Recurrent headaches are annoying at best and debilitating at worst. Understanding where your headaches are coming from can give you the tools you need to reduce the frequency and intensity of your future headaches.
Over the counter and prescription medications for headaches can be helpful but they rarely address the underlying causes to our headaches and with frequent or long term use can pose additional health risks.
Migraines result from a chain of events that leads to a dysfunction in the way we process pain information in the brain. So what is kickstarting this cascade of events in the brain? Often important changes in body function add up to “fill up the bucket” until finally it overflows and a headache is triggered. Here are five of the most common causes of headaches that I see in my practice.
- Blood Sugar Imbalance Have you ever gotten a headache after skipping a meal? Our brain is sensitive to our blood glucose levels.Hormone systems keep blood glucose in a healthy normal range so that if blood glucose gets too low, hormones are activated to bring glucose out from storage and increases blood sugar. However, if your hormone system isn’t healthy, blood glucose continues to drop and this triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline – you can feel lightheaded, nauseous, “hangry”, shaky, sweating, irritability, racing heart and headache.In my experience, this is often a combination of chronic high insulin and poor adrenal function (called reactive hypoglycemia). This can be a result of eating high glycemic index foods (sugar and refined carbohydrates like juice, pop, grain/grain products) and eating these foods frequently so as to prevent insulin levels from normalizing between snacks/meals. This is made worse by overworked adrenals: chronic stress, lack of quality rest and sleep, irregular routine/shift work, loss of day/night rhythm.
- Hormone Imbalance Women can often have headaches just before or during their periods. This cyclic pattern is related to the drop in estrogen levels just before the period as well as neurotransmitter and inflammation levels. Estrogens affect the function of blood vessels and nerves in the brain. Estrogen also interacts with the neurotransmitters particularly serotonin.An overwhelmed liver can play a significant role here. Regular consumption of processed foods, exposure to environmental chemicals from plastics, pesticides and heavy metals in addition to lack of antioxidants can overwhelm the liver in its detoxification functions causing greater hormone imbalances and inflammation levels.
- Leaky Gut Serotonin is often called our “happy brain chemical”, but did you know that 90% of serotonin is made in our gut? Other compounds like GABA and melatonin are also made in the gut and have profound effects on our brain. However chronic gut inflammation, leaky gut, can add to brain inflammation and make us more susceptible to migraines. This can be due to imbalances in serotonin, histamine and damage to the blood brain barrier.
- Blood Vessel Changes Many patients have noticed that eating certain foods triggers their migraines. Many of these foods affect the narrowing or permeability of blood vessels. These compounds like tyramine, nitrates/nitrites and histamine can be found in processed foods and in fresh whole foods. An elimination diet that avoids many of these compounds may be helpful to identify (upon reintroduction) if these foods are impacting your headaches.Histamine is known for its link to allergic reactions but it can also cause headaches – without an allergy. Histamine is more likely to build up in the body from certain foods (like wine and other fermented foods), excess estrogen levels,leaky gut, stress, genetic factors and high blood glucose. When histamine levels get too high, eating a high histamine food can trigger symptoms like nasal congestion, fatigue and headaches.Caffeine, found in chocolate, coffee, energy drinks and some medications when used on a regular basis, is associated with more headaches. In addition, abruptly stopping caffeine can also cause the classic “coffee withdrawal headache”. Interestingly, if caffeine is used very infrequently, drinking it can actually help relieve headaches. Likely caffeine’s ability to cross the blood brain barrier results in its strong influence on our brain circulation.
- Stress We often downplay our stress but its effects are real: worsening hormone imbalance, weaker immune function, poor blood sugar control and greater muscle tension. Repeatedly suffering from migraines adds even more stress and the downward spiral continues. As if mental and emotional stress wasn’t enough, all of us have stress from toxic exposures, infections and nutrient deficiencies as well.
Migraine headaches can be debilitating. Without treating the underlying causes to your headaches, they can continue to return more often and with greater pain. Even worse, chronic brain inflammation may make us more susceptible to anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Your migraine headaches are an important sign of your brain health. Self care through diet, lifestyle and nutrients reduce inflammation and balance hormones so you can finally think clearly and have less headaches. This means better productivity and enjoyment at work, more energy for your relationships and, despite what’s happening around you, feeling strong and grounded inside.
So how do you get started? What’s the first step to reducing migraines?
Eliminate the most common triggers from your diet and reduce inflammation in the body that’s making you more sensitive to these foods. A metabolic detox program is the perfect first step. It avoids inflammatory foods, deep cleans the body of stored toxins and rebalances blood sugar and hormones. This is one of my favourite ways to address the multiple causes of migraines and learn about your individual food reactions. After the program, patients report less headache and fluid retention, less hormone symptoms, more energy and clearer thinking.
Detoxification is powerful! Learn how you can do a 10 Day Virtual Detox to reset your health. Register here for our free live webinar.