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Science of Migraine

Cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) is usually seen in children. The attacks of vomiting often stop as the child gets older, but then they usually go on to develop migraine headaches. A recent report in Headache describes three adults with CVS. The article also mentions a previous report which described another 17 adults with this syndrome.

CVS typically consists of recurrent stereotypical attacks of incapacitating nausea and vomiting, separated by symptom-free periods. Supporting evidence that helps diagnose this condition include personal or family history of migraine and other symptoms, such as headaches, motion sickness, and sensitivity to light.

Just like in children, CVS in adults is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that other causes of vomiting must be considered and ruled out. I mentioned in a previous post that one out of three children with CVS turned out to have another medical problem rather than migraine.

CVS in adults seems to respond well to an injection of sumatriptan (Imitrex). This allows for a quick relief of symptoms and makes this debilitating condition very manageable. Besides Imitrex injections, Zomig (zolmitriptan) nasal spray can sometimes be effective as well.

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The first time I heard of the potential benefit of stem cells for migraine headaches was last year from one of my patients. This 55-year-old woman had been having some improvement from intravenous magnesium and nerve blocks, while Botox was ineffective. However, she reported a dramatic improvement in her headaches after receiving an intravenous infusion of stem cells in Panama. The stem cells were obtained from a donated umbilical cord.

Stem cell research has been controversial because most of the early research used stem cells obtained from an aborted fetus. Since then, stem cells have been obtained from the bone marrow, umbilical cord, placenta, and artificial fertilization. Another rich source of stem cells is body’s fat tissue. Most of the stem cell procedures are not yet approved in the US. The main concern is that when you obtain stem cells from another person’s umbilical cord or placenta, there is a risk of transmitting an infection. There are relatively few stem cells in the bone marrow, placenta or the umbilical cord, which means that after isolating them, they need to be grown in a petri dish. This process involves adding various chemicals, which may not be safe, according to the FDA.

A group of doctors in Australia recently reported relief of migraines using stem cells from patients’ own fat. These doctors did not grow these cells, but infused them intravenously right after separating them from fat. The infused cells were not only stem cells, but so called stromal vascular fraction, which also includes cells that surround blood vessels. These four patients were given stem cell treatment for osteoarthritis and not migraines, but they noticed that their migraines and tension-type headaches improved.

Four women with long histories of chronic migraine or chronic tension-type headaches were given an infusion of cells isolated from fat, which was obtained by liposuction. Two of the four patients, aged 40 and 36 years, stopped having migraines after 1 month, for a period of 12 to 18 months. The third patient, aged 43 years, had a significant decrease in the frequency and severity of migraines with only seven migraines over 18 months. The fourth patient, aged 44 years, obtained a temporary decrease for a period of a month and was retreated 18 months later and was still free of migraines at the time the report was submitted one month later.

This case series is the first published evidence of the possible efficacy of stromal vascular fraction in the treatment of migraine and tension-type headaches.

It is not very surprising that stem cells can improve migraine headaches because stem cells are tested as a treatment for a variety of inflammatory diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and colitis. Inflammation is proven to be present during a migraine attack and this inflammation may attract stem cells. Many experts believe that stem cells may work for MS or other neurological disorders not by becoming brain cells, but by stimulating body’s own repair mechanisms.

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Parkinson’s disease (PD), parkinsonian symptoms, and restless leg syndrome (RLS) are more common in people who in middle age suffered from migraines with aura. Those suffering from migraine without aura in their midlife had increased risk of having symptoms of Parkinson’s and RLS, but not PD. These are the findings of a large study of residents of Reykjavik, Iceland who were born between 1907 and 1935. These residents had been followed since 1967. Headaches were classified based on symptoms assessed in middle age. From 2002 to 2006, 5,764 participants were reexamined to assess symptoms of parkinsonism, diagnosis of PD, family history of PD, and RLS.

People who suffered from migraines, particularly migraine with aura, were in later life more likely than others to report parkinsonian symptoms and diagnosed to have PD. Women with migraine with aura were more likely than others to have a parent or sibling with PD. Late-life RLS was increased in those with headaches generally.

The authors concluded that there may be a common vulnerability to, or consequences of, migraine and multiple indicators of parkinsonism.

There are no proven ways to prevent PD, but eating more fruits and vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and omega-3 rich oils (or taking an omega-3 supplement, such as Omax3) and avoiding red meat and dairy may have some protective effect against PD.

Intensive research into the causes and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, supported by Michael J. Fox and Sergey Brin of Google among others, should lead to true breakthroughs in the next few years.

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Skipping meals, for some people, is a sure way to get a migraine headache. Even those who do not suffer from migraines can get a headache from not eating breakfast and lunch. However, fasting has remained popular for the treatment of various conditions. Migraine sufferers who suspect that some foods may be triggering their headaches are sometime advised to try an elimination diet. This diet often begins with a fast and then one type of food is introduced at a time to see if it triggers a negative reaction. Anecdotal reports describe relief of migraine headaches with fasting for periods of up to five days. Some programs recommend five-day fasts twice a year, while others are advocating five days each month. A 5:2 diet involves eating a normal amount of calories for five days and the following two days eating 1/4 of that amount. The problem is that some people will have worsening of their headaches in the first day or two. However, most patient reports that after having headaches for a day or two the head becomes very clear.

It is not clear if fasting helps various medical conditions, if indeed it does, which remains an open question. One potential mechanism may involve stem cells. Recent studies suggest that fasting causes proliferation of stem cells. The study was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. The research was done in mice and showed that prolonged fasting protects against immune system damage and induce immune system regeneration. The researchers speculated that fasting induces stem cells from a dormant state to a state of proliferation.

One of the authors of the study said that “We could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration of the hematopoietic system. When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged. What we started noticing in both our human work and animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting. Then when you re-feed, the blood cells come back. ”

Fasting and induction of stem cells seems to reduce an enzyme which has been linked to aging, tumor progression and cancer. Fasting also protected against toxicity in a small human trial where patients fasted for 72 hours prior to chemotherapy.

“Chemotherapy causes significant collateral damage to the immune system. The results of this study suggest that fasting may mitigate some of the harmful effects of chemotherapy.”

So, how long do you need to fast to induce your stem cells and to get beneficial results? Some advocate suggest one or two days a week. Others promote twice yearly five-day fasts. The bottom line, we have no research on this topic.

Fasting may help protect against brain disease. Researchers at the National Institute on Aging have found evidence that fasting for one or two days a week can prevent the effects of Alzheimer and Parkinson’s disease. Research also found that cutting the daily intake to 500 calories a day for two days out of the seven can show clear beneficial effects for the brain. It is possible that fasting helps by inducing proliferation of stem cells in the brain.

Fasting cuts your risk of heart disease and diabetes:
Regularly going a day without food reduces your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Studies show that fasting releases a significant surge in human growth hormone, which is associated with speeding up metabolism and burning off fat. Shedding fat is known to cut the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Doctors are even starting to consider fasting as a treatment.

3. Fasting effectively treats cancer in human cells:
A study from the journal of aging found that cancer patients who included fasting into their therapy perceived fewer side effects from chemotherapy. All tests conducted so far show that fasting improves survival, slow tumor growth and limit the spread of tumors. The National Institute on Aging has also studied one type of breast cancer in detail to further understand the effects of fasting on cancer. As a result of fasting, the cancer cells tried to make new proteins and took other steps to keep growing and dividing. As a result of these steps, which in turn led to a number of other steps, damaging free radical molecules were created which broke down the cancer cells own DNA and caused their destruction! It’s cellular suicide, the cancer cell is trying to replace all of the stuff missing in the bloodstream that it needs to survive after a period of fasting, but can’t. In turn, it tries to create them and this leads to its own destruction.

This post contains direct quotes from collective-evolution.com

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Migraine aura precedes the headache in about 20% of patients. The most common type of aura is visual. It consists of flashing lights, sparkles, partial loss of vision, and other visual distortions, which can move across the visual field. Typical duration of the aura is 20 to 60 minutes and it can occur without a headache. Many people get frightened when experiencing an aura for the first time. Thoughts of a brain tumor spring to their minds. Although auras rarely indicate a serious problem, an MRI scan is usually indicated when an aura occurs for the first time.

MRI scans are considered to be safe in pregnancy, but the current guidelines of the FDA require labeling of the MRI devices to indicate that the safety of MRI with respect to the fetus “has not been established”. Not surprisingly, most expecting mothers instinctively try to avoid any testing. So, what to do if a pregnant woman develops an aura? A study by headache specialists at the Montefiore Headache Center in the Bronx suggests that this is not an uncommon occurrence. Of 121 pregnant women presenting with an acute headache, 76 had migraines and a third of these had an aura for the first time in their lives. Two thirds of auras occurred in the third trimester. This report should be reassuring and may help avoid unnecessary MRI scans. However, MRI may still be needed if there are other signs of a more serious neurological problem on examination or by history.

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“Visual snow” is a continuous TV-static-like visual disturbance experienced by some people who suffer from migraines and by some without migraines. A group of British doctors examined 120 patients with persistent “visual snow” and found that 70 of them also suffered from migraines. Of these 70, 37 had migraine with aura and 33 had migraine without aura. Many of these patient had other visual complaints: some had a trailing after-image when shifting their gaze, saw sparkles, were always sensitive to light, and had poor night vision. Fifty two of them also complained of noise in their ears (tinnitus).

Seventeen of these patients underwent PET scans of their brain, which were compared to PET scans of 17 normal control subjects. Those with “visual snow” had increase brain activity in two parts of the brain, indicating that this is not a psychological or an eye problem, but a brain disorder.

Unfortunately, the authors did not provide any ideas as to how to treat these patients. However, the fact that some areas of the brain were overactive, suggests that using epilepsy drugs, which suppress excessive brain cell activation and are proven to help migraines, may help. These drugs include gabapentin (Neurontin), topiramate (Topamax), and divalproate (Depakote). Before using drugs though, I would suggest trying magnesium orally or intravenously because magnesium also reduces excitability of the nervous system and because half of migraine sufferers have low magnesium levels. See an article on magnesium and migraines here.

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The benign nature of white matter lesions (WML) on MRI scans of patients with migraine was noted in a post last year. While they appear to be benign, they are disconcerting nevertheless. It is possible that we haven’t yet discovered the negative effects they may have.

A study by Chinese researchers published in the Journal of Neurology reported on MRI scans in 141 people, including 45 healthy controls without migraines, 38 chronic migraine sufferers who were not overusing acute migraine medications and 58 patients with chronic migraines who were overusing these medications. They found that women, but not men, who were not overusing acute medications had more WML compared with controls and those who were overusing medications. As reported by other researchers, the number of WML increased with age. Interestingly, most patients who overused medications were taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. The authors concluded that taking NSAIDs may have a preventive effect on the development of WMLs, possibly because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Previous studies have shown that aspirin does not even cause medication overuse headaches, unlike drugs with caffeine (Excedrin, Fiorinal, Fioricet), opioid analgesics (Vicodin, Percocet, codeine, etc), and to a lesser extent NSAIDs.

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Stress is considered to be one of the main migraine triggers. However, a study just published in the journal Neurology suggests that it is the period after stress when people are more likely to develop a migraine.

A group of doctors at the Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx led by Dr. Richard Lipton enrolled 22 participants, of whom 17 completed their diaries. These migraine sufferers made 2,011 diary entries including 110 migraine attacks eligible for statistical analysis. Level of stress was not generally associated with migraine occurrence. However, decline in stress from one evening diary to the next was associated with an increased chance of migraine over the subsequent 6 to 18 hours. The authors concluded that the reduction in stress from one day to the next is associated with migraine onset the next day. They said that “The decline in stress may be a warning sign for an impending migraine attack and may create opportunities for preemptive drug or behavioral interventions.”

What they meant is that people could try meditation and other relaxation techniques or, if that is ineffective, they could take a medication ahead of time. Taking medication before headache starts is often more effective and requires milder and fewer drugs than if a migraine is already in full bloom.

Many migraine sufferers know that changes in sleep, meal intake, weather, and stress can trigger an attack. So, it is important to keep your life stable as much as possible. Biofeedback, meditation and other relaxation techniques, as well as regular aerobic exercise, magnesium and other supplements, all could improve the resistance against migraine attacks.

The accompanying editorial in Neurology mentioned that migraine is the single biggest source of neurologic disability in the world and any practical finding that helps people avoid migraines can have a major impact on lives of millions of people.

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Sleep deprivation is a very common trigger of migraine and tension-type headaches. Scientists have always wondered about the purpose of sleep. We know that sleep helps strengthen our memories. New research suggests that sleep is also needed for other housekeeping chores, such as cleaning junk out of our brains. Literally, the brain rids itself of damaged proteins during sleep. It appears that poor sleep quality leads to accumulation of these proteins, which can lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Another recent study showed that people with insomnia tended to have smaller brain volume in certain regions of the brain, particularly frontal lobes.

Other research showed that a variety of psychiatric illnesses also lead to a reduced brain volume. The frontal lobes are necessary for planning our actions, mood, and affect.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently complain about sleep difficulties and have documented high rates of sleep disorders

In the latest study, the researchers scanned the brains of 144 veterans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The participants with poor sleep quality had less frontal lobe gray matter than vets who reported sleeping well.

These veteran had other psychological disorders, in addition to the sleep disorder. Half of them abused alcohol, 40 percent had depression and 18 percent had PTSD.

The connection between sleep disorders and the brain volume was not affected by psychiatric medications.

The researchers speculated that these findings are not necessarily limited to veterans. However, they were careful to stress that their findings do not prove that there is a cause and effect relationship between sleep quality and brain volume. It is possible that something else is causing both sleep problems and shrinkage of the brain or that shrinking of the brain causes sleep disturbances and not the other way around.

What is indisputable is that we all need good night’s sleep to function normally, avoid headaches, accidents, and be happy. Most people need 7 hours of sleep, but there are some who need only 5 or 6 and others, 8 to 9 hours. A very small percentage of people function perfectly well with 3 or 4 hours of sleep. On the other hand, some people do not feel rested no matter how long they sleep. Those usually suffer from a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and other. The diagnosis is made through a sleep study. Treating the underlying sleep disorder often leads to a dramatic improvement in the quality of life, including an improvement in migraine and tension-type headaches.

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Imbalance of many hormones produced by our endocrine system can lead to headaches. Here is a brief summary of the hormones linked to headaches.

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