Holistic: Migraine headaches are typically debilitating, and require a comprehensive approach for successful treatment. It is helpful to consider migraine headache as a symptom of an underlying imbalance, rather than simply a diagnosis. A holistic approach is a satisfying way to think about and treat migraine headache. Physicians trained in this approach will consider a broad array of features that may contribute to the experience of migraine headache, including disturbances within the following key areas:
Migraine headache is an excellent example of biologic uniqueness; the underlying factors participating in each individual’s outcome may differ quite a bit from person to person. The journey of identifying and addressing these factors often results in an impressive improvement in frequency and intensity of the expression of migraine. Committed individuals will find the added benefit of better general health along the way.
Numerous well-designed studies have demonstrated that detection and removal of foods not tolerated will greatly reduce or eliminate migraine manifestations. True allergy may not be associated with migraine in most individuals, but food intolerance is more common. Migraine frequency and intensity have been demonstrated to respond well to elimination diets, in which commonly offending foods are removed for several weeks. Elimination diets are easy to perform (although they do require a high degree of commitment and education), and can help in identifying foods that are mismatched to an individual. The majority of patients who undergo an elimination diet learn that their diets were contributing to chronic symptoms, and they typically feel much better during the elimination phase. Common foods that act as migraine triggers include: chocolate, cow’s milk, wheat/gluten grains, eggs, nuts, and corn. In children specifically, common migraine triggers include cheese, chocolate, citrus fruits, hot dogs, monosodium glutamate, aspartame, fatty foods, ice cream, caffeine withdrawal, and alcoholic drinks, especially red wine and beer.
There are several methods which may be used to detect food allergies. Laboratory testing can be convenient, but is not always a reliable means of detecting food intolerance. (See Summary of Recommendations for information on how to implement the elimination diet).
Foods such as chocolate, cheese, beer, and red wine are believed to cause migraine through the effect of “vasoactive amines” such as tyramine and beta-phenylethylamine. These foods also contain histamine. Individuals who are sensitive to dietary histamine seem to have lower levels of diamine oxidase, the vitamin B6-dependent enzyme that metabolizes histamine in the small bowel. The use of vitamin B6 improves histamine tolerance in some individuals, presumably by enhancing the activity of this enzyme.
Other diet-related triggers associated with migraine headache include: glucose/insulin imbalances, excessive salt intake, and lactose intolerance. Aspartame, commonly used as a sweetener, may also trigger migraines. Each of these factors may be readily avoided by adopting more conscious eating habits, and by carefully reading labels.
An estimated 75% of people consuming the standard American diet (SAD) are not getting adequate magnesium, and it is felt to represent one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies, manifested by a diverse range of problems. Though many elements can contribute to magnesium depletion, stress is among them, and both acute and chronic stress are associated with increased episodes of migraine. Daily doses of magnesium should be first line considerations for migraine sufferers (caution if kidney function is impaired), and intravenous magnesium can be very helpful in an emergency room setting, but probably only works to terminate an acute migraine if the individual is truly magnesium deficient.
It is important to remember that the brain is largely composed of fat. Although essential fatty acids have not received much research attention relative to migraine, there may be a significant role of fatty acids and their metabolites in the pathogenesis of migraine headache. Two small placebo-controlled studies demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids significantly outperformed placebo in reducing headache frequency and intensity. High quality fish oil should always be used. A good frame of reference is that each capsule should contain at least 300 mg of EPA and 200 mg of DHA. A reasonable starting dose would be two to four capsules twice daily with meals.
Holistic practitioners are generally sensitive to the centrality of the gastrointestinal tract in producing overall health. Though we utilize a reductionistic approach to understanding human anatomy and physiology, we might consider that no system functions as an independent entity (GI, endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, etc.), and that a complex symphony of interrelated functions cuts across organ systems. For example, much of the immune system is found in the Peyer’s patches of the GI tract; in this light, we can see how food, chemicals, and unhealthy microbes might produce immune system activation from gastrointestinal exposure. We also recognize the importance of a balanced ecosystem of intestinal microbes; intestinal dysbiosis, or disordering of the gastrointestinal ecology, may readily produce symptoms, both within and distant from the GI tract. Some colonic bacteria act upon dietary tyrosine to produce tyramine, a recognized migraine trigger for some individuals. H. pylori infection is a probable independent environmental risk factor for migraine without aura, especially in patients not genetically or hormonally susceptible. A high percentage of migraine patients experienced relief from migraines when H. Pylori infection was eradicated.
Patients with migraine headache sometimes report that strong chemical odors such as tobacco smoke, gasoline, and perfumes may act as triggers. It is not uncommon for migraineurs to report that they are triggered by walking down the laundry soap aisle in the grocery store. Support for phase 1 and especially phase 2 detoxification may be beneficial for these individuals, as toxic overload or impaired enzymes of detoxification could theoretically be a significant mediator of headaches. Susceptibility to toxicity may be potentiated by a combination of excessive toxic exposures, genetic polymorphisms leading to inadequate detoxification enzyme production, or depletion of nutrient cofactors that drive phase two detoxification conjugation reactions Support for detoxification function is particularly important in modern life, given our exposure to unprecedented high levels of toxic chemicals. Some nutrients that supply support for detoxification function include: n-acetyl cysteine (NAC), alpha lipoic acid, silymarin (milk thistle), and many others.
Energy production within the parts of the cell called mitochondria can be impaired in some migraine sufferers. Riboflavin is a key nutrient that is involved in energy production at this level. Riboflavin at 400 mg/day is an excellent therapeutic choice for migraine headache because it is well tolerated, inexpensive, and provides a protective effect from oxidative toxicity. Its use in children has been investigated, leading to similar conclusions,suggesting that, for pediatric and adolescent migraine prophylaxis, 200 mg per day was an adequate dose, but four months were necessary for optimal results.
CoenzymeQ10 (CoQ10) is also a critical component of energy function, and is an important antioxidant. Evidence supports the administration of CoQ10 in reducing the frequency of migraines by 61%. After three months of receiving 150 mg of CoQ10 at breakfast, the average number of headache days decreased from seven to three per month. Another study, using 100 mg of water soluble CoQ10 3x/day, revealed similar results. CoQ10 deficiency appears to be common in the pediatric and adolescent population, and can be an important therapeutic consideration in these age groups. Like riboflavin, CoQ10 is well tolerated (though expensive), with little risk of toxicity. It must be used with extreme caution in patients who also take warfarin, as CoQ10 may counteract the anticoagulation effects of warfarin. It is also noteworthy that many medications can interfere with CoQ10 activity, including statins, beta-blockers, and certain antidepressants and antipsychotics.
It does not appear coincidental that migraine onset correlates with the onset of menstruation and that episodes are linked to menstruation in roughly 60% of female migraineurs. Although there is no universal agreement over the precise relationship between female hormones and migraine headache, it is apparent that the simultaneous fall of estrogen and progesterone levels before the period correlates with menstrual migraine. Estrogen gel used on the skin can reduce headaches when used premenstrually. Some researchers have found that continuous use of estrogen may be necessary to control menstrual migraines, which tend to be more severe, frequent, longer lasting, and debilitating than general migraines. Although published studies are lacking, many practitioners have used transdermal or other bioidentical forms of progesterone premenstrually with success. Of course, the risks of using hormones must be weighed against the benefits. Interestingly, administration of magnesium (360 mg/day) during second half of the menstrual cycle in 20 women with menstrually related migraines resulted in a significant decrease of headache days.
Melatonin, the next downstream metabolite of serotonin, is important in the pathogenesis of migraines. Decreased levels of plasma and urinary melatonin have been observed in migraine patients, and melatonin deficiency appears to increase risk for migraine. Melatonin has been used with some success, presumably via a restorative effect on circadian rhythms. A small study in children demonstrated significant improvement in their migraine or tension headache frequency with a 3 mg nightly dose of melatonin Melatonin appears to modulate inflammation, oxidation, and neurovascular regulation in the brain, and in one study, a dose of 3 mg/day was shown to be effective in reducing migraine headache frequency by at least 50% in 25 of 32 individuals. Ironically, some patients anecdotally report an increase of headaches (generally not migraine) when administered melatonin. The brains of migraineurs do not seem adaptable to extremes; a regular schedule of sleep and meals and avoidance of excessive stimulation are advisable to reduce excessive neural activation.
Medications that produce an anti-inflammatory effect, such as aspirin and nonsteroidal agents, frequently produce an improvement in migraine symptoms during an acute attack. The herbs described below also play a role in reducing inflammation. Inflammation and oxidative stress can be identified in many conditions and disease states. It is important to acknowledge that the standard “modern” lifestyle is pro-inflammatory; our bodies are constantly reacting to one trigger after another (foods mismatched to our physiology, toxic burden, emotional stressors, excessive light and other stimulation) that activate our inflammatory cytokines (messengers of alarm). Providing broad-based support through lifestyle change and targeted nutrients may improve outcomes substantially, and this may be achieved foundationally by simplifying our ingestions/exposures and supporting metabolic terrain. Herbal therapies are included in this section because of their relevant effects upon inflammation.
The precise mechanism of action of feverfew as a migraine preventive is unknown Though at least three studies found no benefit with feverfew, several controlled studies have revealed favorable results in improving headache frequency, severity, and vomiting when feverfew was compared to placebo. There are several caveats that should accompany the use of this herb:
Feverfew is otherwise well tolerated. The typical dosage range is 25-100 mg 2x/day of encapsulated dried leaves with meals.
Butterbur is another effective herbal therapy for migraine headache. Butterbur is well tolerated, with no known interactions. Some individuals have reported diarrhea when using butterbur. In one study, its efficacy was demonstrated in children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 17 years. Its safety is unknown during pregnancy and lactation. The plant’s pyrrolizidine alkaloids can toxic to the liver and carcinogenic, so only extracts that have specifically removed these compounds should be utilized. Many of the studies on Butterbur utilized the product Petadolex® because it is a standardized extract that has removed these alkaloids of concern. The usual dosage is 50 mg, standardized to 7.5 mg petasin and isopetasin, 2-3x/day with meals (although recent studies show that higher doses appear to be more effective1,2 ). Interestingly, butterbur’s diverse qualities make it useful for other conditions, including seasonal allergic rhinitis, and possibly painful menstrual cramps.
Ginger root is a commonly used botanical, known to suppress inflammation and platelet aggregation. Little clinical investigation has been performed relative to ginger use in migraine headache, but anecdotal reports and speculation based on its known properties make it a safe and appealing choice for migraine treatment. Some practitioners advise patients with acute migraine to sip a cup of warm ginger tea. Though evidence for this practice is lacking, it is a low-risk, pleasant, and relaxing intervention, and ginger is known to have anti-nausea effects. The most anti-inflammatory support is found in fresh preparations of ginger and in the oil.
Practitioners of manual medicine seem to achieve success in reducing headache through various techniques such as spinal manipulation, massage, myofascial release, and craniosacral therapy Manual medicine practitioners frequently identify loss of mobility in the cervical and thoracic spine in migraineurs. While many forms of physical medicine seem helpful in shortening the duration and intensity of an episode of migraine, literature support is sparse with regard to manipulation as a modality to prevent recurrent migraine episodes. However, a randomized controlled trial of chiropractic spinal manipulation performed in 2000 revealed a significant improvement in migraine frequency, duration, disability, and medication use in 83 treatment group participants. Tension headache may also respond favorably to these techniques because of the structural component involved in muscular tension. The incidence of migraine in patients with TMJ dysfunction is similar to that in the general population, whereas the incidence of tension headache in patients with TMJ dysfunction is much higher than in the general population. Craniosacral therapy is a very gentle manipulative technique that may also be safely attempted with migraine.
There are few things more insulting than to be told by a medical professional to “Just reduce your stress.” Though the total load of stress experienced by an individual can be reduced through paring down unnecessary obligations, many everyday life stressors are unavoidable and cannot be simply eradicated. Thus, the answer to reducing stress for unavoidable contributors lies in two important areas: enhancing physical and mental resilience to stress, and modifying the emotional response to stress.
A multitude of programs to reduce the impact of stress on our physical and emotional well-being are rapidly becoming mainstream. For example, mindfulness meditation programs by Jon KabatZinn, PhD and many others are being offered to communities by hospitals around the country. This technique is simple to perform and has demonstrated positive outcomes in heart disease, chronic pain, psoriasis, hypertension, anxiety, and headaches. Breathwork and guided imagery techniques are likewise effective in producing a relaxation response and helping patients to feel more empowered about their health.
Biofeedback and relaxation training have been used with mixed success for migraine headache. Thermal biofeedback uses the temperature of the hands to help the individual learn that inducing the relaxation response will raise hand temperature and facilitate other positive physiologic changes in the body. Learning how to take more active control over the body may reduce headache frequency and severity. The effectiveness of biofeedback and relaxation training in reducing the frequency and severity of migraine headaches has been the subject of dozens of clinical studies, revealing that these techniques can be as effective as medication for headache prevention, without the adverse effects. Other relevant modalities to consider in this light include cognitive behavioral therapy, neurolinguistic programming, hypnosis, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and laser therapy.
Exercise should not be overlooked as a modality helpful in migraine headache. Thirty-six patients with migraine who exercised 3x/week for 30 minutes over six weeks experienced significant improvement in headache outcomes. Pre-exercise beta-endorphin levels in these individuals were inversely proportional to the degree of improvement in their post-exercise headache parameters. All patients should understand the critical importance of exercise on general health.
A discussion about a holistic integrative approach to migraine headache would be incomplete without acupuncture, which is an effective treatment modality for acute and recurrent migraine. A qualified/licensed practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine or a physician trained in medical acupuncture should be consulted.
Patients will often request a more natural and self directed approach to health care. The recommendations above are typically very safe to implement, and are often welcomed by migraine sufferers. A practitioner with an integrative holistic focus will investigate an extensive array of predisposing factors to determine the underlying features most likely involved in a given individual’s condition. In this way, we treat the individual, rather than his or her diagnosis, and we will generate a favorable impact upon his/her overall health in the process.
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