Migraines. There is really no way to describe them, no creative string of words nor playful metaphor that adequately portrays what it is like to have a migraine headache- except for maybe the adjective m-i-s-e-r-a-b-l-e. If you have ever struggled with a migraine before, or even watched a family member suffer through one, you likely understand how beastly and destructive they can be. As a migraine sufferer who has missed days of work and family gatherings with my face buried in a pillow in a dark room, this scenario is all too familiar. Yet recent studies have shown promise that a very simple treatment may provide a route of much needed relief for migraine sufferers: magnesium.
Before we get down to the juicy stuff, it is important to point out that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there regarding migraines. Contrary to popular belief, migraines are not simply bad headaches. Migraines involve a throbbing, pounding or pulsating pain that lasts anywhere from 4 to 72 hours, is reoccurring and often accompanied by any of a wide range of symptoms including numbness, tingling, visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and fatigue. Although not diagnostic in nature, one study found following three questions to be very helpful in determining the presence of migraines:
Has a headache limited your activities for one or more days in the last three months?
Are you nauseated when you have a headache?
Does light bother you when you have a headache? 4
It is estimated that more than 37 million Americans struggle with migraines. They affect more than one in four women and is a leading cause of workplace absenteeism nationwide. Yet, according to the American Headache Society, fewer than one half are believed to receive proper treatment. 1, 2
This staggering discrepancy is caused in part by an inadequacy of accessible migraine resources, but also because migraines are far too often mistaken as simple sinus or tension headaches that will somehow just go away in time.
For others with a migraine diagnosis, it seems absolutely impossible to decipher a realistic cause. One quick click on the web churns up thousands of obscure listings of items that possess the ominous potential to set off the migraine cascade and seize the head in throbbing pain. From red wine gulping to bubble bath taking, high stress levels to eating bananas, some articles would make you believe that nearly anything can cause a booming migraine headache. Many people have given up trying to figure it out at all.
To complicate the matter, migraineurs actively seeking medical consult are often seen for a rushed appointment and left with only hastily scribbled prescriptions and a frightening list of potential side effects to look out for. Such harsh perspectives and misdiagnoses betray those struggling with these debilitating chronic headaches, silencing suffers with inadequate quick-fix solutions such as whipping back a handful of pain medication or nestling under the sheets for a fitful nap.
For many individuals struggling with migraine headaches, there is nowhere to turn.
The Migraine Mechanism
Although at times unpredictable, the blinding pain of a migraine is not random. It is crucial to understand that these chronic headaches are in fact the result of a complex cascade of inflammatory physiological reactions in the nervous system. Although still not entirely understood, recent investigations with imaging techniques and other sophisticated scientific tools have provided a more detailed insight to the pathogenesis of migraines.
In the current literature, the prevailing theory stands that migraines are the result of a hazardous misfiring of nerve impulses in different parts of the brain. During a migraine the brain stem that forms the juncture between the spinal cord and brain, is somehow mistakenly triggered to send a series of impulses to the nerve endings in the connective tissue surrounding the brain, an area referred to as the meninges. These confused signals result in the release of several different chemicals (such as substance P, neurokinin A and calcitonin gene-related peptide among others) which spill into the meningeal tissue, dilating the local blood vessels and creating a ruinous inflammatory reaction. 5
Consequently, the meningeal nerves send panicked messages back to brain stem, where they are registered as overwhelming pain. Therefore, although it might feel like in a migraine the brain actually hurts, it is rather the inflammatory reaction in the tissues surrounding the brain that is so problematic.
Thus, like so many other chronic conditions plaguing individuals today, migraines are at the root a disease of inflammation!
A Long List of Triggers
So why do some people get migraines while others don't? Unfortunately, there appears to be no singular cause to blame for the dreaded occurrence of these nasty headaches. Specialists believe that there are instead many different factors that accumulate and finally trip the dysfunctional nerve pattern that underlies the condition. Genetic predisposition, gender, lifestyle and environmental factors also seem to play a role.
It is certainly not an easy task to discover why any one individual gets migraines. We all have an extraordinary anatomy, gene pattern and biochemistry, that lends itself to very particular susceptibilities and sensitivities. However there are certain steps that have been shown to generally lower inflammation and raise the migraine threshold so that they occur overall less often. Following a traditional diet that is rich in whole nutrient dense foods and healthy fats and free of processed foods, trans fats, sugars and other bothersome additives is one key step. Another is to correct lingering deficiencies of the precious mineral magnesium.
The Magnesium Miracle
According to Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND author of The Magnesium Miracle and expert on most anything magnesium, this powerful anti-inflammatory mineral can go a long way in preventing migraines.
As an essential cation, magnesium is involved in many different functions in the body. From ATP production to glucose metabolism, stress response to muscle contractions, it is one busy mineral! Magnesium is believed to play the following roles specific to migraines:
- Relaxes blood vessels and allows them to dilate, reducing the spasms and constrictions that can cause migraines.
- Regulates the action of brain neurotransmitters and inflammatory substances, which may play a role in migraines, when unbalanced.
- Inhibits excess platelet aggregation, preventing the formation of tiny clots that can block blood vessels and cause pain.
- Relaxes muscles and prevents the buildup of lactic acid, which, along with muscle tension, can worsen head pain. 4, 5
Using Topical Magnesium
In some individuals magnesium therapy has proved to be enough to stop migraines completely, but more often it is part of a more comprehensive and integrative care plan. While some magnesium can be obtained from foods, this mineral has been overwhelmingly leached from our soils and the ocean, representing one of the most common nutrient deficiencies plaguing individuals worldwide. Experts such as Dr. Dean therefore recommend using concentrated magnesium oils daily on the skin to restore healthy levels of this mineral.
Transdermal magnesium therapy has proved to be a highly valuable method for replenishing cellular magnesium stores in a way that is gentle, rapid and safe. The body is able to absorb just the amount of magnesium it needs through the skin, preventing the gastrointestinal upset that often results from oral supplementation. Transdermal magnesium is a solution of all-natural magnesium chloride harvested from an ancient sea bed in Europe. It is available mixed into a lotion, gel, spray or blended into bath flakes for ease of use. 6, 7
As always, it is important to work with a qualified health practitioner who is able to properly assess and monitor your progress with magnesium therapy.
Photo 'migraine' by makelessnoise/courtesy flickr