Recently, I had a new patient visit my office with a presenting problem of migraine headaches. If you have never had one, you are lucky. They consist of debilitating head pain and other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to sounds and light. In extreme cases, one can feel weakness on one side of the body that can last minutes to days. An article in the Sunday NY Times provides a bit of a first person account of migraines. Natural migraine treatment requires us to know the cause. I have identified at least 9 different causes of migraines. In this article, I want to explore those different causes and how to possibly find a cure for migraines.
Before we jump into the categories of migraines, I just want to give a brief overview of the scope of the problem. Migraines are common in the United States. Estimates vary between 10-20% of the population suffer from this condition. It costs consumers approximately $12.7 billion a year in medical costs. Another $12 billion is lost in missed workdays. People with migraines make less money than people who don’t. Not only that, people who get migraines are at a greater risk of heart attack and possibly stroke.
Management of migraines is done with polypharmacy, or the use of multiple drugs. Some people try to figure out their triggers. Chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, menses and barometric changes are some of the common ones.The trigger though isn’t the same as the cause. A trigger creates a migraine. The cause though is what makes the trigger manifest into a migraine. Not everyone who eats chocolate gets a migraine. For those who are susceptible to migraines, chocolate can create one. By the cause, I mean what is it that allows a trigger to work. Stress and a lack of sleep may also affect people. The trigger though, isn’t the same as the cause. I work with people to help them understand triggers because it can bring relief. But I then help them address the underlying cause so they don’t get sick again. Many of my patients tolerate the thing that made them ill previously. They start to live their life more fully.
The Simple Way to Cure Your Migraine
Understanding the cause is the simple way to cure migraines. Finding the cause is not always so easy. Let’s explore some of the different causes.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): One of the most common causes of migraines is previous head trauma. I discuss the details of head trauma in the last post. Head injury is common and can cause migraines. Even minor bumps on the head or whiplash injuries can add up and lead to headaches later in life. In the last post, I go over the treatments in this situation.
Female Hormonal Imbalances: Many women get migraines related to their menstrual cycle. The headaches can occur right before or when their menses start. While this can be its own cause, it is usually related to liver imbalances. Treatment requires balancing of the hormones first. Ensuring that the cycles are regular is the first thing I do in this case. More often than not, though, it requires looking at the liver.
Liver Imbalance: Liver imbalance is common for people with migraines. The liver clears toxins from the body, and hormones are no exception. But other imbalances can occur too. The inability to eat rich foods or drink alcohol without a problem maybe a sign of a liver issue. The way I describe this issue to patients is that their liver cells just aren’t working as liver cells. Naturopathic treatments remind the liver cells how to do their job. Our DNA is more of a blueprint than a hardcoding. The body has flexibility in what it produces. If the liver isn’t doing its job, it means it’s not producing the proper proteins to be doing its job. I use a variety of supplements that assist the liver and others that work to reset the epigenetic state. Gemmotherapy, homoepathy, and low dose botanicals can all help with the liver.
Gastrointestinal: This is distinct from a liver problem. Sometimes, there is a problem with the foods we eat because we aren’t digesting them. This could be due to food sensitivities causing GI distress. For reasons unknown, this can lead to migraines. Changes in the healthy flora in the intestines can lead to this issue. These organisms help protect the gut and allow us to digest food well. The reason why so many people react to so many foods is that the gut is too loose. Leaky gut is a real problem, and one of its symptoms is migraine. Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth or SIBO can be the culprit too. Proper diagnosis of this problem starts with an elimination diet. If the problem isn’t completely resolved, then I run other tests. SIBO, Leaky Gut, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Crohn’s can all be causes of migraines. Treatment varies based on the diagnosis.
Hormonal: Other hormonal imbalances can lead to migraines. Adrenal imbalances causing rapid changes in cortisol or epinephrine can cause migraines. The adrenal gland is also responsible for instructing the liver to produce certain proteins. Sometimes the liver is fine but the adrenals aren’t directing it appropriately. Or the thyroid may be out of balance. An imbalance in either could disrupt sleep, and fatigue is a common trigger for migraines.
Metal Imbalance: This is a new one for me although the research about this is almost 30 years old. The main culprits here are Zinc and Copper. The body requires both metals for proper functioning. In general, Americans are low in zinc and high in copper. This may be due to the effects of food processing, but it is unclear why. High copper levels may cause both migraines and menstrual difficulties. It also exacerbates low zinc. Zinc supplementation has shown promise in research studies as a treatment for migraines. (Med Hypotheses. 2011 Jul;77(1):147-51. A new horizon into the pathobiology, etiology and treatment of migraine. Dillion, Singh, Lvall) Simple testing of blood and/or hair can help reveal this issue. Zinc supplementation can be effective for raising zinc levels and lowering copper levels.
Heavy Metals: Another issue with metals is the heavy variety. Mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and aluminum can all contribute to migraines. Heavy metals can come from a variety of sources, and often the headaches come on as the body is trying to get rid of them. Elimination of metals needs to be gradual to prevent severe symptoms. A simple mineral prescription can start to mobilize the offending metals out of the body. Headaches will be completely gone in months.
Inflammation: Inflammation is starting to gain traction as a cause of many different conditions. Recent publications have suggested that migraines may be inflammatory. What does this mean? Inflammation is the process the body uses to heal damage. It is to be a short-term activity to do so. Cells release hormones called cytokines that are signals to repair damage. These make us feel achy, sluggish, and depressed. For various reasons, the body sometimes gets into a chronic inflammatory state. This means that the entire body feels down, as if ill. In some people, the inflammation leads to headaches. The reasons aren’t completely clear. Treatment would consist of lowering inflammation in the body. This is probably a good idea for most people. An anti-inflammatory diet, omega-3’s (fish oil), and turmeric are simple ways to reduce inflammation.
Cardiovascular: Changes in arterial pressure may also contribute to migraines. In this situation the pain doesn’t start with stress but when there is relaxation. Patients get migraines on the weekend or on vacation. What is interesting is that some of these patients may have had asthma earlier in life. There appears to be changes in the autonomic nervous system affecting the arteries. Another issue that can arise is that the person with migraines has a small hole in their heart. We have no idea what the relationship is between the two and it is somewhat rare. Treatment here definitely varies depending upon the situation. Neurofeedback or biofeedback can be helpful to stabilize the nervous system.
These are some of the causes of migraine. Others exist, of course, but these are the ones that I see most commonly in my practice. As you can see, it is a complex problem, and just treating the symptoms won’t change the issue. Treating the underlying cause helps reduce the problem. If you or someone you love suffers from migraines, please call me. I have a Naturopathic practice in Portland but can work with people remotely using Skype or telemedicine. While my I delight in helping people. And maybe you too can one day be migraine free.