There are many types of headaches, and even more potential causes to headaches. Food intolerances, however, are the most common, and yet, the least-considered source of many headaches, especially chronic migraines. Other common causes (which I’ll save for another post) are aspartame, candida, and other types of bacterial overgrowth. The health of the gut is a direct indicator of the health of the brain. The two are inseparable for good health.
My headache story. My headaches grew over time. They seemed to get the most intense when I was in my late 20s and 30s. I was afflicted with daily headaches (they would last anywhere from 2 to 6 days), sinus headaches (which I thought all of them were initially, turned out many of my ‘sinus’ headaches were migraines), exercise-induced headaches, low-estrogen headaches, and eventually chronic migraines. I would get about one migraine a week (or more). I had a daily prescription medication for the daily headaches, another for when I ran, and another for the migraines, in addition to taking over the counter medicines (NSAIDs, pseudoephedrine). Needless to say, my liver wasn’t doing too well (it has to process all these medications). I was also put on birth control for the low estrogen levels, with the idea that would help keep enough estrogen in my system to keep my bones strong. I tried every treatment I could think of and that was suggested: acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care, hydrotherapy, a neurologist (cat scans), a general practitioner physician, and an ObGyn.
The Nature of Headaches. Headaches have a tremendous variety of causes and types of pain. Their pain can range from mild, steady, dull, to a vise-like aching in the head. They can be the result of a severe medical condition such as a brain tumor or simply from dehydrated. Tension headaches and migraines tend to be the most common for which people seek medical treatment. Migraines are the most painful. Headaches caused by brain tumors are very rare. According to the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, the primary classifications and subclasses of headaches are the following:
- Vascular headaches include migraine, cluster, hangover, exertional, hypertension, and toxins/drug-related headaches.
- Nonvascular headache include tension, TMJ, brain tumors, sinus/dental/inner ear infections.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They are generally a steady, constant, dull pain that starts at the back of the head or in the forehead and spreads over the entire head – like a vice grip on the skull. These types of headaches are usually caused by the tightening of face, neck, or scalp muscles (can be the result of poor posture and/or stress). The tightening of the muscles results in a pinching of the nerve or its blood supply, which results in the sensation of pain and pressure. Relaxation usually brings immediate relief.
Migraine headaches are vascular headaches, throbbing or pounding sharp pain, often associated with symptoms of nausea, sensitivity to light and noise. This type of headache is not as common as a tension headache, but they appear to be on the rise. Vascular headaches are caused by an excessive dilation of blood vessels in the head. The pain comes from lining of the brain (meninges) and from the scalp. Some can come on without any warning, other times some have a warning ‘sign’ or symptom, an ‘aura’ before the pain starts. An aura is an optical condition that can last from a few minutes up to 20 minutes. It is usually a visual experience of blurring, fragmented light/vision, or bright spots. Auras are also sometimes accompanied with anxiety, fatigue, numbness, or tingling on one side of the body. There is a theory that some famous artists suffered from optical auras (and the following migraines) and that the visual effects influenced their art, such as Picasso’s abstract paintings.
What Causes of Headaches. Tension and migraine headaches can have many causes, as I’ve learned. However, more often than naught, they are linked back to a few underlying issues such as food allergies or food intolerances, poor serotonin levels, or stress. Other common causes are from sugar, caffeine, withdrawal of addictive substances, low estrogen, PMS, dehydration, and/or chronic use of pain relievers. TMJ (temporomandibular joint) dysfunction syndrome, time zone changes, chemical inhalants (perfume, etc.), altitude, bone structure misalignment, nutritional deficiencies, or even fatigue. Many of these causes can be triggered by food allergies/intolerances. According to common research theories, the metabolic pathways leading to migraine headaches are triggered by serotonin, platelet disorder, stress, vascular instability, and/or nerve disorder.
Serotonin. Research suggests that migraines are partially caused by a drop in serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter in the brain). Serotonin is a chemical that serves many functions in the body: sleep regulations, feelings of wellness, and blood vessel health. Serotonin also plays a role in the state of relaxation or constriction of blood vessels. Too little serotonin can trigger constriction of the blood vessels, causing pain, which can play a role in the onset of a migraine. A deficiency may result in chronic pains, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression and a overeating. Low serotonin levels are found in migraine sufferers with increased frequency including depression, irritable bowel syndrome, as well as, other chronic pain syndromes.
Platelet disorder. Migraine sufferers, in research studies, show spontaneous clumping of platelets during and between headaches and significant differences in the structural composition of the platelets.
Stress. Emotional stress is one of the most frequently cited triggers of migraines and also could explain, in part, why art has a therapeutic effect on migraine headaches; creating art increases serotonin levels, which reduces stress.
Vascular instability. Studies have shown reduction of blood flow prior to the migraine attack. This is followed by a stage of increased blood flow that can persist for more than 2 days. The abnormal blood flow appears confined to the outer portion of the brain.
Nerve disorder. The nerve disorder hypothesis is that the nervous system plays a role in initiating the vascular events. The nerve cell dysfunction releases into the blood vessels a compound known as “substance P” (P = pain). In addition to substance P being released, is the release of histamine and other allergic compounds by specialized white blood cells known as mast cells. Chronic stress is thought to be an important factor with nerve disorder.
The most common migraine triggers that stimulate the above action are as follows:
- Low serotonin levels (genetics or shunting of tryptophan into other pathways)
- Foods: food allergies, histamine releasing or containing foods ß primary cause of most migraines
- Alcohol, especially red wine
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Chemicals: nitrates, MSG, nitroglycerin
- Caffeine or drug withdrawal (blood-vessel constricting drugs)
- Emotional changes (especially post-stress let down, and intense emotions: anger)
- Hormonal changes: menstruation, ovulation, birth control pills, very low estrogen
- Too little or too much sleep
- Poor posture
- Muscle tension
- Weather changes (barometric pressure changes, exposure to sun)
- Eye strain
- Drug-induced headaches
- Substance withdrawal
Food allergies. Food allergies induce migraines as a result of platelets releasing serotonin and histamine. There are two primary types of food irritants, IgE (immunoglobulin E), which is an immediate severe reaction, rare, such as anaphylaxis reaction, and food intolerances or sensitivities, IgG (immunoglobulin G), delayed reaction, common, which causes systemic inflammation in the body. The immune system and inflammation reaction both play a role in a vast number of migraine cases. Identifying and eliminating allergic or intolerated foods has shown, in many double blind studies, to greatly reduce migraine symptoms in the majority of patients.
Dietary amines are another cause of migraines; amines such as chocolate, cheese, beer, and wine. These examples contain histamine and /or other compounds that are common migraine triggers in sensitive individuals, causing the blood vessels to expand. Red wine, for example, contains histamine that stimulates the release of vasoactive compounds by platelets (20-200x more than white wine). It is also higher in flavonoids (which are a good antioxidant) that can inhibit the enzyme phenolsulphotransferase, an enzyme that normally breaks down serotonin and other vasoactive amines in platelets.
Conventional Medical Treatments. Standard medical treatment for most headaches is over the counter (OTC) medication, generally non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Tylenol, or ibuprophen. There are also a variety of prescription pain medications prescribed for severe and chronic migraine headaches that do not respond to OTC. These drug treatments, however, only address the symptoms of a migraine or headache, not the underlying cause.
Alternative Protocols. Alternative protocols for most headaches are generally more physically based: relaxation techniques, stress management, massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS–low levels of electricity stimulate the muscles to cause them to contract and then relax)—such forms of body work have shown to be very effective. Headache relief from these protocols indicate that the headache is structural in nature; so addressing the physical body can often offer relief to chronic suffers of tension headaches. Other therapies that have been affective are art therapy and guided meditation or imagery.
Chronic migraines, however, that do not respond to structural therapies, require a more in-depth look at the body and what could be triggering the migraines. Keeping a journal and identifying triggers is a first step, next is to identify food allergies, and finally look for trends and/or the metabolic action of any medications taken that could be a contributing factor.
Nutritional Protocols for Prevention and Treatment
Elimination Diet. Given that there are so many potential food irritants that can contribute to systemic inflammation and consequently headaches, one of the most effective first steps is to identify and eliminate those irritants. The Elimination Diet (or Challenge Diet) is an effective means to doing that; no blood test or doctors needed. An initial phase removes common food irritants and then slowly adds them back in, noting any negative reaction. The most common irritant foods are gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, yeast, and soy. Removing (at least) these food categories, along with eating a diet high in plant fiber, calms inflammation and gives the body a break.
An anti-inflammatory diet can also significantly help reduce body-wide inflammation and eliminate inflammation-related headaches. An anti-inflammation diet is two-fold, one part riding the body of irritants, removing processed foods, pollutants/toxins, and increasing foods that will reduce inflammation. Following are the anti-inflammation diet’s guidelines.
- Avoid foods that cause inflammation: trans fats (hydrogenated), carcinogens; most vegetable oils, fried foods, breads and other refined carbohydrates, packaged foods/microwave meals (processed foods), fast food, fruit juice beverages, sodas, and remove (or at least limit) nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers).
- Eliminate sugar: refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined grains, sodas (diet and regular).
- Embrace foods that reduce inflammation: omega 3s, antioxidants; olive oil, wild-caught cold water fish, fresh vegetables, low-glycemic fruits (berries), pasture-raised meats, game meat, mineral water.
- Eliminate toxins by choosing organic produce, pasture-raised meats, dairy, eggs, and wild-caught cold water fish. This is one of the best first steps to reducing inflammation.
- Wide variety of vegetables: this will increase nutrients via the countless phytonutrients vegetables provide.
- Choose herbs and spices over table salt.
- Use coconut oil and grapeseed oil for cooking, olive oil for salads, raw foods. These oils have a higher heat tolerance and will not go rancid.
Specific Nutrients for Headaches. The following supplements can help headache sufferers, especially if there are deficiencies, but if the underlying condition is a food allergy, the supplements cannot replace following an elimination and then anti-inflammatory diet.
- 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)
- Vitamin B6
- Essential Fatty Acids, always and forever: every cell in the body needs good essential fatty acids, especially the brain.
- Riboflavin can increase cellular energy production, which could potentially have preventative effects against migraines.
- L-tryptophan to increase serotonin, L-tryptophan crosses the blood-brain barrier, which is necessary for serotonin to be made in the brain and spinal cord.
- Willow bark extracts
- Feverfew, can help to decrease the frequency and intensity of headaches & migraines.
- Ginger. Anti-inflammatory and has significant effects against platelet aggregation.
It is possible. But not always an easy journey.
Currently, I only occasionally get migraines, at most (knock on wood) 2-3 times a year. The rest are mostly gone. I do still have a sensitivity to heat that causes some headaches, which I am working on and hope to have figured out soon. I’ve been through this headache journey, and I know there are answers to the signals the body gives us of dysfunction.
Eliminating these headaches took a lot of work and investigation on my part. There was no one answer. I had to work at it and keep track of my daily foods, stress, and pain levels. I learned I had to eliminate many foods that were irritating my systems and made significant changes to my lifestyle (stress management) that brought about headache-free days. I am a living example that committing to addressing intolerances, removing toxins, reducing stress, and learning what triggers headaches can greater improve the quality of life of headache sufferers.
On top of the world and FREE of brain pain.
- Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Michael Murray, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno, 1998
- Andrea Byrd, Serotonin and Its Uses, Bryn Mawr University
Web MD, Headaches, Migraines and Stress, Web MD
Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center, Art Therapy Complete, BAPWC
Relieve Migraine Headache, Migraine, Headache and Art, Relieve Migraine Headache
Migraine Awareness Group, You Are in Good Company, The Artist Michael John Colemen
- Whole Life Nutrition, Alissa Segersten and Tom Malterre, MS, CN, 2008
- Ache Newsletter, Serotonin and Headache: Using L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP, and Other Methods to Increase Brain Serotonin Levels, Frederick R. Taylor, MD