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Why Migraines May Be More Dangerous Than We Thought + 3 Commonly Overlooked Causes

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Migraines are already painful, life-halting experiences. I experienced them starting in my late teenage years and throughout my 20’s. I was malnourished due to undiagnosed Atypical Celiac Disease, and at times the migraines lasted almost a week. Around the same time, I began experiencing memory loss, to the point that I had difficulty recognizing family members if they weren’t in familiar surroundings.

I can’t be sure if the migraines were responsible for my neurological symptoms or simply more effects of the malnourishment, but new research by scientists & researchers suggests that migraines may have lasting, more serious affects on the brain than previously considered. Researchers with the University of Copenhagen in Denmark explored over a dozen clinical studies and discovered that people who experienced migraines with auras (visual disturbances that may include blurred or loss of vision, flashing lights, or loss of peripheral vision) had a 68% increased risk of brain lesions in their brain’s white matter when compared to people who did not experience migraines. Migraines not accompanied by auras still showed a 34% increased risk of brain lesions.

Explaining that people who experienced both types of migraines had a higher prevalence of changes in brain volume and infarctions, or small areas of dead tissue caused by lack of blood supplied to the area, the authors of the study stated, “The present review suggests that migraine may be a risk factor for structural changes in the brain.” And in a sobering study published in the medical journal Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, the authors stated: “Migraine, particularly with aura, is associated with increased stroke risk both during and between attacks.”

Rather than stress over this newfound information, I encourage everyone to become more proactive about the underlying causes of their migraines, and not simply treat the symptoms, but provide our brain with essential nutrients for optimal regeneration. While both conventional medicine and functional medicine point to a variety of possible causes & triggers, including stress, genetics, low blood sugar, hormonal imbalances caused by puberty, oral contraception, or the menstruation cycle, and nutritional deficiency, here are 3 less commonly known causes that could be your key to living migraine-free:

Low Thyroid Levels

Rather than temporarily treating his patients’ migraine symptoms with common medications such as Imitrex, Dr. Al Sears, a physician at the Sears Institute of Anti-Aging Medicine, checks his migraine patients’ thyroid function as a preliminary step. Over the years, he’s seen a strong correlation, and a recent study conducted at the Headache Center in Italy evaluated the clinical records of over 3500 individuals, noting: “We found a high prevalence of HT (hypothyroidism) in migraine, significantly higher than in the general population.” A 20 year study in Ohio concurred, revealing that among the residents of a small town, people with frequent headaches had a 41% increased risk of hypothyroidism, a condition where the body lacks sufficient amounts of the thyroid hormone.

However, instead of immediately placing his patients on thyroid medication, he first recommends they supplement with an all-natural thyroid booster that is also known to have a link to migraines, which takes us to:

Magnesium Deficiency

“High-dose oral magnesium appears to be effective in migraine prophylaxis.” - 1996 Double-Blind, Placebo Study

“Magnesium helps you make more of the T4 hormone in the thyroid,” explains Sears. “Without it, many of the enzymes that make thyroid hormone could not function at all.” Almost half of the US population consumes less magnesium than required for optimal health, and magnesium deficiency is linked to Type 2 Diabetes, sudden cardiac death, osteoporosis, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, hypertension (high blood pressure), and—migraines. It’s also a critical element in thyroid health. In addition, magnesium plays a role in toning our blood vessels, and scientists have linked some migraines to poor blood vessel health.

Kelly Brogan, MD, explains in her article A Woman’s Friend: Magnesium: “Magnesium is an essential NMDA receptor modulator, which is a brain chemical port that regulates the actions of the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. It’s also critical for the production of cellular energy (ATP), and SAMe, the body’s major methyl donor and precursor to important agents like neurochemicals, fatty acids, and antioxidants.” In other words, magnesium is an absolutely critical component of our physical, mental, and emotional health: and over 50% of the USA’s population is deficient.

Magnesium seems to have stopped my migraines. Supplementing with it is an everyday part of my life – if I stop, my migraines tend to return. If my magnesium levels remain optimal, no migraines. I started supplementing as a teenager with large amounts of magnesium pills, which softened my migraines but began showing up in inflated doses in my urine, alarming medical staff. I switched to more highly absorbable forms, like liquid magnesium supplements, and topical creams and sprays, which, taken daily, have halted my seemingly ever-climbing magnesium intake need.

Dr. Sears suggests the following to maximize the absorption of your magnesium intake: “Look for magnesium that is bound to citrate, malate or aspartate. Take it with vitamin B6. It will increase the amount of magnesium that accumulates in your cells.” He also recommends enjoying a bath with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), a time-honored relaxation remedy that allows the magnesium to absorb through your skin.

Serotonin Imbalance

“All types of headaches are now believed to have similar underlying causes, including high levels of inflammation, increased stress and changes in neurotransmitter levels, such as serotonin.” - Dr. Josh Axe

Imbalance in brain chemicals may play a role in migraines, including the neurotransmitter known as serotonin. Serotonin not only helps regulate your nervous system but aids in the function of the overall body and plays a large part in the gastrointestinal tract. In studies, low serotonin has appeared to play a role in some patients’ migraines.

Signs of serotonin deficiency may include anxiety and panic attacks, depression, carb and sugar cravings, insomnia, ADHD, alcoholism, low self-esteem and low confidence, obtrusive thoughts (such as reoccurring aggressive, violent, or other negative thought processes), fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, or asthma. Serotonin levels can be negatively affected by stress, insufficient sleep, too much caffeine and alcohol, lack of proper exposure to sunlight and low Vitamin D levels, vitamin B deficiencies, and inadequate exercise, to name a few. These lifestyle and dietary traits are becoming an increasingly common part of our modern culture: while a complex subject, it’s no wonder that mental and emotional disorders are as common as they are in the US. Statistically speaking, 1 in 5 adult Americans, or 43.8 million people, experiences mental illness in a given year. 1 in 6 Americans now take psychiatric drugs, a rate that quadrupled between the 1990’s to the late 2000’s.

Like many naturally occurring elements in our body, too little or too much of a substance can both have a harmful effect. Physicians and scientists now refer to a state of excessive serotonin known as Serotonin Syndrome. A potentially life-threatening scenario, Serotonin Syndrome is rare but can occur when taking antidepressants such as SSRI’s, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SNRI’s, serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or with triptans, a type of serotonin receptor agonist medication used to treat migraines or cluster headaches. Medication Overuse Headache, or MOH, is also acknowledged as a growing worldwide problem, causing chronic rebound headaches while attempting to treat headaches & migraines.

Methods of naturally allowing your body to regulate its serotonin levels are currently being studied, and include meditation, adequate sleep, stress relief, massage & exchanging touch, laughter, and exercise. Some individuals are finding relief in the form of supplements like 5-HTP, the precursor to the serotonin neurotransmitter. It’s important to note, however, that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, so having a healthy gut is key to not only proper mental & emotional health, but may greatly assist in migraine prevention. A healthy gut is promoted in part by a high nutrient diet achieved with as many organic, whole foods as possible, little to no refined sugar, sufficient hydration for proper digestion, and adequate prebiotics and probiotics for adequate gut flora essential in the absorption of nutrients and maintenance of the immune system.

Pain Management & Brain Health Supplements for Migraines:

Overall, locating deficiencies and/or triggers for migraines may not only effectively prevent painful migraine episodes, but may also prevent the risk of migraine-associated stroke or brain lesions. For more migraine prevention, pain management, and to further enhance your overall brain health, consider the following supplements:

Curcumin: Curcumin is an active ingredient in the spice turmeric, has been studied as an effective pain reliever and was one of the most potent anti-inflammatory agents used in a study of 12 different pain relievers that also showed aspirin as one of the least effective agents used. Used to reduce inflammation in the cranial blood vessels, Curcumin also soothes gastrointestinal swelling, making it a complimentary supplement for pain management and gut health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids, especially in DHA form: Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid necessary for human health, and according to a Harvard study, it’s deficiency is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, claiming around 96,000 fully preventable deaths each year. 60% of our brain consists of fats and it requires a consistent intake of fatty acids in order to maintain proper health and function. Not only do the majority of Americans lack adequate omega 3 intake through diet and supplementation, but usually also have a high intake of omega 6 fatty acids, which in moderation is also essential for the body, but when imbalanced, can further decrease levels of omega 3’s. DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is a fatty acid found in cold-water fish, breast milk, microalgae, and inside our brains. Deficient levels of DHA are associated with cognitive decline, depression, and brain cell death. I recommend looking for an EPA & DHA supplement derived from krill and squid, which are more absorbable and able to more efficiently cross the blood-brain barrier.

As always, please use the comments below to share your experience using these methods or if you have any questions. To a happy, healthful life!

- Brigit

Brigit Hartop

Certified Health Coach

CO- Founder Pastiche Wellness Solutions

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