered the relaxation mineral because of its role in aiding sleep and controlling muscle cramps. If you’re deficient in it, you are more susceptible to headaches and migraines.
4. Sleep Disturbances.
Studies have shown that headache disorders, including migraines, may be related to sleep cycles, which can be regulated by through a variety of means. One of the more common natural ways to help sleep is melatonin. But did you know that melatonin comes from serotonin? Without healthy functioning serotonin, a good night’s sleep is not going to happen. Other hormones that need to be looked at include: Progesterone, Cortisol, GABA, we already mentioned magnesium, but we can’t forget about America’s new favorite supplement, CBD.
5. Negative Affect.
There is now evidence to confirm what many migraine sufferers already know–being depressed, anxious, or even just in a bad mood can actually trigger or exacerbate a migraine. Maybe another reason to avoid mainstream medical… Find a better Balance!
6. Blood Sugar Swings.
Both high and low blood sugars can cause headaches and trigger migraines in those who are prone to them. It is helpful to maintain normal blood sugar levels by eating something balanced every few hours (especially if you’re diabetic).
7. Pain in the Neck
As is discussed more fully in First Line Treatment for Migraines, the neck is a major contributor for migraines.
Other Common Causes:
Side effect of medications. Work with a holistic-minded medical practitioner to review medications you are taking to see if they could be contributing to your migraines and decide whether they are still necessary or if there is a better alternative.
How to get rid of a migraine naturally.
Here are some simple things you can do to identify and eliminate what might be causing your migraines:
1. Check your Genetics and get Adjusted the right way!
Genes load the gun, and it seems like the right neck problems can help pull that trigger. Migraines suck, but they don’t have to be a part of your life!
2. Start with an elimination diet.
An elimination diet removes common food allergens from your diet for a set period of time, followed by a systematic reintroduction that allows you to track adverse reactions to specific foods. I never cease to be amazed at the number of symptoms that seem to disappear in our patients just by doing a proper elimination diet for 4 weeks. Part of any elimination diet that is geared toward migraine prevention is to avoid foods high in tyramine, histamine, and arginine. Please consult with your physician before changing your diet. A Functional Medicine provider can direct you in the best way to accomplish the isolation and identification of your unique triggers.
3. Supplement with Omega 3 Fish Oil.
There are studies showing that daily supplementation with fish oil can help decrease both the frequency and severity of migraines. High quality olive oil appears to be similarly beneficial, but you’ll want to be careful that you are getting your olive oil from a reputable source.
4. Try Magnesium.
In order to see results, you will usually have to take 300 to 600 milligrams twice a day in the form of magnesium glycinate or citrate. Another option is applying magnesium oil or soaking in a warm bath with magnesium bath salts or flakes, as magnesium is more easily absorbed through the skin.
5. Supplement with Riboflavin.
This should be taken at a dose of 400 milligrams a day. Be warned, it will turn your urine a dark yellow, but there’s nothing to worry about.
6. Balance your hormones.
Some suggestions to help you stop premenstrual migraines include exercising, eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and sugar; and eating a diet rich in plant foods, especially the broccoli family, flax seeds and tofu (organic of course).
7. Get the best sleep of your life!
Magnesium, the common sleep aid, has been shown to help relieve migraines at low doses, 1 or 2 milligrams, shortly before bedtime. For a deeper option, try looking at this product from Neurobiologix. It is one of our favorites because of the combinations it contains of magnesium, valerian, GABA and others. We have seen this help many fall asleep fast and wake refreshed.
Takeaways on migraines.
So, remember: a migraine is not just a migraine. There are are myriad of migraine symptoms and even more potential triggers and root causes. You’ll need to do some detective work to discover your specific underlying cause. While it takes some effort and some trial and error to discern the exact cause of your headaches, it is most definitely worth it. We’ve seen many people overcome what they expected to be a lifelong problem just by implementing a few of these changes.
At Balanced Health Care, we don’t just practice medicine, we’ve 'Nailed It!'
Dr. Brent Noorda – NUCCA Chiropractor, Functional Medicine in St. George, UT
Dr. Shane Preece – NUCCA Chiropractor, Pediatrics in St. George, UT
Jen Myers, LAc – Genetics, Functional Medicine, Acupuncture in St. George, UT