More than 10 million Americans have migraines, creating a burden of mostly unnecessary suffering. These severe, nearly disabling headaches can occur from once a year to three or four times a week. They can last from hours to days. They are often associated with an aura, light sensitivity, nausea, vomiting and severe, throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. Migraines are even associated with stroke-like symptoms or paralysis in some cases.
The cost to society is also enormous. Migraine headaches add $13-$17 billion to our healthcare costs each year. These costs include medications, emergency room visits, hospitalization, physician services (primary care and specialty), laboratory and diagnostic services and managing the side effects of treatment.
Migraines have indirect costs too. Headache is the most frequent pain-related complaint among workers. Focusing specifically on migraines, one study found that the annual cost to employers exceeded $14.5 billion, of which $7.9 billion was due to absenteeism and $5.4 billion to diminished productivity.
So this is a HUGE problem, both to those who suffer and to society as a whole.
Worse, migraines are hard to treat and very difficult to prevent with conventional approaches. There are a host of preventive drugs — calcium channel blockers, beta-blockers, anti-seizure medications, antidepressants and more — which work poorly, if at all, and are accompanied by frequent side effects. Some doctors are now even using Botox to paralyze neck muscles in the hopes of easing migraines.
There is also a new class of medication called triptans (like Imitrex, Maxalt and Zomig) that can stop a migraine once it starts. Though these have made migraine-sufferers handle the attacks better, they also have serious potential side effects, including strokes, and are expensive. Still other treatments can lead to addiction or dependence; not a pretty picture. And, for many, none of these treatments work very well or at all.
The problem with migraines is the same one we see so often in medicine: We treat the symptoms, not the cause. We only deal with the effects of something and not the underlying 7 keys to UltraWellness. But, by using Functional Medicine, I have been able to get nearly 100 percent of my patients migraine-free within days to weeks!
To heal from migraines, you have to locate the causes of your headaches and address these underlying issues if you want to be free of pain.To help you on that journey, here are the most important causes of migraines, their associated symptoms, tests to help identify problems and treatments you can start using today.
Finding and curing the causes of your migraines
Food allergy/bowel and gut imbalances
- The symptoms: Fatigue, brain fog, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, joint or muscle pain, postnasal drip and sinus congestion and more.
- The testing: Check an IgG food allergy panel and also check a celiac panel, because wheat and gluten are among the biggest causes of headaches and migraines. Stool testing and urine testing for yeast or bacterial imbalances that come from the gut can also be helpful.
- The treatment: An elimination diet — getting rid of gluten, dairy, eggs and yeast — is a good way to start. Corn can also be a common problem. Getting the gut healthy with enzymes, probiotics and omega-3 fats is also important.
- The causes: A processed-food diet including aspartame, MSG (monosodium glutamate), nitrates (in deli meats), sulfites (found in wine, dried fruit and food from salad bars) is to blame. Tyramine-containing foods like chocolate and cheese are also triggers.
- The treatment: Get rid of additives, sweeteners, sulfites and processed food. Eat a diet rich in whole foods and phytonutrients.
- The causes: Premenstrual syndrome with bloating, fluid retention, cravings, irritability, breast tenderness, menstrual cramps; use of an oral contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy; or even just being pre-menopausal, which leads to too much estrogen and not enough progesterone because of changes in ovulation.
- The testing: Blood or saliva hormone testing looks for menopausal changes or too much estrogen.
- The treatment: Eat a whole-foods, low-glycemic-load, high-phytonutrient diet with flax, soy and cruciferous vegetables. Use herbs such as Vitex, along with magnesium and B6. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugar and refined carbohydrates. Exercise and stress reduction also help.
- The symptoms: Anything that feels tight or crampy, like headaches, constipation, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, sensitivity to loud noises, muscle cramps or twitching and palpitations.
- The testing: Check red blood cell magnesium levels. Even this can be normal in the face of total body deficiency, so treatment with magnesium based on the symptoms is the first choice.
- The treatment: Magnesium glycinate, citrate or aspartate in doses that relieve symptoms or until you get loose bowels. If you have kidney disease of any kind, do this only with a doctor’s supervision.
- The symptoms: Fatigue, muscle aching and brain fog, although sometimes the only symptom can be migraines.
- The testing: Checking urinary organic acids can be helpful to assess the function of the mitochondria and energy production.
- The treatment: Taking 400 mg of riboflavin (B2) twice a day and 100 to 400 mg a day of coenzyme Q10 can be helpful, as can other treatments to support the mitochondria.
Keep in mind that sometimes a combination of treatments is necessary. Other treatments can be helpful in selected cases, such as herbal therapies (like feverfew and butterbur), acupuncture, homeopathy, massage and osteopathic treatment to fix structural problems.
The bottom line is that this problem — which affects one in five Americans and costs society $24 billion a year — is almost entirely preventable, simply by following the principles of Functional Medicine and UltraWellness. So, get to the bottom of your symptoms, and get ready for migraine relief. It’s the best way to move toward lifelong vibrant health.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, M.D.