I’d apologize for the lack of a blog post last week…but I can’t. I was spending a little vacation time with my children and grandchildren in Florida. With a lap full of grandsons, typing our a blog is a little difficult…and definitely not the preferred activity when you’re surrounded by three squirming little monkeys who hold the key to your heart.
Hopefully this week’s blog will more than make up for last week’s lack thereof.
This week I’d like to address migraine headaches-the scourge of many as well as a debilitating nightmare for those who suffer them.
Before I get into the crux of this weeks’ discussion, I’d like to share an experience I had yesterday that both elated and appalled me at the same time.
After much nagging and prodding on my part, my fiance’ finally broke down and made an appointment with a local Internist. Since moving here from Tennessee, she’s been “forgetful” when it comes to establishing herself with a local sawbones. She’s an extremely competent and intelligent nurse, yet sometimes puts a little too much faith in her ability to finagle around the system. She moved here well over a year ago, so it was high time for her to pay a visit to, and become established with, a doctor instead of quick trips to the walk-in clinics for prescription refills.
Yesterday was appointment day and I went along because she had just gotten home after a string of night shifts and needed someone to keep her awake during the long drive to the doctor’s office (you have to keep in-network with most insurances so we had to travel quite a way to get to an in-network doctor who was actually accepting new patients after a month’s wait for the appointment). I went into the exam room with her to insure her accelerated level of tired after three twelve hour night shifts in a row didn’t cause her exhaustion addled brain to miss any of the details the doctor related to her, and so I could keep her from nodding off during the ordeal.
Her new MD, a younger guy, reviewed her list of meds and supplements and seemed impressed with her supplementation regimen and even discussed a few other supplemental options that, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d already considered and discussed with her, or dismissed for other options. What elated me was his openness to herbal supplementation and his knowledge of the subject. It appears that there may be hope yet for the newer generation of allopathic medicos who appear to believe that there are options other than those synthesized in a laboratory and given to them, along with pens, pencils, pads, free lunches and other “gifts,” by the drug reps.
The appalling part was his exam. I’d call that cursory at best and thoroughly perfunctory at worst…and that’s being kind.
I was actually wondering whether he knew where the T1 and M2 sounds of the heart were located, and whether his stethoscope was actually even touching her back as he listened, briefly, to her lungs through her shirt in only two places (she wondered the same thing and later shared that thought, along with a few laughs about it, with me). The purpose of an exam, at least in all the classes I’ve taken, is to detect potential problems and deal with them before they become serious problems. You can hardly do that when the exam takes two minutes and is so superficial that even known problem areas aren’t examined.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no medical doctor and wouldn’t, for a minute, tell one how to do his or her job, but common sense would seem to dictate that if you’re going to be tending to the medical needs of a patient, prescribing for that patient’s continued good health, you’d want a clear, concise and thorough picture of who and what you were dealing with. In these days of fast food medicine and insurance companies limiting the amount of time a doctor can spend with a patient, I personally believe that allopathic healthcare is lacking woefully in the patient care and doctor/patient relationship arenas. Clearly stated-you can’t fix it if you don’t know it’s broke! Preventative medicine seems to have become a thing of the past. Whatever happened to an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?
*stepping off the soap box* But I digress, and that’s an entirely different subject that I’ll probably address in a blog at some later date when my indignation level finally reaches a point where I can’t help but vent.
Let’s discuss migraines.
I had done a little research into herbal supplements for migraines, and even studied them in one class or another some years back, but put it on the back burner while doing a paper on herbal supplements for hypertension (a future blog). I believe I did that at the time for somewhat selfish reasons: I have been dealing with hypertension myself since the seventh grade while, thankfully, I have only suffered through one migraine in my life-and that was brought on by an irresponsible change in prescription blood pressure medications. Go figure?
And that one migraine was more than enough, believe me! If you’re a migraine sufferer, you have my deepest, most sincere sympathies.
It wasn’t until I saw, first hand, my fiance’ dealing with a nasty migraine that I decided to re-investigate herbal supplementation options for migraines. The lovely lady is now the subject (translation: guinea pig) of a study I’m conducting on preventatives for migraines based on the ongoing, exhaustive research I’m doing on the subject.
There are as many prescription remedies on the market for migraines as there are reasons why so many people suffer them, but the vast majority of those are to lessen the unspeakable pain suffered during a migraine, or limit its’ duration after it’s begun-not to prevent them or lessen the loss of quality of life they bring with them.
It is estimated that more than thirty-six million men, women and children in America suffer from migraines. Eighteen percent of American women and six percent of American men suffer through this pestilent pain on an all too frequent basis. It is further estimated that there are eight-hundred-thousand ER visits each year in the US for migraine headaches. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Very few people who suffer migraines regularly are treated in the ER. Staggering, isn’t it?
Migraines are much more than just a bad headache. Migraines are defined as an extremely debilitating collection of neurological symptoms consisting of excruciating. throbbing pain on one side of the head, (although in about a third of attacks, both sides are affected) and are often accompanied by visual disturbances (auras that may include flashing lights or bright spots, zigzag lines, changes in vision), nausea, vomiting, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to touch, smell, noise and/or light and are often accompanied by tingling or numbness in the hands, feet and face.
Research continues into the causes of migraine headaches, but a lot still remains unknown about their exact cause. It is known that genetics and environment do play a key role for those who suffer them. It is also believed that migraines may be caused by changes in the brain stem and its interactions with the Trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve)- a major pain pathway. It has also been found that chemical imbalances such as serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter and pain regulator) vary appreciably during migraine attacks. This may cause your Trigeminal system to release substances called neuropeptides (the nervous system’s messenger boys) which can send the wrong signal and irritate the meninges covering the brain and bring on a migraine attack.
The first and most important step for those with suspected migraine headaches is to be seen by a physician to insure that there isn’t some other underlying cause for your pain. Head trauma, stroke, hypertension, tumors, homeostatic or hormonal imbalances and a myriad of other conditions can cause migraine symptoms. Your doctor will need to run some tests to insure that what you’re dealing with is indeed idiopathic migraine headaches.
There are many known, and unknown, triggers for migraines. The actual trigger, or triggers, specific to an individual may differ greatly from another individual.
Known triggers range from hormonal imbalances, (estrogen in women during pregnancy, menstruation and menopause) processed foods, MSG (a preservative/flavor enhancer) aspartame (a common artificial sweetener found in, among other things, diet soft drinks) coffee, red wine, caffeine, too little or too much sleep, flashing lights, certain smells, stress…the list goes on and on. This makes pinning down the particular cause of an individual’s migraines difficult at best. Often your doctor will ask you to keep a log relating to your migraine headaches including everything you’d eaten, drank, done, products you’ve used, etc, leading up to the onset of migraine symptoms to help him or her determine the trigger.
In most cases, chronic migraine sufferers are prescribed various drugs from NSAID’s to barbituates to antihistamines to antihypertensive drugs to ergotamines and triptans like Imitrex® which are more migraine specific. These come in pills, nasal sprays, injections, liquids, etc. Unfortunately, there are currently no available drugs that specifically prevent migraines; only those that alleviate the symptoms.
Of course, finding your personal trigger and avoiding it, if possible, is probably the best way to cut down on migraine headaches. Unfortunately for many, that isn’t possible. Eliminating stress in your life would be a definite step in the right direction…yeah, like that’s going to happen in this day and age.
Like the pain relieving drugs used for the treatment and reduction of migraine headaches, there is no silver bullet to be found in the vast realm of herbal supplementation. For most, the use and associated serious side effects of most of the prescription medications are pretty scary. Many prefer the natural route if relief or avoidance of symptoms can be found without the potential side effects and hazards associated with prescription medicines.
These alternatives may be some possible options worth your consideration.
Another lowered level found in those suffering from migraine headaches is a mineral called magnesium. Magnesium is usually found in abundance in the body and is known to be responsible for more than three-hundred chemical reactions from blood to bones that keep the body functioning properly. Magnesium is usually supplied to the body through high fiber foods such as spices (corriander, dill, sage, basil), nuts (especially almonds), cereals (whole wheat, oats), coffee, cocoa, tea, and green, leafy vegetables and is absorbed into the body through the gastrointestinal tract. While magnesium deficiency is uncommon in industrialized countries, those with diseases that limit or prohibit vitamin absorption (malabsorption) in the intestinal tract such as Crohn’s Disease, Celiac Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, certain cancers (Pancreatic in particular), etc., or a diet low in high fiber foods can cause lowered levels of magnesium (as well as many other vitamins and minerals) in the body.
Magnesium supplementation, unlike many other supplement claims, has been studied for the prevention of migraine headaches many times with varying results. However, the more controlled studies such as this one are fairly indicative that lowered magnesium levels are a major factor in the onset of migraine headaches. More importantly, the body naturally eliminates excess levels of magnesium through the kidneys so overdosing is extremely unlikely unless the supplement is used irresponsibly.
Magnesium is known to bind with some medications and decrease their efficacy. It is recommended that if you are taking a tetracycline type antibiotic, thyroid medications or many other prescription medications you space your dose of that medication and your magnesium supplement to avoid the interaction. In the rare instance of excessive magnesium intake, diarrhea is usually the only side effect: and that goes away when the supplementation regimen is reduced or discontinued. To avoid stomach upset, take the supplement with food.
Compare that to the side effects of the prescription and even the non-prescription, OTC, migraine relief options available and I think you’ll agree that if magnesium works for you, it’s a far more appealing, (and far less expensive) option.
If you’d like to try magnesium supplementation for migraine prophylaxis, the recommended dosage is 400mg of magnesium oxide twice a day. Generally it takes two to three months before any appreciable effects are realized. Choose your supplier wisely and insure you buy only high quality, made in the USA, supplements.
Another natural preventative for migraine headaches is called Feverfew.
Feverfew, a bush, has been used as far back as ancient Greece to treat menstrual cramps and inflammation. Feverfew has also been used in folk medicine throughout history as a fever reducer; which is where the plant got its name. While the name might suggest feverfew’s ability to reduce fever, those claims don’t seem to have withstood the test of time. However, other more relevant uses for this herb have been discovered.
As for feverfew’s migraine relieving properties, the following is from the University of Maryland Medical Center:
Feverfew was popular in Great Britain in the 1980s as a treatment for migraines. A survey of 270 people with migraines in Great Britain found that more than 70% of them felt much better after taking an average of 2 – 3 fresh feverfew leaves daily. Several human studies have used feverfew to prevent and treat migraines. Overall, these studies suggest that taking dried leaf capsules of feverfew every day may reduce the number of migraines in people who have chronic migraines.
One study used a combination of feverfew and white willow (Salix alba), which has chemicals like aspirin. People who took the combination twice a day for 12 weeks had fewer migraines and they didn’t last as long or hurt as much.
Another study found that people who took a special extract of feverfew had fewer average number of migraine attacks per month compared to people who took placebo. A 3-month study with 49 people found that a combination of feverfew, magnesium, and vitamin B2 led to a 50% decrease in migraines. ***author’s note: B2 is often referred to in herbal supplements as Riboflavin***
Not all studies have found that feverfew worked for migraines, however. Whether it reduces migraine pain and frequency may depend on which supplement you take. Ask your doctor to help you find out more.
Unlike magnesium, feverfew does have some known side effects. Some of the more common ones, but certainly not all, include abdominal pain, indigestion, gas, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and nervousness. People with allergies to chamomile, ragweed, or yarrow may be allergic to feverfew and should not take it. Ask your doctor before taking feverfew if you take blood thinners as feverfew may increase your risk of bleeding. Pregnant and nursing women, as well as children under the age of two, should not take feverfew.
If you’re considering trying feverfew for migraine relief, 50-100mg daily of the crushed leaf capsules are the suggested dosage. Like magnesium, it takes a while for feverfew to build up in your system and start bringing about results. Again, and as always, be certain you’re buying the best and freshest supplements available from a reliable US manufacturer.
There are a few other supplements that are believed to relieve or alleviate migraine headaches, some in combination with magnesium and/or feverfew, such as Riboflavin (vitamin B2 quoted in the study listed above).
COQ10 and Butterbur have also been studied in the quest for a migraine reliever, but these appear to be less effective in most people, and in the case of Butterbur, seem to have a higher incidence of side effects. While these may be possible avenues to relief, they should first be discussed with your healthcare provider so any drug interactions or condition-specific contraindications can be considered.
Should you decide to try the herbal approach and give magnesium, feverfew or one of the other supplements for migraines a try, do not be fooled into buying those so called “Migraine Complexes” or “Migraine Cocktails.” Those are almost always a concoction containing lesser amounts of the supplement you need, and a whole bunch of others that may or may not even have any migraine relieving properties; much like many of the Male Enhancement Supplements advertised on TV. One of the ingredients may possibly be beneficial to the condition, but it’s usually added in lowered amounts so cheaper, inactive fillers can be mixed in. There are some containing magnesium, feverfew and Riboflavin that I’ve seen, and those may be an option when purchased from a reliable manufacturer if the dosages for each are correct, but if you should have an allergic reaction to one or the other ingredients, you won’t know which one it was. It’s better to start with one or the other by itself. If the outcome is good, but not great, add one of the others and see if things don’t improve even more. Like everything else, no two people are alike, no two migraines are alike and treatments must be tweaked to suit the individual.
As always, consult your healthcare provider before starting any supplementation regimen. The information shared here is for educational purposes only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure any medical conditions. I am not a medical doctor and make no claims to that effect.
I’ve mentioned this many times in the past, but it bears repeating: before there were pharmaceutical companies, Mother Nature supplied the therapeutic needs of her children through her flora and fauna. While I’d never claim that pharmaceuticals are inferior, let us not forget that most of them are enhanced or synthesized versions of a natural genus. Many prescription medications may seem to work better or faster at alleviating their intended ailment, but along with that speed usually comes side effects-some far worse than others-that should definitely cause both prescriber and patient to pause and consider benefits versus consequences. Why drive a finish nail with a sledge hammer when a tack hammer will do the job very nicely?
For many people the herbal route may not work. That doesn’t make herbals any less viable an option on the whole. Every migraine is as different as the person suffering it. This is also true for prescribed medications. What works for one may not work for another. Such is the diversity of life. Vitamins, minerals and herbs are alternatives and supplements that may work on their own to alleviate one individual’s migraines, or may work hand in hand to enhance the performance of a pharmaceutical in another. For me anyway, if an herbal remedy will work, it’ll always be my first choice. Not that there aren’t side effects associated with many herbal supplements. There are. However, when compared side by side to their pharmaceutical counterpart, the associated risks and harmful potential side effects of most herbals generally pale by comparison.
In the words of the immortal Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
I hope this week’s post has been helpful and educational. As always, if you have any comments, good or bad, please feel free to leave them below. If you have any comments or questions you’d prefer not to have posted on a public forum, feel free to send an email. I try my hardest to answer all of your emails within twenty-four hours.
That’s it for this week. Until next week, I wish you peace, love, happiness and good health.