by Lynn Hinderliter CN, LDN

It’s hard to think straight when your head hurts,  as more than 45 million Americans who suffer from this chronic affliction can attest!  But natural help for migraine and other headaches is available.

There are four major kinds of headaches:

  • migraine, which is often accompanied by one or all of the following:  visual disturbances, throbbing pain, sensitivity to light and nausea 
  • tension headaches, related to stress,  and manifesting as a dull throb.
  • cluster headaches.  At this point, no clear causality has been determined for cluster headaches, though they are vascular in nature and cause the most severe pain.
  • sinus headaches, which are another animal altogether.

Migraine headaches are a miserable affliction, and they are on the increase, having grown by nearly 60% across all age groups. This type of headache is usually preceded by a warning aura, where the sufferer sees a halo around things, or only part of what they are looking at, or flashes of light across their sight. Numbness of the lips and hands can follow, with extreme photosensitivity, then nausea and vomiting, and disturbed thought processes, with a throbbing pain on both sides of the head.

Stress can cause migraine and other headaches,  but  usually they are  triggered by a food intolerance. One of the most common is aspartame, and that would certainly explain the increase in occurrences, since many headache sufferers have serious soda addictions: simply avoiding this synthetic sweetener has cleared up many people’s headaches.  Other foods that can cause headache problems  are cured meats, wine (especially red), cheese, beer. cabbage, coffee, chocolate, pickled , marinated or fermented foods, nuts and nut butters, sourdough breads, pizza, broad, lima and fava beans, snow peas, MSG, soy sauce, tenderizers and seasoned salts, or more than a cupful of bananas, figs, raisins, papaya, avocado or red plums in any given day!

Interestingly, it has been confirmed that when you treat this type of headache too frequently ( defined as more than 3 times a week) with common pain-killers such as aspirin, when the medication wears off, you will experience a rebound headache, which will cause you to resort to the painkillers again – and so ad infinitum.

This is how powerful a tool allergy avoidance can be: in one study, migraine sufferers eliminated 10 common foods from their diet, and 85% of the 60 patients became completely headache free. As a bonus, 25% of the patients who had also suffered from hypertension, attained normal blood pressure! This study was published in the Lancet in May 1979. The foods were wheat, oranges, eggs, tea and coffee, beef, cow’s milk, chocolate, corn, cane sugar, and yeast. It does seem, incidentally, that lactose intolerance is common in migraine sufferers. For some extra sensitive individuals, just the smell of an offending food can be enough to start the headache.  If you suffer from headaches that incapacitate you, I strongly advise determining whether there is an allergic factor involved.  Either go to an allergist, of keep a food diary, and see if you can spot the culprit.  

Remember, if you are blood type O, almost certainly wheat, corn  and milk will be part of your problem!

Speaking of blood pressure, A 1999 study at the Imperial College School of Medicine found that migraines appear to be linked to ischemic strokes in women: one quarter of the women suffered from migraines themselves, and another quarter had a family history of migraines. Additionally, they found that about 40% of the strokes occurring in women with migraines followed a headache attack.  Since smoking increases blood pressure, and both are risk factors for ischemic stroke, women with migraines should definitely stop smoking, and watch their blood pressure carefully.

 Dr. Mario F. Peres, of the Sao Paulo Headache Center, Brazil, and colleagues reported in the December 2001 Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry that melatonin, prolactin and cortisol levels have a diagnostic role to play in migraines:   the team reported that 47% of chronic migraine patients had “a significant phase delay in the melatonin peak and half had insomnia,” while patients with chronic migraine and insomnia had significantly lower melatonin concentrations than control subjects and patients with chronic migraine without insomnia.   Dr. Peres feels that there may be benefits in supplementing with Melatonin, though more research needs to be done.

Chronic migraine sufferers  also had higher cortisol levels and a lower prolactin peak than controls, which suggests a connection to dopamine levels, and also to stress and Adrenal function.

Becauses Migraines are such a life-altering misery, bringing such terrible pain and suffering, many people are taking powerful drugs to control them.  It is important to know that there are some Drug/Herb combinations which can be extremely dangerous.  DO NOT use  Gingko Biloba, Ginseng, Echinacea, St. John’s Wort, or large amounts of Garlic, as these can interfere with the proper metabolism of certain migraine medications, causing  the drugs to reach toxic levels.

A herb that has powerful research behind it for helping with migraines is Feverfew. It seems to work by preventing the dilation of blood vessels, and stopping the production of inflammatory allergy reactions. A study in the British Medical Journal in 1985 was conducted on 17 patients who had already been using feverfew. 8 of them were continued on the herb, while the others received a placebo. The first group enjoyed continued reduction of headaches, and the nausea and vomiting associated with them: the other group suffered 3.43 attacks monthly. The important constituent in feverfew is the parthenolide content, and the feverfew you buy should contain at least 0.2% of it. 3 to 5 mg of the standardized herbal extract is used as a preventative measure, and during a severe attack, a higher dose may be taken. It needs to be used over a period of time to get the effect, and users measure progress in terms of 1) a reduction in the frequency of headaches, 2) less severe attacks, 3) shorter attacks and 4) lessening of accompanying symptoms, such as nausea.

Another herb that is particularly useful for the nausea some people experience is Ginger, and some people have reported a lessening in attacks with its use over time.

An interesting study published in the American Journal of Clin. Nutrition in 1986 ( 7:10) found that 15 patients who had responded to no other medication experienced considerable relief, and lessening migraine/headache  frequency, following supplementation with Fish Liver Oil. The doses used were 2.7 gr of EPA, and 1.8 of DHA daily. I suggest adding some Vitamin E when using FLO at this level. I have had anecdotal reports of FLO helping at lower doses when combined with the Feverfew extract. No doubt what we are seeing here is the mitigating effect Omega 3 fatty acids have on allergic reactions.

There is also research showing that adding 250 mg of Riboflavin (B2) can help migraine sufferers. A study in Neurology 1998; 50: 466-70 suggests that 400 mgs daily may be even more helpful, lessening the number of migraines experienced, but not the severity of the attack.

A nutrient that has many important applications in the body can also bring about a 50% reduction in the number of migraines (Rozen et al, aCephalalgia 2002 Mar;22(2):137-41 ).  I am speaking of Co-enzyme Q 10, which is essential for energy at the cellular level throughout the body.  The dosage used in the study was 150 mg.

There may be a connection here between the Fish Liver Oil and another  possible contributory factor to headaches:  Bowel Toxicity.

When undigested food is passed through the bowel slowly, or remains trapped there to decay, many toxins are reabsorbed into the bloodstream, where they cause not only allergic reactions, but also body-wide  vasoconstriction .  Many  people do not get enough fiber in their diets to avoid this syndrome!  What’s the connection to Fish Liver Oil?  A  source of Omega 3s,  it is known to help repair the bowel.

A German study in 1996 (Peikert – Cephalalgia 16: 257-263) found a link between low magnesium levels and migraines: after all, magnesium is an anti-spasmodic. This study found that of 81 patients, 41.6 taking oral magnesium experienced reduction both of the length and the severity of their migraine attacks. As a side note here, conjugated estrogens (birth control pill takers and those on HRT take note!) reduce magnesium levels. Magnesium is involved in over 300 enzyme reactions in the body,  and is essential for the proper function of cells.  Its importance to the brain is indicated by the fact that  Alzheimers patients appear to be deficient in it. Consider also that 75% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, and 40% of migraine sufferers.  Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant.

I would even add that if you are blood type A, you should consider the link between low levels of stomach acid and difficulties absorbing magnesium – If you are type A and suffer from persistent headaches – try increasing your magnesium.

Ladies, if you are on HRT or birth control, or if your headaches are related to your cycle, definitely consider that low magnesium may be a factor. Most studies recommend a dosage of  400 mg per day, but if you are taking calcium in high doses you may need to increase that.

Recent research shows a role for CoQ10 in helping migraines, which makes sense when you consider that it feeds the mitochondria , which are the energy producing engines in our cells.  There is a link to a report on the study in RESOURCES.

An interesting new therapy comes with the introduction of 5-HTP to the natural foods arena: this is a kissing cousin to L-Tryptophan, and is therefore also a serotonin precursor. An Italian Study (Clinical Journal of Pain, 1986. Dr. Bendittis) showed a 90% improvement in headache severity and duration using 400 mg of 5-HTP a day for two months. This is impressive!  Speculation among scientists about the causes of migraines now focuses on changes in the blood vessels of the brain – first constriction, then expansion – brought about by low levels of serotonin, which would explain why 5-HTP helps.

Dr. Michael Murray, N.D. feels that very often migraines are associated with low thyroid function, so it might be worth while to make sure that you are getting the nutrients necessary to support that gland, such as beta-carotene, kelp, and the B-vitamins.

I do not have migraines any more, I am happy to say! I remember one attack as I was driving from the US to Mexico that completely numbed my lips and tongue. As I tried in a fog to make my way through the official maze, I heard one man say to the other: “What a disgrace! Drunk, and so early in the day, too”. I realize now that stress combined with the ham and cheese sandwich I had for lunch contributed to this disaster, but it wasn’t funny at the time. In fact, migraines are never funny -but they can be a thing of the past.

Thanks to Dr. Rountree in the May 99 issue of Let’s Live magazine for listing some of the circumstances under which you might suspect a headache is something more serious and should consult a Doctor.1. A headache that doesn’t go away or gets progressively worse over several days. Brain tumors tend to cause pain that slowly increases in severity.

2. A headache that is distinctly different from those in the past. It could be in a new location or the pain could have a different quality.

3. Headaches that are triggered by activity or aggravated by exertion, especially if they occur frequently. This could be a sign of an aneurysm – a dilated blood vessel that is about to rupture.

4. A headache that is accompanied by a stiff neck, high fever, blurry vision, or numbness or weakness in an extremity. These could be signs of an infection in the brain or an. impending stroke

Sensitivities to Aspartame and MSG do not only cause migraine headaches:  many people who suffer from headaches of unexplained origin find that giving up Nutrasweet, sucralose, and reading labels carefully to make sure they are avoiding MSG in all of its disguises ( hydrolyzed vegetable protein is one of the most common) clears up their headaches immediately.  

Another common cause of non-migraine headaches is low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia.  When blood sugar drops,  usually because you have skipped breakfast, or have not paid attention to your diet that day and instead of eating healthy foods, have resorted to quick carbo fixes, a headache often results.  If you know you suffer from hypoglycemia and have headaches, suspect this as a cause and make sure to eat a sustaining snack every 3 hours or so – and most important, get a good source of protein for breakfast.  My solution has for the last 25 years or so  been a protein drink for breakfast. 

Find the recommended supplements here

An interesting site with homeopathic suggestions for Headache Treatment – http://www.migraines-findnaturaltreatment.com/

Extensive information about finding triggers for migraines and other headaches.  – http://www.scienzavegetariana.it/nutrizione/pcrm/pcrm_migraine.html

Chet Day’s non-invasive techniques for headache control – http://chetday.com/headachecures.htm

A study on CoQ10 and Migraine – http://www.nat-med.org/portal/alias__NatMedOnline/tabID__5115/DesktopDefault.aspx

Non-denominational  Meditation instruction – http://hop.clickbank.net/?vtmnldy/meditation

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