Migraines can be caused by a variety of physical and environmental factors, including diet, stress, allergens, menstruation, and changes in the weather. Most sufferers have a family history of the complaint, and women tend to be afflicted more than men. It is worth mentioning that headaches can be the manifestation of some potentially life threatening conditions such as brain tumours or meningitis. If one starts experiencing unusual bouts of intense headaches, it is very important to get a medical check-up as soon as possible.
Migraine headaches occur when the temporal artery, which lies just under the surface of the skin around the skull, suddenly becomes enlarged. The migraine sufferer finds herself unable to concentrate, or even make coherent sentences, and the range of accompanying symptoms includes nausea, vomiting, and a decreased blood flow to the extremities causing cold hands and feet or tingling sensations in the limbs. In addition, there is an extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Often the only way one can find relief is by lying down in a dark room in total silence.
According to the National Health Service of Great Britain, about one third of migraine sufferers experience visual distortions before or during the attack, and visual hallucinations such as seeing stars, sparks, or intense beams of bright lights are often reported. These symptoms have been attributed to the impairment of blood flow of the internal carotid artery supplying the brain. According to recent medical research, women migraine sufferers who experience visual distortions have a much greater risk of heart attack than the rest of the population.
Many great artists who have been afflicted have incorporated these visual disturbances into their art. The Dutch impressionist painter Van Gogh made countless drawings of his migraine visions, and the British writer Lewis Carroll's description of hallucinatory episodes in his book Alice in Wonderland is believed to have been a reflection of the author's own migraine experiences.
Throughout the centuries, many folk remedies have been prescribed to relieve the pain, ranging from pressing nails against points on the forehead, to drinking tea made of freshly picked peppermint leaves and honey, or ingesting mineral-rich indigenous Rooibos potions. In Mexico, a popular cure is sipping orange tea, while placing ice cubes or a poultice of clay on the head.
A more conventional form of treatment is the intake of analgesics such as paracetemol, nurofen or aspirin to relieve the pain. In the most serious cases, taking Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor antidepressants (SSRIs) can be effective in reducing the incidence and severity of migraine attacks.
Unfortunately, all these medications have a wide range of unpleasant side effects. The analgesics can only be taken for a short period of time before the digestive function becomes compromised, and the antidepressants numb the emotions, cause drowsiness and eliminate the sex drive.
To understand how these drugs function, we need to first look at how the brain works. When we experience pain, the body activates chemical messengers at the site of the injury called nociceptors, which travel to the brain to activate the pain receptors. Mild analgesic medication acts at the site of the injury to block the release of the chemicals that stimulate these nociceptors. In the case of aspirin, once the tablet is digested in the stomach, it travels in the body through the blood vessels to stick to a protein (COX-2) that prevents the chemical messenger prostaglandin from working. The body doesn't feel the pain because the pain receptors have been blocked.
In the second case, antidepressant SSRI drugs affect natural chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, which communicate between the brain cells. Antidepressant drugs only stop one of these neurotransmitters, serotonin, being reabsorbed and deactivated. This is important since serotonin is a hormone which harmonises the mood, facilitates sleep, and narrows the blood vessels. This last action makes it beneficial to migraine sufferers who suffer an enlargement of the cerebral artery. Unfortunately, as we have previously mentioned, these drugs can have massive side effects.
Alternative forms of treatment
First of all, selecting the right diet can have a major effect on reducing the incidence of migraine headaches. A natural substance called tryptophan has a similar calming effect on the brain as the neurotransmitter serotonin. It can be found in many types of foods including turkey, eggs, salmon, mackerel, flaxseed oil, kiwi fruits, bananas, pineapples, tomatoes, sour cherries and many others. This explains why eating sour cherries before bedtime has traditionally been a prescription against insomnia.
Our friend tryptophan is also present in foods rich in B6 vitamins like cereals, rice and complex carbohydrates such as bread and buckwheat.
We will explore this topic further next month and investigate other forms of treatments including Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.BHSc. is a registered acupuncturist practising in Sydney.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com