The Disappearing Migraine – What You Need To Know To Cure Yourself Of Headaches
Guest blogger Dustin Rudolph
According to the National Headache Foundation 29.5 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches, with women being affected three times more then men. Migraines can be debilitating and often lead to the inability to perform normal everyday activities especially if the headaches become full-blown.
The burden of migraines isn’t just physical pain and suffering though. These headaches carry an enormous amount of financial strain on both the patients who suffer from them and on our country as a whole. Recent data has shown that the direct costs of treating migraines—including doctors visits, medications, emergency room visits, diagnostic tests, etc.—is over $11 billion a year in the United States. This works out to an average of $2,571 annually for each individual. Indirect costs—due to things like decreased productivity and absenteeism at work—are even more, estimated at nearly $12 billion annually.
Needless to say, migraine headaches are more than just a pain in the neck. I know firsthand the burdens that migraines cause because like many sufferers I’ve been facing them for more than two decades now, ever since I was 10 years old. As a pharmacist, I’ve always looked towards medications as a solution to my problems, but this has only provided temporary relief at best. I was lucky though, I learned about the benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet in combatting migraines when I received my certification in plant-based nutrition through Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s eCornell course. Now I fight migraines with food and not pills. I hope to share with you some insights from what I’ve learned to help you make your migraines disappear forever or at the very least reduce their duration and frequency.
What Causes Migraines?
Migraines have many potential causes but in most cases are due to a triggering agent that invokes a series of events in the brain which result in enhanced excitability of pain receptors in the trigeminal nerve—the largest nerve supplying the face and mouth. When these pain receptors are overly activated, pain and blood flow changes occur resulting in a migraine headache. The headache is typically a pulsating or throbbing pain located in the front of the head behind one eye that may or may not be accompanied by visual disturbances, sensitivities to light and sound, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Some people may get an aura (zigzag lines, flashing lights, blind spots, etc.) 10-15 minutes before a migraine warning them of the oncoming headache.
The key to making your migraines disappear forever is finding out what’s triggering them in the first place. This flies in the face of conventional medicine which only focuses on treating the symptoms after a migraine has already reared its ugly head. Conventional treatments rely on powerful medications as first line therapy. These medications almost always come with some sort of side effect(s) both in the short and long term which I’ll get into a bit later.
So what are the common triggers for migraines? Many things can be the culprit. It’s difficult to pin down just one factor because each individual is different. Stress, hormonal imbalances (menstruation, menopause, etc.), sleep abnormalities, specific smells (perfumes, gasoline, etc.), environmental (allergy, changes in weather, air conditioning, pollution, etc.), physical activity, and even skipping meals or fasting can trigger migraines[5-6].
Other factors may include a magnesium deficiency, the use of certain medications such as birth control, hormone replacement therapy, and even the continued use of medications used to treat the migraine in the first place (i.e. Excedrin Migraine, Fioricet, Midrin, Triptans, etc.). Overuse of these medications has been shown to cause rebound headaches that can hang around for days or even weeks. However, the most likely offender responsible for triggering migraines is most likely found right there on your dinner plate.
Is it something I ate?
Food has been found to be a major cause in an overwhelming case of migraine sufferers. What you eat or drink is heavily linked to whether or not you become a regular victim of these unwanted headaches. Here are the most common food/food component allergies triggering migraines with the more likely items listed towards the top[5,11-13]:
- Alcohol (not including wine)
- Red wine
- White wine
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)
- Aspartame (NutraSweet)
- Sausage and lunch meats
- Citrus fruits
- Ice cream
Certain substances in foods seem to be of particular interest. These include the following –
- nitrates and nitrites found in processed meats
- caffeine found in chocolate, tea, coffee, and soda
- phenylethylamine common found in chocolate
- artificial sweetener (aspartame) found in diet sodas and other beverages
- tyramine found in cheese, cured meats, smoked fish, beer, and other fermented foods
- MSG commonly used in Chinese food and also as a meat tenderizer
- sulfites in wine, dried fruit, and used as a preservative in many packaged foods
- gluten found in wheat products
Other less common causes of migraine headaches include sinus problems, head trauma, brain tumors, disorders of the eye, and even metabolic or infectious diseases.
Treatment Options For Migraines
If you end up in your doctor’s office as a result of a migraine then chances are pretty good that the first thing that’s going to happen is that the prescription pad and pen are going to come out before you even get a chance to finish telling your story about your nagging headaches. Most likely, you’ll be prescribed a medication without ever having a discussion about the true cause of your headache. The same holds true if you skip the doctors office and opt for advice from you local pharmacist. You’re sure to end up in the OTC aisle where all the pain relievers are found discussing the benefits and risks of each pain medication in treating your migraine
While modern day health care practitioners are only trying to do their very best to help you suffer less they instinctively reach for the nearest bottle of pills to resolve most any medical illness. I know this because I was one of those individuals. Along with my fellow colleagues, we were trained to automatically think pills and procedures first from day one as we entered the modern medical education system in this country. While medications like the triptans, aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen, barbiturates, and other powerful narcotics may provide relief to migraine sufferers they do not treat the cause of the headache. As I mentioned before, they also have a host of possible side effects. I’ll list just a few of them below for each class of drugs.
– Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Naproxen, Aspirin, etc.) – upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, headache, fatigue, stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding
– Triptans (Imitrex, Maxalt, Zomig, etc.) – flushing, tingling, drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, feeling of warmth or coldness, serotonin syndrome
– Barbiturates (Fioricet, Fiorinal, etc.) – drowsiness, dizziness, upset stomach, headache, dreaming
– Opioids (Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Morphine, ect.) – drowsiness, dizziness, constipation, nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, loss of appetite, difficulty breathing
– Tylenol® – liver damage and/or liver failure
In addition to these, some powerful pain medications like opioids and barbiturates can become habit forming leading to physical and/or psychological dependence. Again, these medications only provide temporary relief and do nothing to address the cause of migraines.
So how do you make your headaches disappear in only a matter of days or weeks? The answer for most people lies in changing the foods they eat. By removing the cause of most migraine headaches there’s no need to rely on potentially toxic medications since the headaches simply disappear for most people. In fact, one study published in The Lancet, showed that 93% of children who suffered from frequent migraines were able to rid themselves of headaches after removing the causative foods. Another study done in the same journal reported that 85% of headache sufferers were headache-free after avoiding the top ten most common foods known to cause migraines.
Migraines are, by and large, a food-borne illness. If you take away the foods causing the problems you take away the illness. Since most of the foods responsible for causing migraines are animal-based and/or processed foods it’s best to avoid these all together. This includes alcohol and caffeinated beverages. Instead, individuals should adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet. By doing so, you’re likely to see your headaches disappear in no time at all usually in a matter of a week or two. Understand that this is a lifestyle change, and if you go back to your old eating habits your headaches are bound to return.
Another important note, specifically pertaining to women, is that migraine headaches can often be triggered by changes in estrogen levels. Premenopausal women who eat a typical western diet with large amounts of animal foods have anywhere from 30-75% higher estrogen levels in their plasma than women who eat a more plant-based friendly diet. For postmenopausal women the difference is 3-fold higher in plasma estrogen levels for those consuming an animal rich diet. The problem with this resides in the fact that migraines are much more common in women with higher sustained levels of estrogen in their body. When you switch to a plant-based diet consisting heavily of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains you dramatically reduce your overall levels of estrogen in the body over time which reduces or eliminates the frequency of migraine headaches. Plus you get the added bonus of lowering your overall risk of breast cancer in the process[18-19].
If adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet doesn’t resolve your migraines then look at eliminating some of the other foods that are still a part of a plant-based diet like gluten containing wheat products, citrus fruits, or nuts. Once you eliminate these foods try adding one item at a time back into your diet and see if your migraines return. If they do then you’ve likely found another food item to avoid.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Dr. John McDougall have been treating patients suffering from migraines for decades now. They use a dietary approach like the one I’ve talked about to help their patients become migraine-free. Dr. Fuhrman credits his vegetable-based, whole foods diet in curing over 90% of patients who come to him for their headache problems. Dr. McDougall also uses a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables to achieve the same results. These highly respected physicians use this approach because it works. It treats the cause of the disease instead of just suppressing the symptoms on the back end with medications alone.
If you’re one of the few whose headaches don’t improve after making these dietary changes then it may be wise to work with your physician to see if one of the lesser known causes of migraines may be bringing about your headaches. Also, let your doctor know you are going to use dietary approaches to rid yourself of migraines when you start this program and do not attempt to change or eliminate any of your current medications without first consulting him/her as some medications have to be tapered when going off of them in order to avoid withdrawals and other complications that may arise.
Here’s to wishing you the very best in your quest to become headache-free, and I hope you can enjoy many years to come without ever having to think of the pain and suffering that comes with migraines ever again. Best of luck and stay healthy!
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Dustin Rudolph, also better known as The Plant-Based Pharmacist, prefers produce over pills when it comes to helping his patients prevent and reverse their chronic diseases. He is currently writing a book on how to achieve optimal health by using plant-based nutrition and lifestyle medicine. He also maintains a website (hyper link www.PursueAHealthyYou.com) and a health blog (http://pursueahealthyyou.blogspot.com) in his spare time.
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