I love my brain. And I want it to serve me well for many years yet. But in my 40s I did significant harm to it by taking antacid medications for several years because of a duodenal ulcer. Completely unaware of the risks, I was slowly becoming more and more magnesium, zinc and B12 deficient, which was wreaking havoc on my poor brain.
I then arrived at my 50s and the effects were starting to show; almost daily migraines, regularly losing track of what I saying right in the middle of saying it, poor memory and I started to have a head shake. A real wake up call. My sleep was disturbed and every night I would panic that I had forgotten something just as I was drifting off – it was as though it was right on the tip of my memory but I just couldn’t reach it. I started getting panic attacks, had a droning sound in my head and would really struggle with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I became snappy and irritable – not easy to live with, I can tell you!
I was prescribed Sumatriptan for my migraines, which made me feel dreadful! Just awful. Every time I would take one I’d vow never to take one again. It felt like I’d taken a poison that was slowly working its way through my body… So I just endured the migraines. No pain killers. Just lying in a dark room, stock still, with something over my eyes trying not to be sick. For hours.
Now there’s nothing quite like debilitating pain to get me researching alternative solutions! And what I found – and eventually came to trust – amazed me. Gave me hope. And has transformed my life and my brain.
It turns out that when it comes to migraines, four key things are happening:
It’s very difficult to measure our brain and spinal column levels of magnesium. Any deficiency won’t show up in a blood test. However, what I learnt is that every time I got a migraine it was using up all the magnesium I had – which probably wasn’t much because of the antacids I’d taken. This meant that my brain was really vulnerable to the effects of glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter that is necessary for learning and cognitive function, but can cause neurons to die when there is a magnesium deficiency. No wonder my brain hurt!
Poor energy metabolism
Our brains are only 5% of our body weight but use 25% of our glucose. They’re hungry for energy. But when there’s a problem with energy metabolism, our brains really suffer. That’s why diabetes has such a devastating effect on our brains; when our cells become insulin resistant they can no longer utilise the glucose from our blood. Alzheimer’s is now being referred to as type III diabetes…
However, when it comes to energy metabolism we need to look to our mitochondria. Apparently we have anywhere from 200-2,000 or more mitochondria in our cells and they taken the oxygen we breath and the glucose from the food we eat and convert them into ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ie energy that our cells can use.
But our mitochondria are extremely sensitive to nutritional deficiencies, inflammation and toxic damage. In order to function properly our they need omega 3 fatty acids, acetyl-L-carnitine, lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10. And if we are deficient in any of these or in B vitamins and magnesium then energy production slows down.
Also, eating sugar can cause a sugar high followed by a sugar low, which triggers the release of a huge amount of glutamate in our brains. It’s why being hungry can cause a migraine.
Free radical damage
When a migraine is in full flow, it’s like a flywheel that has gathered momentum all of its own. And as a result, a massive amount of free radicals are being generated. These then can do so much harm. And to mop up free radicals and neutralise them so they do less damage, we need some serious antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, zinc, selenium, manganese, copper…
Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables will give us loads of antioxidants – think blueberries, peppers, cavolo nero, pomegranates, sweet potatoes…
Migraines are inflammation of the brain, so reducing inflammation can reduce the severity and frequency of migraines. Highly processed omega 6 vegetable oils, such as sunflower, rapeseed, cotton, safflower, peanut and soya bean oil are all pro-inflammatory, whereas omega 3 fish oil is anti-inflammatory. Curcumin and quercetin are also powerful anti-inflammatory flavonoids.
My migraine triggers
So that’s what’s happening when we have a migraine but what about triggers. Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt on my migraine journey, it’s that we’re all quite different and each of us will need to become aware of our own triggers. However, here are mine in case it’s helpful to explore something you might not have considered before.
As I mentioned earlier, glutamate is a neurotransmitter found throughout our bodies. In our brains it helps us to learn and be alert. However, if we have a sensitivity to glutamate it can cause migraines.
However, in the early 1900s a Japanese scientist managed to extract glutamate from seaweed in the form of MSG (monosodium glutamate). It’s been used as a flavour enhancer ever since.
If I eat any form of dietary free glutamate then I’ll get a migraine. So that includes MSG (monosodium glutamate), soya sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, stock cubes, gravy etc. I have put together a more extensive list of flavour enhancers that are all versions of free glutamate. I avoid all of them with a barge pole!
Food additives to avoid
Histamine is released from our mast cells when our immune system is activated. It’s an amazing way our body protects us from bacterial infections and viruses, as well as bringing about healing after an injury. However, sometimes we can get a build up of histamine in our bodies. It’s a bit like a bucket and when it overflows it causes all sorts of problems – including migraines.
So what causes the bucket to overflow?
- A lack of enzymes that help our bodies to get rid of excess histamine. That can be due to a vitamin B6 deficiency.
- A lack of vitamin D, which makes our mast cells unstable and more likely to react when they don’t need to.
- Too much dietary histamine, when levels are already high.
And what food do I therefore avoid?
- Anything that is ‘aged’, such as cheese, yoghurt, vinegar, dried fruit, etc.
- Anything smoked or cured, such as ham, bacon, etc.
- Left overs, unless they have been frozen as soon as possible and then rapidly defrosted.
- Certain vegetables that are naturally high in histamine, such as very ripe tomatoes, aubergine, mushrooms and spinach.
My brain healing strategy
Taking all of the above into consideration, I then set about taking some well chosen supplements to help heal my brain. And I’m so pleased I did! I can honestly say that my brain is doing way better now and I genuinely don’t think I could have achieved that without using these supplements.
If you would be interested to do something similar then please check with your doctor first. Supplements can interfere with medications so it’s really important that you involve your doctor.
Also, I would always introduce a new supplement very gradually just to make sure I don’t have any reaction to it. If it is in a capsule, I’ll open the capsule and tip some out so that I’m only taking a fraction of the total amount and then gradually increase it until I’m taking the full capsule.
So here goes:
Magnesium citrate and malate (Biocare Magnesium powder) 200mg once a day. Initially I was taking 200mg three times a day, for the first 6 months.
Ubiquinol, a very bioavailable form of CoQ10 (Solgar) 100mg once a day. Initially I was taking 100mg twice a day, for the first 6 months. Please note, Ubiquinol can thin the blood.
Vitamin B2, Riboflavin (Solgar) 100mg twice a day. Initially I was taking 200mg twice a day, for the first 6 months.
Advanced Brain and Memory Support (Natural Health Practice) 1 capsule once a day. This supplement combo contains many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to support the brain, including alpha lipoic acid, acetyl-L-carnitine, vitamin B12, B6, folic acid, B5, zinc, selenium… However, I would avoid taking it if I have a bit of a headache until it clears, as it contains L-arginine, which is a vasodilator.
Omega 3 fish oil (Nordic Oil High Grade Omega 3) 5ml a day. This oil is from small fish such as sardines, anchovies and herring, and contains stabilising antioxidants such as natural mixed tocopherols. When travelling we’ll take Lion Heart Omega 3 fish oil capsules. However, I avoid taking fish oil if I have a bit of a headache until it clears because of the EPA content – DHA is great for the brain but EPA can be less so.
Vitamin C as magnesium ascorbate (Natural Health Practice) 500mg twice a day. However, I would increase this up to 1,000mg three times a day if I have a headache. Our brains usually contain a high level of vitamin C, but this can quickly get used up when a lot of free radicals are being generated.
D-Flam (Natural Health Practice) 1 capsule twice a day. This supplement combo contains turmeric, quercetin and ginger, which are all anti-inflammatory. However, I would avoid taking this if I have a migraine until it clears, as ginger is a vasodilator.
Vitamin D3 (Natural Health Practice) up to 20 drops a day, which is 2,000 IU. There is very varied advice about how much vitamin D3 to take on a daily basis and it’s really important not to take too much so it’s best to have a blood test to check current levels.
My migraine protocol
When I get a headache I will adopt my migraine protocol – and the sooner I do so, the better. You might think it’s a bit strange but it works for me!
- I avoid all forms of protein until it clears – whether plant or animal. Glutamate is found in protein sources and during an attack we can develop very high levels of glutamate in our brain, so I certainly wouldn’t want to add more!
- I eat to boost energy and antioxidants, such as brown rice with coconut milk topped with plenty of blueberries and pomegranate seeds. In fact, I almost always ensure that we have blueberries and at least one fresh pomegranate in the fridge. Coconut oil is also a great source of ketones, which the brain can readily use for energy.
- I rest my brain. Using a computer, tablet or smartphone only makes it worse.
- I reduce light exposure by using sunglasses.
- I try to make myself cold. Heat and migraines just don’t go well together! I find a stuffy, hot environment a literal ‘incubator’ for a migraine.
My brain now
When I say that my brain is doing way better now, let me be a bit more specific; I hardly ever get a full-blown migraine now. I used to keep a record of them on our kitchen calendar and stopped some months ago because they’re now so rare. It’s really quite sobering to look back at the calendar and see just how many I was having. No longer do I dread waking up with a migraine…
My brain is sharper and I no longer forget what I was saying the middle of saying it. My sleep is better and I haven’t had a panic attack since May 2019. My head twitch has really calmed down and I’m full of energy and positivity. Yeh!
My life has literally been transformed.
Want to understand more?
I found the following really helpful:
Dr Russell Blaylock MD, a retired neurosurgeon and migraine sufferer, gave this summary in an interview, which I found really succinct: Preventing and Treating Killer Headaches
He has also written this article: 4 Steps to Stop Migraines
The Migraine Centre website has a migraine and headache factsheet: “Natural” remedies for migraine – should I try them?
Chris Kresser, a functional medicine doctor, has an article on his website called Beyond MSG: Could Hidden Sources of Glutamate Be Harming Your Health?, which explains more about glutamate.
And for histamine intolerance I found the blog Healing Histamine particularly helpful, although I have recently discovered that the blog owner, Yasmina Ykelenstam, died in September 2018.