Does even thinking about migraines give you a headache? Well, you’re not alone. Migraines affect an estimated 10 percent of the population worldwide.
In our first story, we put plant-based diets to the test for treating migraine disorders.
Headaches are one of the top five reasons people end up in emergency rooms, and one of the leading reasons for which people see their doctors in general. One of the things you can do to try to prevent them is to identify the triggers and avoid them. Common triggers for migraines include stress, smoke, hunger, sleep issues, certain trigger foods, like chocolate, cheese, and alcohol, your menstrual cycle, or certain weather patterns.
In terms of dietary treatments, the father of modern medicine, William Osler, suggested trying “a strict vegetable diet.” After all, the nerve inflammation associated with migraines may be reduced by a strictly plant-based diet, as many plant foods are high in anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants, and likewise, meat products may have pro-inflammatory properties. But it wasn’t put to the test for another 117 years.
Among those given a placebo supplement, half said they got better; half said they didn’t. But when put on a strictly plant-based diet, they did much better, experiencing a significant drop in the severity of their pain. Now, “it is possible that the pain reducing effects of the [plant-based] diet may be, at least in part, due to weight reduction”—they lost about nine more pounds in their vegan month.
Even just lowering the fat content of the diet may help. Those placed on a month of consuming less than 30 grams of fat a day, like less than two tablespoons of oil a day, experienced highly significant decreases in headache frequency, intensity, duration, and the need to take medications––a six-fold decrease in the frequency and intensity. From three migraine attacks every two weeks down to just one a month. And by low-fat, they didn’t mean SnackWells; they meant more fruits, vegetables, beans. Before the food industry coopted and corrupted the term, eating low-fat meant like eating an apple, not Apple Jacks.
Now, this was a really low-fat diet, like 10% fat, for someone eating 2,500 calories a day. What about just less than 20% fat, compared to a more normal, but still relatively lower-fat diet than average? Same significant drops in headache frequency and severity, including a five-fold drop in attacks of severe pain. Since the intervention involved at least a halving of saturated fat intake, mostly found in meat, dairy, and junk, the researchers concluded that a reduction of saturated fat intake may help control migraine attacks. But it’s not necessarily something that they’re getting less of. There are compounds present in live green real veggies that might bind to a migraine-triggering peptide known as CGRP. Drug companies have been trying to come up with something that binds to it, but the drugs have failed to be effective, and are also toxic, a problem you don’t see with cabbage.
Green vegetables also have magnesium. Found throughout the food supply, but mostly concentrated in green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. It is the central atom to chlorophyll. So, you can see how much magnesium foods have in the produce aisle by the intensity of their green color. Magnesium supplements do not appear to decrease migraine severity, but may reduce the number of attacks you get in the first place. You can ask your doctor about starting 600mg of magnesium dicitrate every day, but note that magnesium supplements can cause adverse effects, such as diarrhea. So, I recommend getting it in the way nature intended.
Any foods that may particularly help? I’ve talked about ground ginger. Combining caffeine with over-the-counter pain killers like Tylenol, aspirin, or ibuprofen may boost their efficacy––about 130 milligrams for tension-type headaches and 100 mg for migraines, about what you might expect to get in three cups of tea. Though I believe it is just a coincidence that the principal investigator was named Lipton.
Note: you can overdo it. If you take kids and teens who have headaches, drinking one and a half liters of cola a day, and cut the cola, you can cure 90% of them. Though, this may be a Coca-Cola effect rather than a caffeine effect.
Did you know that daily application of capsaicin results in an 80 percent therapeutic response rate for a certain type of headache. Here’s the story.
“It appeared worthwhile to study the effects produced by the topical application of capsaicin in the human [nose].” It, therefore, appeared worthwhile, because it never had been done before? Okay.
So, they took some medical students, dripped some in their nose, and they started sneezing, burning, and snotting. Describing the pain as like eight or nine, on a scale of one to ten. No surprise, but here’s the interesting part. What do you think happened when they repeated the experiment the next day? You’d think they might be sensitized to it, you know, still all irritated, and so it might hurt even worse. But no; it hurt less. Then, they did it again the next day, and the next. By day five, it hardly hurt at all; they didn’t even get a runny nose—no sneezing. Came back the next week, day ten, and still nothing.
Sheesh, were they, like, permanently numbed? No, after a month or so, the desensitization wore off, and they were back in agony whenever they tried rubbing it in their nose. What the researchers think is happening is that the pain fibers—the nerves that carry pain sensation—dumped so much of the pain neurotransmitter (called substance P) that they ran out. Day after day of this, the nerves had exhausted their stores and could no longer transmit pain messages until they made more substance P from scratch—which took a couple weeks. This gave researchers an idea.
There’s a rare headache syndrome called cluster headache. It’s been described as one of the worst pains humans experience. Few, if any, medical disorders are more painful. It’s nicknamed the “suicide headache,” because “patients often consider taking or have taken their lives” over it.
It’s thought to be caused by arterial dilation putting pressure on the trigeminal nerve in the face. Treatments involve everything from nerve blocks to Botox to surgery. But, hey, that same nerve goes down to the nose. What if we cause the whole nerve to dump all its substance P? “Preventative effect of repeated nasal applications of capsaicin in cluster headache.”
Same as before, capsaicin in the nose, and by day five, they could hardly feel it any more. Note, though, that these were cluster headache sufferers, and so, what was rated as an eight or nine on the pain scale by the wimpy medical students was like, maybe a three or four by those “used to the violence of the cluster headache attacks.” Having achieved desensitization, what happened to their headaches?
Well, cluster headaches are one-sided headaches: you only get pain on one side of your head. So, those who had rubbed capsaicin in the opposite nostril, on the wrong side of the head—nothing happened. They started out having like 40 attacks a day, and a month later, the headaches were still going strong.
But, those that rubbed the capsaicin in the nostril on the side of the head where the headaches were cut the average number of attacks in half. And, in fact, half the patients were cured; the cluster headaches were gone completely. All in all, 80 percent responded—at least equal, if not better than, all the current therapies out there.
Finally, today, we discover the power of powdered ginger for migraines.
Many successful herbal treatments start like this: some doctor learns that some plant has been used in some ancient medical tradition—like ginger for headaches—and figures, hey, they’ve got patients with headaches, and since it’s just some safe common spice, advises one of their migraine patients to give it a try. At the first sign of a migraine coming on, the patient mixes a quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger in some water, drinks it down, and poof, within a half hour, the migraine goes away. And, it works every time, no side effects.
This is what’s called a case report, which is really just a glorified anecdote. But, case reports have played an important role in the history of medicine. AIDS was first discovered as a series of case reports. Some young guy walks into a clinic in Los Angeles with a bad case of thrush, and the rest is history. Or, reports of an unusual side effect of a failed chest-pain drug leading to the billion dollar blockbuster, Viagra. Case reports may be the “lowest” or “weakest” form of evidence, but they are often the “first line of evidence.” That’s where everything begins. So, a report like this isn’t helpful in and of itself, but it can inspire researchers to put it to the test. The problem is, who’s going to fund it? The market for migraine drugs is worth billions of dollars. A quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger costs about a penny. So, who’d fund a study pitting ginger versus the leading migraine drug? No one, until now.
A double-blinded, randomized, controlled clinical trial comparing the efficacy of ginger to sumatriptan, also known as Imitrex–one of the top-selling billion-dollar drugs in the world in the treatment of migraine headaches. They tried using just one eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger versus a good dose of the drug. And, they both worked just as well, just as fast. Most started out in moderate or severe pain before. But after the drug or ginger, ended up in mild pain or pain-free. The same proportion of migraine sufferers reported satisfaction with the results either way. And so as far as I’m concerned, ginger won—not only because it’s a few billion dollars cheaper, but because there were significantly fewer side effects in the ginger group. On the drug, people reported dizziness, a sedative effect, vertigo, and heartburn. The only thing reported for ginger was an upset tummy, in about one out of 25 people—though taking a whole tablespoon of ginger powder at one time on an empty stomach could irritate anyone’s tummy (just as a note of caution).
Sticking to an eighth of a teaspoon is not only up to 3,000 times cheaper than the drug, but you’re probably less likely to end up as a case report yourself—of people that have had a heart attack, or died, after taking the drug.