The new dietary guidelines issued by a government advisory committee have many positive changes from the old guidelines. These include a focus on food rather than nutrients. For example, there is no proposed limit on the intake of cholesterol and eating eggs is encouraged. There is an emphasis on eating less meat and more fruits and vegetables and on limiting sugar intake. All these recommendations apply to headache sufferers as well.

However, the guidelines are advising people to increase their consumption of coffee. They suggest that 3 to 5 cups a day can be part of a healthy diet because there is evidence that coffee may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (and possibly Parkinson’s disease). This is because coffee contains flavonoid compounds that have health benefits. However, coffee and caffeine in general are proven to cause worsening of headaches. As little as 2-3 cups a day can worsen headaches by causing caffeine withdrawal. Flavonoids are present in many fruits and vegetables, so it is not necessary to drink coffee to benefit from these compounds. If you are prone to having headaches it is better to limit your caffeine intake to one cup of coffee a day.

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The Journal of Nutrition just published a study that suggests life-extending benefits of taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Multivitamin with minerals products are the most commonly used supplements in the United States, followed by multivitamin products without minerals. While prior studies did not show an effect of such supplements in preventing deaths from cardiovascular disease, however, no previous trial looked for potential benefits just in women.

This new study examined the effect of a multivitamin with or without minerals on 8678 men and women. An adjustment was made for many potential confounders, that is factors that could have influenced the results, including age, race, education, weight (body mass index), alcohol, aspirin use, serum lipids (cholesterol, etc), blood pressure, and blood glucose.

The researchers observed no significant association between mortality due to cardiovascular disease in users of supplements compared with nonusers. However, when users were classified by the reported length of time products were used, a significant association was found with the use of multivitamins with minerals if they were taken for more than three years, compared with nonusers. This finding applied only to women and only to multivitamin products that also included minerals.

Magnesium is one of the minerals which is always included in combination vitamin products. Many studies have shown a beneficial effect of magnesium on cardiovascular and other causes of death in both women and men. And, of course, taking magnesium prevents migraine headaches since magnesium deficiency is found in up to 50% of migraine sufferers.

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Eating more salt leads to more headaches, according to a study published in BMJ Open last December. In a multicentre feeding study with three 30-day periods, 390 participants were randomised to the DASH (a healthy diet that was expected to lower blood pressure) or control (regular, not very healthy) diet. On their assigned diet (DASH and regular), participants ate food with high sodium during one period, intermediate sodium during another period and low sodium during another period, in random order. The occurrence and severity of headache were recorded at the end of each feeding period. The researchers did not attempt to determine which type of headaches people were suffering from, but it is safe to assume that the majority suffered from tension-type and migraine headaches. The average age was 48 and 57% were women.

The occurrence of headaches was similar in DASH versus control, at high, intermediate and low sodium levels. By contrast, there was a lower risk of headache on the low, compared with high sodium level, both on the control and DASH diets. Obviously, there are many reasons to eat a healthy diet, but prevention of headaches is not one of them.

Interestingly, there was no correlation between elevated blood pressure and headaches.

The authors concluded that reduced sodium intake was associated with a significantly lower risk of headache, while dietary patterns had no effect on the risk of headaches in adults. This study showed that reducing dietary sodium intake offers a new approach to preventing headaches.

P.S. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products with reduced saturated and total fat.

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Epilepsy drugs Depakote and Topamax are two of only four drugs approved by the FDA for the prevention of episodic migraines (the other two are blood pressure medications in the beta blocker family, propranolol and timolol, while Botox is the only drug approved for the preventive treatment of chronic migraines). However, these two drugs are contraindicated in pregnancy. Considering that the majority of migraine sufferers are young women, this is a topic that needs to be revisited regularly, especially when additional data appears.

A new study just published in the journal Neurology followed children in the British National Health Service whose mothers suffered from epilepsy and who were taking Depakote (valproate) or Tegretol (Carbamazepine) or Lamictal (lamotrigine). Only Depakote caused a significant drop in IQ in children whose mother was taking more than 800 mg of Depakote a day. Children whose mother took less than 800 mg (the usual dose for migraines is 500 mg, but sometimes 1,000 mg is needed) did not have a lower IQ, but had impaired verbal abilities and a 6-fold increase in needing educational intervention.

Unfortunately, Tegretol and Lamictal are not effective for the prevention of migraine headaches, while Topamax which is effective, can cause birth defects. Neurontin (gabapentin) is a relatively benign medication, which is safe in pregnancy and it is somewhat effective in the prevention of migraines, including chronic migraines.

Ideally, all drugs should be avoided in pregnancy. We usually advise non-drug approaches, including regular sleep, healthy diet, exercise, biofeedback or meditation, and magnesium supplementation. If this is insufficient, we usually recommend Botox if migraines remain frequent (they often improve in pregnancy). Botox is not approved for use in pregnant women, but considering that it acts locally on nerve endings with very little of it getting into the blood stream, it is most likely safer than any drug that is ingested.

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I recommend several supplements to my headache patients. However, the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA and a few days ago another scandal has erupted. The attorney general of New York ordered Walgreens, WalMart, Target and GNC to stop selling their store brand herbal supplements. His investigation revealed that most of the supplements contained no active ingredients. In case of WalMart, only 4% of their herbal products contained an active ingredient. The tests involved Gingko biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto, and Valerian root.

Of the herbal supplements for headaches, I recommend Boswellia and Feverfew made by a high quality manufacturer, Nature’s Way. I do not recommend butterbur, even though I participated in a large study that showed its efficacy in preventing migraine headaches. Butterbur contains several toxic chemicals, which can cause liver damage and other serious problems. Petadolex brand of butterbur claims to be free of these toxic ingredients, but the product is not allowed to be sold in Germany where it is manufactured. Here is my previous post on Petadolex.

Non-herbal supplements such as CoQ10 could also present a problem. For years, I have been recommending WalMart’s brand because it was much less expensive than any other brand and because I assumed that such a large company will have strict quality controls. Now I am thinking that it is possible that the price is so low because there is not much CoQ10 in it. CoQ10 by Nature’s Way costs more than twice as much as WalMart’s ($75 vs $30 for a month supply of 300 mg a day), but it may be worth it.

My most recommended supplement for migraines is magnesium and it is much less likely to present a problem because it is very inexpensive. Most of the cost is in manufacturing, bottling, shipping, etc. and not in the active ingredient.

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An email I just received, which is attached at the end of this post, prompted me to write again about magnesium. In my opinion, every migraine sufferer should try taking magnesium. It’s been 20 years since we published our first study of magnesium, in which we showed that during an attack, half of migraine sufferers have a magnesium deficiency. In that study, patients who were deficient had a dramatic relief of their acute migraine with an intravenous infusion of magnesium. Subsequent studies by other researchers have shown that oral magnesium supplementation can also help. The results of those studies were not as dramatic because many people do not absorb magnesium taken by mouth and in one large study the type of magnesium that was used caused diarrhea in almost half of the patients. The magnesium salts that are better absorbed include magnesium glycinate, gluconate, aspartate (these are so called chelated forms), but some people do well with magnesium oxide, citrate, or chloride. The recommended daily dose of magnesium for a healthy adult is 400 mg a day, but some people need a higher dose. However, higher doses can cause diarrhea, while in others, even a high dose does not get absorbed. In these cases, monthly intravenous injections can be very effective. To establish who is deficient, a special blood test can help. The regular blood test is called serum magnesium level, but it is highly unreliable. A better test is RBC magnesium, but even with this test, if the value is normal, but is at the bottom of normal range, a deficiency is likely to be present. In many people there is no need for a test because they have multiple symptoms of magnesium deficiency. These symptoms include coldness of extremities, leg or foot cramps, PMS in women, “brain fog”, difficulty breathing, insomnia, and palpitations.

Here is the email I just received:

Dr. Mauskop,

I am a 76 year old male; serious headaches began at 8 years of age.
Full migraines started at 18 years of age, with aura, intense pain on one side, violent vomiting.
Sought treatment at UCLA, Thomas Jefferson University, London, Singapore. Had brain scans, biofeedback, full allergy testing, beta blockers. Started on Imigran/Imitrex in 1993 in Singapore, worked well, but did not stop pain completely. Still took a day to recover.
Nothing stopped the 2 to 4 episodes per week.
Two months ago, I read about magnesium deficiency. (Not recommended by any doctor before.)
Took 600 mg capsule per day for three days. No migraine.
Had a bit of diarrhea – checked on internet, saw it was the dose of magnesium.
Dropped intake to 340 mg per day.
Miracle: No migraine in two months.
Thank you for your research and service.
I had an annual physical in December, and mentioned to my doctor – an internist – what I had recently read about magnesium. He had not heard about it; checked on the internet while I was there; and said “interesting”. So, the word is certainly not out.

BH

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Many medical and pain conditions, including migraines, are more likely to occur in people who were abused in childhood. A new study by Richard Lipton and his colleagues compared the risk of developing migraines with the risk of developing episodic tension-type headache in people who experienced emotional abuse, emotional neglect, or sexual abuse. Episodic tension-type headaches are relatively mild and are experienced by most people from a variety of triggers, such as stress, sleep deprivation, hunger, and acute medical illness. Migraines, on the other hand, are much more severe and often cause inability to function and interfere with the quality of life.

Incidence of history of abuse was compared in 8,305 migraine sufferers and 1,429 people who had tension-type headaches. Emotional neglect and sexual abuse was more common in those with migraines but with these two types of abuse the development of migraine was linked to the development of anxiety and depression. Only those with emotional abuse had an increased risk of having migraines even without having anxiety and depression. All three forms of maltreatment were also associated with an increase in migraine headache frequency, but only when anxiety and depression was also present. This study also showed that having two or three forms of abuse was more likely to cause migraines than if only one type of abuse was reported.

Previous studies have also shown a correlation between the number of maltreatment types and pain conditions. These pain conditions include fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, and temporo-mandibular joint disorder. Exposure to abuse or a traumatic event is thought to lead to a persistent increased excitability of the nervous system, which in turn makes one more predisposed to various pain conditions.

The importance of Lipton’s study is in reminding doctors who treat pain conditions to ask about maltreatment in childhood and about other traumatic events. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common in abuse victims and it needs to be recognized and addressed when treating migraines and pain. Psychological approaches, such as biofeedback and cognitive-behavioral therapy should always be included in the treatment of chronic pain and headaches, but it is particularly necessary in people with a history of abuse or emotional trauma.

 

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A study by Australian doctors led by Dr. Lyn Griffiths confirmed a previous observation that higher dietary intake of
folic acid leads to lower frequency of migraine headaches. A 2009 study by Spanish doctors showed that patients with migraine with aura are more likely to have high homocysteine levels in their blood, a condition that can be corrected by taking folic acid and other B vitamins.

The authors of this new study have shown before that folic acid, vitamin B6, and B12 supplementation reduces migraine symptoms in patients with a certain genetic mutation (MTHFR gene), which leads to high homocysteine levels. However, the influence of dietary folate intake on migraine has been unclear. The aim of their current study was to analyze the association of dietary folate intake with migraine frequency, severity, and disability.

They studied 141 adult caucasian women with migraine with aura who had the MTHFR gene C677T variant. Dietary folate information was collected from all participants. Folate consumption was compared with migraine frequency, severity, and disability.

A significant correlation was observed between dietary folate consumption and migraine frequency. The conclusion of this study was that folate intake may influence migraine frequency in female sufferers with migraine with aura.

Good dietary sources of folic acid include spinach, lettuce, avocado, and other vegetables. If you suffer from migraine with aura you may want to ask your doctor to check your homocysteine level, as well as levels of folic acid and vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 level is not a reliable test because it can be normal even when a person is deficient and that is why it is important to check homocysteine level as well.

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Vitamin D deficiency has received wide attention and many doctors now check for this deficiency during routine check-ups. I’ve posted about the importance of vitamin D in migraine headaches and for general health. Vitamin D deficiency seems to increase the risk of cancer, other serious diseases and death.

However, just like with vitamin B12 and magnesium, the regular blood test for vitamin D can be misleading. It appears that while blacks have lower levels of vitamin D than whites, they have healthier bones. A study by R. Thadhani of Massachusetts General Hospital explained this paradox. It appears that some of vitamin D circulates in the blood in a free form, while the rest is bound to protein. Only the free form is active, but the blood test measures only the total amount of vitamin D. Blacks appear to have much less of the protein-bound vitamin D, so the amount of the active form can be higher in blacks even if the overall amount of vitamin D is lower. These researchers are developing a more sensitive test for vitamin D levels.

To be on the safe side, most people should aim to have their vitamin D level at least in the middle of normal range. The normal range is 30 to 100 and some studies (for example, in multiple sclerosis) suggest that the higher the level (within the normal range), the better. So, I would recommend getting your level up into the 40s and 50s. Many multivitamins, calcium with vitamin D products, and plain vitamin D supplements have only 200 or 400 units of vitamin D (it is usually listed as vitamin D3). I have seen many patients who need to take 2,000 or even 5,000 units daily to have a good level in the blood. In severe deficiency that does not respond to even these amounts, I prescribe 50,000 units of vitamin D weekly, which is available only by prescription. Unfortunately, unlike with magnesium or vitamin B12, vitamin D is not available in an injection.

The bottom line is that if you are taking a supplement, it does not necessarily mean you have enough of vitamin D in your blood and you should have the test repeated.

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While being overweight doese not cause migraines, in those who do suffer with migraines there is an inverse relationship between person’s weight and the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Weight loss, including that due to weight loss (bariatric) surgery, has been reported to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches and migraine-related disability. Obesity is also associated with headaches due to increased intracranial pressure (also called pseudotumor cerebri) and losing weight improves such headaches as well.

However, while bariatric surgery may improve migraines, in a small number of people it can cause a different type of headaches. This rare type of headache is caused by a spontaneous leak of cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF), the fluid which surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. Such leaks are common after a spinal tap or can be a complication of epidural anesthesia. Loss of CSF can cause severe headaches, which are strictly positional. They are severe in the upright position, sitting or standing, but quickly improve upon lying down.

A study of 338 patients who underwent bariatric surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles detected 11 patients who developed a spontaneous CSF leak with severe headaches. Headaches started anywhere within three months and 20 years after surgery. Clearly, headaches starting 20 years later are not likely to be related to surgery, which suggests that this link between bariatric surgery and headaches is far from proven. Of these 11 patients, 9 improved with treatment. The typical treatment for a CSF leak is a “blood patch” procedure, which involves taking blood from the patient’s vein and injecting it into the area of the leak. When blood clots, it usually seals the leak and the headache improves within hours.

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