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Why You Get Migraines

Dilation of Blood Vessels

Migraine headaches are primarily caused by excessive dilation of blood vessels in the head. 15-20% of men and 25-30% of women suffer with migraine headaches. Many migraines come without warning and some start with a visual "aura" before the onset of pain which can also include blurring or bright spots in the vision, anxiety, fatigue, disturbed thinking, and numbness or tingling on one side of the body. Migraine pain occurs when the blood vessels and muscles lining the brain and scalp becomes stretched or tensed. Migraine headaches seem to be connected to the instability of blood vessels in the brain and to a reduction in blood flow during a migraine attack. Research studies also indicate that the control of blood vessel constriction and dilation is impaired in some migraine sufferers.

Additionally, the platelets of migraine sufferers are different from normal platelets both during and between migraine attacks. Platelets are small blood cells that clump together to form blood clots. The difference between platelets results in migraine sufferers having a significant increase in spontaneous clumping together of the platelets as well as in a reduction in the release of a chemical called serotonin.

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Serotonin aids in the chemical transfer of information from one cell to another. More importantly for migraine sufferers, serotonin also plays a major role in the relaxation and constriction of blood vessels. All of the serotonin in the blood is stored in the platelets and is released by platelet aggregation. This release in migraine sufferers appears to result in a serotonin deficiency. These low serotonin levels are thought to lead to a decrease in the pain threshold of these patients. This concept is strongly supported by 35 years of research, including positive clinical results in double blind studies with the serotonin precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). These and other studies show that increasing serotonin levels in the platelets leads to relief from chronic migraine headaches.

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Food Allergies

Food allergies also play a major role in migraine headaches. Foods such as chocolate, cheese, beer, red wine, and prescription medication can trigger migraine attacks in many people. These attacks have been linked to histamine and other compounds, which can trigger blood vessels to expand creating that pounding throbbing sensation.

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Other Migraine Triggers Include:

low serotonin levels
shunting of the chemical tryptophan into other pathways
histamine-releasing foods
histamine-containing foods
alcohol (especially red wine)
withdrawal from caffeine
drugs that constrict blood vessels
emotional and hormonal changes (menstruation, birth control pills, anger, and ovulation)
muscle tension
the weather

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Headaches often are a symptom of other illness. Viral infection, strep throat, allergies, sinus infection, and urinary tract infections can be accompanied by headaches. Fever may also be associated with headaches.

Skipping meals
Even when trying to lose weight, you still need to eat regularly. Fad diets and irregular eating can make you hungry and give you a headache. Not getting enough fluids, especially on hot days or with increased exercise, can lead to dehydration and cause a headache.

Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, diet pills, and other drugs may cause you to have headaches.

Other Causes
Often headaches are triggered by sleep problems, minor head injuries, or certain foods (chocolate, processed meats, aged cheese, MSG, red wine, dairy products as outlined above). Caffeine intake, especially a sudden decrease in caffeine, can cause a headache.

Sometimes, headaches can also be caused by prescribed medication, such as birth control pills, or tetracycline, often used for acne. Less commonly, headaches can be caused by a dental infection or abscess, and jaw alignment problems (TMJ). Although headaches are only rarely caused by eye problems, pain around the eyes--which can feel like a headache--can be caused by eye muscle imbalance or not wearing glasses that have been prescribed for you. Only in very rare cases are headaches a symptom of a brain tumor, high blood pressure or other serious problem.

How to Stop Migraines


5-Hydoxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid that occurs in the body and is an immediate precursor to the body manufacturing its own serotonin. 5-HTP is widely distributed in the body with the highest activity in the gut wall and liver. Here's what happens chemically in the body in the process of creating serotonin. First tryptophan is hydroxylated to 5-HTP then to decarboxylase and finally to serotonin. The effects of

5-HTP on the serotonin system is extremely complex because there are multiple types of serotonin receptors.

The research shows 5-HTP is more effective over time with results increasing after 30 days of use. The role of 5-HTP also increases endorphin levels, which is the body’s own pain relieving and mood elevating substances. See Swanson 5-HTP  Research shows endorphins are low in migraine sufferers. 5-HTP is at least as effective as other pharmacological agents used in migraine prevention but is safer and better tolerated. In clinical trials between 200-600 mg/day has been used to prevent and reduce the severity of migraines. 5-HTP also needs vitamin B6, niacin, and magnesium to help it convert to serotonin. 

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Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) is involved in the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and histamine. B6 works to prevent and treat migraines because of its role in histamine function. The activity of the enzyme diamine oxidase breaks down histamine in the lining of the small intestine before it is absorbed into the circulation. Individuals sensitive to dietary histamine have about one-half as much diamine oxidase in their tissues. Diamine oxidase is a vitamin B6 dependent enzyme. Therefore compounds that inhibit B6 also inhibit the production of diamine oxidase.

Food coloring agents like FD&C yellow #5, birth control pills, alcohol, and excessive protein intake are some of the things that inhibit B6 production. Most people take in more B6 blockers than B6 itself. B6 supplementation has been shown to relieve histamine-induced headaches presumably by increasing diamine oxidase activity. Vitamin B6 works with magnesium in many enzyme systems and assists in the body’s accumulation of magnesium.

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Vitamin B2

Migraine headaches have also been linked to a reduction of energy production in the blood vessels of the brain. B2 (Riboflavin) is water soluble and essential to tissue respiration and generation of energy metabolism from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Recent studies show that it is helpful in the treatment of migraines. Migraines can also occur because of a reduction of energy in the mitochondria and B2 can help increase energy production and efficiency in this area. B2 is also vital to the conversion of tryptophan to B3.

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Vitamin B3

B3 (Niacin) is water soluble and crucial to about 50 different reactions in the body. It is instrumental in the release of energy from carbohydrates, proper central nervous system function, fat and cholesterol metabolism, and the regulation of blood sugar levels. Fifty percent of the niacin in the body comes from the conversion of the amino acid tryptophan.

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Vitamin B5

Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic) acid is known as the anti-stress vitamin and helps with the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins for energy. It helps counteract stress by making cortisone and other adrenal hormones that counteract stress. B5 is needed for proper adrenal cortex function.

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Vitamin B9

Low Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid) intakes have been linked to headaches. It has been used to treat depression, headaches, and inflammation. Folic acid and niacin need each other to function correctly in the body.

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Low magnesium levels play a significant role in many cases of migraine headaches. Low brain and tissue magnesium concentrations have been found in patients with migraines indicating the need for supplementation since magnesium’s key function is to maintain the tone of the blood vessels and prevent the over-excitability of nerve cells.

Another possible benefit of magnesium is its documented ability to improve mitral valve prolaspe (a heart disorder) that damages blood platelets causing them to release excess histamine, platelet-activating factor, and serotonin.

Magnesium has also been widely used to treat food-allergy-induced migraines.

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Feverfew literally means fever reducing. Feverfew works to treat and prevent migraines by inhibiting the release of blood vessel dilating-substances from platelets, inhibiting the production of inflammatory substances, and reestablishing proper blood vessel tone.

The effectiveness of feverfew is dependent upon adequate levels of parthenolide. Parthenolide helps prevent migraines and lessen the severity of existing migraines by making smooth muscle in the walls of cerebral blood vessels less reactive to vasoconstrictors.

It blocks the release of serotonin from blood vessels and prevents platelets from over-aggregating. It also inhibits the release of compounds from the cells that cause inflammation.

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Ginger has been shown to significantly reduce the effects of migraines by reducing inflammation and platelet aggregation. High doses of ginger have also been found to significantly reduce migraine intensity. It plays a role as a circulatory stimulant, peripheral vasodilator, and antispasmodic.

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Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo Biloba is an antioxidant known for its ability to improve circulation throughout the body but especially in the brain. It helps to inhibit platelet aggregation. Ginkgo, which is partially composed ginkgoflavoneglycosides, helps dilate blood vessels, which increases blood flow.

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P.M. Martner Hewes et al., Vitamin B6 Nutriture and Plasma Diamine Oxidase Activity in Pregnant Hispanic Teenagers," Am J Clin Nutr 44 (1988): 236-40
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G. Longo et al., "Treatment of Essential Headache in Developmental Age with L-5-http (Crossover Double Blind Study versus Placebo)," Pediatr Med Chir 6 (1984):241-5
D.R. Swanson, "Migraine and Magnesium: Eleven Neglected Connections," Perspect Biol Med 31 (1988): 526-57
S. Heptinstall et al., "Parthenolide Content and Bioactivity of Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium (L.) Schultz-Bip.). Estimation of Commercial and Authenticated Feverfew Products," J Pharm Pharmacol 44 (1992):391-5.
T. Mustafa and K.C. Srivastava, "Ginger (Zingiber officinale) in Migraine Headaches," J Ethnopharmacol 29 (1990): 267-73

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