I’ve spent the last decade as a neurologist studying migraines. I am in disbelief myself when I admit that my quest to understand the inner workings of the brain have often left me helpless in the face of a chronic migraineur. ‘Migraineur’ is the sweet sounding word used to describe an individual afflicted with this disabling disease. Over the years, I have become convinced that attacks of migraine may be more linked to your body that your brain. How humbling is this for a neurologist?
Truth is, there are many etiologies of headaches, and very few of them start in the brain. Let me explain. This realization came a bit to my dismay, as I designed my path through medicine to ‘specialize’ in migraines.
It wasn’t until I started to think about migraines from a holistic, systems-based perspective that I began to piece it together. Ditching my former reductionist self, who isolated the cause of neurological symptoms being above the shoulders, was a game changer for my practice.
A casual conversation with an unknowing naturopath was the catalyst. I attended a conference in 2007 which focused on how to use vitamins and herbals to balance the system. I was excited as it was one of the first non-traditional conferences I had ever attended. I didn’t know a soul but was thrilled to be immersed in new material. I remember sitting next to a kind gentleman who had been practicing for decades. After introducing myself, he asked me about my practice. When I told him that I trained in neurology and had become a Headache specialist, he laughed and said, “Headaches aren’t a specialty!” I felt a twinge of anger – an estimated 36 million of Americans suffer with disabling migraines, especially women, and the pain is very real for them. (1) At that time advanced certification for Headache Medicine was not available, so many believed headaches were a problem of the worried well. I was frustrated that very few physicians took this diagnosis seriously.
Fortunately, the kind clinician elaborated with some additional indispensable insight. His response was:
“What I mean is that having migraines is a sign that many systems have gone wrong. It’s not just a brain problem. Thus, it’s hard to call it a speciality as you need to fix the many systems.”
Many systems have gone wrong.
At that time, I didn’t realize how powerful those words were. The essence of that phrase continues to shape my view of migraines and guides me to breakthroughs with my patients every day. This new direction led me to become certified in Ayurveda, as well. Ayurveda is a 5000 year old science that is believed to be the first system of healing known to mankind. Ironically, Ayurveda teaches exactly what I learned from the naturopath that eye-opening day. The body is a connected web of systems, and not one is isolated from the other. Again, humbling for that once reductionistic neurologist.
Since I started treating the whole body and not just the head, I’ve identified five major ‘system failures’ that can lead to migraines. If you suffer from migraines, here are 5 Reasons you may have them:
1) Your Digestion Needs to Be Balanced
According to Ayurveda, your body is only as healthy as your digestive system. Without proper digestion, toxins are unable to pass through your body, and you cannot properly absorb the nutrients you consume. In addition, it’s believed most of our serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter linked to the success of triptan medications, the largest class of FDA-approved abortive medications for migraine. No doubt the gut-brain connection (2) should be taken seriously.
You may want to evaluate your digestion if you regularly experience gas, bloating, stomach pain, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea or fatigue after eating. However, these symptoms are not always present in people with gut health issues.
Talk to your doctor about possible food allergies (3), which can wreak havoc on your gut health, and cause a host of health conditions. I’ve found three dominant food allergies in my patients (4):
Dairy: 59% moderate to severe
Grains: 47% moderate to severe
Eggs: 36% moderate to severe
Consider eliminating the common culprits (corn, eggs, milk, soy, sugar, wheat, yeast) to determine which food allergies may plague you. Once you’ve eliminated the irritants, nourish your body with the right food for you. Ayurvedic medicine recommends eating and avoiding foods based on your dosha to balance body and mind.
2) You have Adrenal Fatigue
Mismanaged stress can lead to a common condition called adrenal fatigue. And, as evidenced in my migraine patients, can lead to chronic illness and disease. Stress is often more subtle than the obvious traumas like job loss, death of a loved one, or divorce. Stressful situations like a chaotic commute, tense living situation, or unmanageable workload, can accumulate and cause just as much damage.
Adrenal fatigue is present to some degree in 90% of my patients (5). It’s clear that stress, and the body’s response to it, is a player in the migraine struggle.
You may suffer with adrenal fatigue if you frequently experience fatigue, achiness, foggy thinking, difficulty falling and staying asleep, or sleepiness upon waking from a good night’s sleep.
I advise my patients with adrenal fatigue to:
- Prioritize rest, 10pm bedtime
- Try hatha yoga and/or meditation
- Eat cleaner foods that support your dosha (mind-body) type
- Supplement good eating habits with vitamins and/or herbals
Read more about Adrenal Fatigue in Chapter 6 of The Mysterious Mind book.
3) You Need to Detoxify Your Body
Detoxification goes hand in hand with digestion for a healthy body. If you struggle with migraines, your body may not be properly detoxifying. This may be due to genetic reasons, such as having an MTHFR mutation, which is common in migraine patients 6 or due to overexposure to toxins in the air, our foods and products we use on our skin and hair. Every single one of us would benefit from a seasonal cleanse done in a medical fashion.
Another important factor in the detoxification process is sleep. According to Ayurveda, the body detoxifies during sleep between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. If you fall asleep by 10 p.m., your body will use this time to metabolize toxins using the Pitta energy associated with this time. However, if you are not asleep during this window, your mind will use this time of mental sharpness to burn off thoughts, which is why we tend to accomplish more around this time. Unfortunately, the body needs this opportunity to detoxify (both physically and emotionally). If we fall asleep at a reasonable hour, we can do just that and wake up feeling more refreshed with less pain and fewer headaches.
Is your body deficient in important nutrients which assist in the detoxification process? These nutrients are magnesium, CoQ10 and activated B vitamins, which are necessary if you have the MTHFR mutation, but important for all of us to help us detoxify our systems.
Sometimes it may be necessary to supplement with vital nutrients to alleviate your migraines. It could be that you aren’t getting enough of these nutrients, or your body is unable to process or absorb them, especially with the digestion issues or genetic mutation outlined above. Discuss the following nutrients with your doctor:
- Magnesium (glycinate and/or citrate forms)
- CoQ10 (especially the Ubiqunol, activated form)
- B vitamins (especially the activated forms)
When supplemented, these nutrients have been proven to help patients with migraines
4) You Need to Balance your Mind
Ayurveda asserts the body and mind are an interconnected web of cause and effect. You cannot have the health of one without the health of the other – which is often easier said than done.
Having digestive symptoms, feeling achy, or just having ‘stress’ is often a sign that you need to be more in alignment with your emotional body. Taking some time to understand where the symptoms of reflux came from, rather than just blaming it on the food you have eaten, is of upmost importance. Yes, eating hot and spicy food, if you are Pitta type, can increase acid reflux. In addition, feeling angry towards someone or having frustration with the direction of your life are also triggers to the production of stomach acid. Either way, you will experience reflux, but working on your mind will allow the food to be less provoking.
Doing yoga that is restorative and calming, along with meditation, are two of the best tools for helping you balance the emotional body, which often exacerbates the physical body.
5 ) You need to Connect with Your Authentic Self
Fortunately, Ayurveda provides the tools and resources to better understand and balance your body and mind. The first step on the path to optimum health is identifying your dosha, or mind-body type according to ancient Ayurvedic medicine.
Once you have identified your dosha, read up on the lifestyle recommendations that best suit you. Choose foods and body care products that counteract your body’s natural predispositions. For example, if your body runs hot (pitta dosha), coconut oil is a great addition to your daily self-care routine, as it has cooling properties. Know that your dosha may change based on the time of year, or the time in your life. It’s important to revisit Ayurveda and reassess your dosha frequently to reap the benefits of this ancient practice.
To further explore health conditions like migraines in the big picture, as symptoms of dysfunction in a larger system, consider my book The Mysterious Mind: How to use ancient wisdom and modern science to heal your headaches and reclaim your health. The book will help you identify your dosha and become a healthier version of yourself. Not just for migraine suffers, The Mysterious Mind tackles some of the most frequently asked health questions:
Why do I get HEADACHES and how can I prevent them? Why do some of my attacks have nausea, light sensitivity and are in my temple, but others cause neck discomfort?
- Is it normal to be CONSTIPATED all the time? Is there a link between the gut and brain
- What would it take for me to not feel so STRESSED OUT all the time? Is there such a thing as adrenal fatigue? Do I have it?
- Isn’t there something I can do to cure my ACHING JOINTS? What causes body pain? How is it linked to the digestive system?
- Why can’t I seem to get my MOOD in balance? Why does my mind always go toward an anxious state?
- Isn’t there something I can do about my INSOMNIA? How is this linked to my adrenal health?
- Are there certain foods I can eat or ways I can prepare my foods to help BALANCE my mind and body? What about herbals and nutrients that can bring me into balance?
Don’t settle for a constant state of dis-ease. Begin to treat your body as a whole, interconnected set of systems to begin your healing journey.
- Gokani, T ; Rossbach. J; Adrenal Fatigue and Migraine: A Common Clinical Finding? Abstract presented at the 25th Annual Clinical Meeting of the American Academy of Pain Management, Phoenix, Arizona 9/18/2014
T. The Prevalene of Food Allergies in Migraine Patients 54th Annual
Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society, Los Angeles, CA