I started having migraines when I was in my late 20’s. I had experienced plenty of headaches in my time, and ibuprofen was my go to for relief, but these were unlike anything I had experienced before. These had an intense throbbing in the left side of my brain, usually accompanied by vomiting, and light sensitivity.
Since then the migraines came, sometimes frequently. Sometimes I would get a welcomed break. But they seemed random to me. I could never really tie a particular migraine back to anything.
Anyone else experience these types of headaches?
I know I am not alone. Roughly – 1 out of every 7 Americans – suffers from migraines. Current treatment options have proven largely ineffective because they are not focused on finding the root cause to prevent the migraine in the first place, only treating the symptom. I was always looking at my migraines from a straight cause and effect standpoint. The problems with migraines, and many other symptoms, is that the cause isn’t generally that clear. The body is much more complex.
Current Treatment Options
Over the counter non-steroidial anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are typically the first line of defense. NSAIDs block the production of chemicals that cause the inflammation. Keep in mind, inflammation is your bodies way of healing and protecting from injury. Consistently using NSAIDs have been linked to gastrointestinal permeability, or leaky gut. For me, I used to take everything from Tylenol, to Motrin, to Advil almost daily, which likely contributed to both my irritable bowel syndrome and an autoimmune psoriasis condition. In other words, my gut was in major dysfunction.
The main prescription medication to stop a migraine, triptans, are serotonin receptor agonists. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps give you the feelings of well-being and happiness. Triptans essentially stimulate the same cell receptors as serotonin would, and work by vasoconstricting the cranial vessels. As with many other people, these triptans caused my heart to race and my fingers to tingle for hours after taking them. Ultimately, my decision came down to deciding which was worse at that moment, the migraine or the symptoms from the drug.
I was looking for the 3rd option, none of the above. My body was telling me something with these migraines, what was it??
It started with Diet
When I started removing inflammatory foods, the migraines magically went away. After nearly 20 years of random migraines, I could finally stop worrying about when the next one was going to come.
I finally didn’t have to think about whether:
I had the migraine prescription with me?
was the prescription going to make me feel worse (again)?
how long was I going to be laid out this time?
after flying to attend a work meeting, would I be able to make it?
and, more importantly, what was I going to be in the middle of that was going to have to come to a screeching halt so that I could lay in a dark room for hours?
What are Migraines and What Causes them?
Migraines are a complex neurogenic inflammatory disorder where blood vessels to a region of the brain enlarge, pressing on the nerve fibers around them. Recent research suggests that the pain may not be due to the widening of the blood vessels but instead due to extra sensitive nerve fibers surrounding them. Either way, inflammation is the main reason for the throbbing and pounding that you experience during a migraine. Treatments, therefore, have focused on suppressing the inflammation.
But maybe the question should be . . . What is causing the immune system to inflame in the first place? Why does the body need to protect with inflammation? We know that around 70% to 80% of the immune system is located in and around the gut. So it would make sense to start thinking about what type of dysfunction is going on with the gut.
It turns out, poor digestive dysfunction can be found in many people that suffer from headaches or migraines. Some of the other factors that can also trigger headaches or migraines are food sensitivities or allergies, blood sugar dysregulation, iron deficient anemia, and hormone imbalances. All of these issues also having a connection to inflammation and gut health.
In 2016, a comprehensive research review was done that demonstrated their was a connection between migraines, inflammation, and gut dysfunction.
“Treatment of GI comorbidities in migraine might not only lead to a better quality of life but could also open roads for novel therapeutic strategies for this prevalent and disabling disease.”
Intestinal Permeability (Leaky Gut)
Intestinal permeability is a condition in which undigested food particles escape into the blood stream via holes in between the cells of the gut lining. These holes are extremely small normally, to allow digested nutrients from food to move into the bloodstream. However, these holes can become larger with irritation, likely from unknown food sensitivities or an increase in the wrong kind of gut bacteria. We know that an imbalance in gut microbiota influences brain function. Therefore, improving the gut microbiota and reducing inflammation through gut healing can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.
Histamine and Tyramine Sensitivity
Our white blood cells (mast cells) are responsible for fighting off invaders. Within these mast cells are histamines and tyramines. These chemicals start the fight, start inflammation, get the heart racing etc. Essentially, they get your body prepared to fight. When the fight is over, those chemicals need to get broken down and removed out of your system. Enzymes make this happen. But some people don’t have the enzymes to break these chemicals down. In addition, there are several foods that contain these chemicals, so now you are getting a double dose. It can be a recipe for migraine disaster.
Let’s look at tyramine. It is one of the chemicals formed by the amino acid tyrosine. It’s this amino acid that is found in some of the foods we eat. The enzyme MAO usually inactivates this chemical in the liver and the intestines. However, people with migraines seem to show that this function is compromised. This could be due to the digestive system dysfunction or lack of the ability to produce the enzyme that degrades tyramine.
When tyramine or histamine processing is an issue, it’s generally cumulative. Some amount threshold is triggered, and that threshold is different in every person.
Tyramine is found in foods that have been fermented or aged, like sauerkraut, cheese or aged meats. It is also found in over the counter drugs like cough medicine.
This happens to be one of my issues. I found this out the first time I did an MRT food sensitivity test during a gut healing protocol. I suspected a connection between things like kombucha and cheese with the occurrence of a migraine but could never really pin point it. The food sensitivity test picked up that I was sensitive to tyramine and several other foods that were causing inflammation. I removed these for about 3 months while I gave my gut a rest from inflammation and worked on sealing and healing the gut lining.
Want to learn more about histamine in particular. Check-out this article from our very own Jordan Hoefing.
Limit these foods high in Histamine/Tyramine
Here’s a couple of things to try removing from your diet for at least 30-days to see if it makes a difference with your migraines.
Highly processed foods – these can be very inflammatory
Inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, corn and soy.
Instead focus on eating a nutrient-dense real food diet. Check into the Whole 30 as a potential way to move forward.
Also look at removing these high histamine/tyramine foods:
checkAged or Fermented Foods – cheese, sauerkraut, kimchi, cured meats
checkAny foods that are spoiled, pickled, smoked, and dried or marinated meat
checkBeans of all kinds. Specifically, broad (fava) beans, soy sauce, snow peas, soybean, miso, tofu
checkCoconuts and peanuts should be consumed in small amounts.
checkOverripe fruit, specifically bananas. Avocados are ok if not overripe.
check Chocolate and Coffee
If these tips don’t work, it might be time to move into a more aggressive gut healing protocol. Call our office at 208-918-0905 or Schedule a 20-minute free consultation.