by Gabriel MacSharry
More than 300 million people worldwide -- about 6 to 7 percent of men and 15 to 18 percent of women -- suffer from severe migraine headaches, yet to this day, it’s one of the least understood medical disorders.
Part of the problem has been that the experiences of those suffering from migraines vary greatly.Aside from throbbing, searing pain, which may or may not be one-sided, some experience “auras” prior to onset, while others do not. There may also be nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, sweating, and/or sensitivity to light, sound, and smells.
The pain can be extreme. On average, “migraineurs” have one or two day-long attacks every month. But 10 percent get them weekly, 20 percent experience them for two to three days, and up to 14 percent have them more than 15 days a month. It comes as no surprise then that headaches cost the Irish economy a large amount of money each year in lost work, disability payments, and health care expenses.
New Research Offers New Insights into What Causes Migraine Pain
It has long been thought that the cause of migraines was due to vascular changes in your brain, from initial blood vessel constriction and a drop in blood flow, followed by dilation and stretching of blood vessels, which activates pain-signalling neurons. However, new research published in Scientific American July 2008 finds flaws in this theory, as they’ve now been able to determine that migraines are not preceded by constriction and decrease in blood flow, but rather by an increase of nearly 300 percent. However, circulation then appears normal, or even slightly reduced, once the attack is in full swing. Based on new research, a migraine is now thought to arise as a result of a disorder of your nervous system, most likely in your brain stem.
Although most regions of your brain do not register or transmit pain signals, a network of nerves called the trigeminal nerve system does. What first activates your trigeminal nerves, setting off a migraine, however, is still under debate, but is thought to be one of two things.
Some researchers believe that a wave release of neurotransmitters across your cortex can directly stimulate your trigeminal nerves, setting off the chain reaction that ends in the transmitting of pain signals. Others place the root of migraine pain in the brain stem itself, as it is your control center for alertness, perception of light, noise and smell, cerebral blood flow, cardiovascular function and pain sensitivity -- many, if not most, of which are part of the symptoms of a migraine attack. If these findings are correct, they offer a clue as to why migraine medications have been so largely unsuccessful in treating migraine pain
What Typically Triggers Migraine Headaches?There are many potential triggers, and what triggers a migraine for one might not trigger it in another. However, here are several of the most commonly reported triggers:
• Food and Drink: Many people experience migraines when they eat certain foods, especially wheat, dairy, sugar, artificial preservatives or chemical additives. Cured or processed meats, alcohol, aspartame, caffeine, and MSG are common culprits.
• Allergies: Including food allergies and food sensitivities, and chemical sensitivities.
• Dehydration and/or Hunger
• Changes in sleeping cycle: Both missing sleep and oversleeping can trigger a migraine.
• Stress: Any kind of emotional trauma can trigger a migraine, even after the stress has passed.
• Physical exertion: Extremely intense exercise or even sex has been known to bring on migraines.
• Hormones: Some women experience migraines before, or during their periods, during pregnancy, or during menopause. Others may get migraines from hormonal medications like birth control pills, or hormone replacement therapy.
• External stimuli: Bright lights, fluorescent lights, loud noises and strong smells (even pleasant ones) can trigger a migraine.
• Weather changes, Seasonal changes, and changes in Altitude
Natural Tips to Relieve a MigrainePreventing migraines begins by avoiding the triggers. Most often this means eating healthy whole foods (avoiding most processed ones) and managing your stress effectively. On a nutritional level avoiding wheat, grains, sugar and all fluids but water seem to be particularly effective. Regular exercise in fresh air will also help to keep migraines away by improving your response to stress along with the underlying inflammatory conditions that can trigger migraines.
Herbal Medicine to treat MigraineOne of the main herbs used here is Tanacetum which has a traditional use for headaches. It works on a number of levels including its anti-inflammatory effects, anti-allergic effect and it inhibits secretion of platelet granule constituents (thought to play a role in migraines). Tanacetum is best used as a preventative or taken at the very beginning but is less effective during migraine. Ginkgo biloba has a specific action for treating headaches; it is anti-allergic and increases the blood circulation to the brain stem. Herbs that treat the liver and increase its clearance of chemicals and residues have been shown to help reduce headaches. Appropriate liver herbs here would be Silybum and Berberis. Adaptogen tonics such as Eleutherococcus and Withania will calm the nervous system and reduce the likelihood of a migraine being triggered. Obviously in light of the new research nervous system tonics are indicated also.
Other considerations worth noting:• Stimulating your body's natural painkilling ability. By putting pressure on a nerve just under your eyebrow, you can cause your pituitary gland to release painkilling endorphins immediately.
• Taking 1 teaspoons of cayenne pepper in a glass of water. Endorphins are released by your brain when the cayenne hits your stomach lining.
• Using meditation or breathing techniques to reduce tension and stress and hopefully reduce the severity of the migraine.
• Green apple scent. One study found that the scent significantly relieved migraine pain. This may also work with other scents that you enjoy so consulting with an aromatherapist may be beneficial.
• Putting a cold compress on your forehead or behind your neck
• Massaging your ears and ear lobes
• Massaging the "crown" of your head -- the ring of muscles that circle your head where a crown would sit
• Some people even say that having a purring cat, which sends out low frequency vibrations, next to their head relieves migraine pain.
The point is that there are many, many natural options out there, and finding the one that works for you is likely just a matter of trial and error.