Preeclampsia can have lasting effects on the brain

Preeclampsia and eclampsia are complications of pregnancy which manifest by a severe headache and high blood pressure. If left untreated, they can cause strokes and kidney failure.

Fortunately, these conditions are very responsive to intravenous infusions of high doses of magnesium (5-6 grams at a time, while we give 1 gram to our migraine patients). A study recently published in Neurology suggests that even if preeclampsia is treated effectively, it can lead to persistent brain lesions. The researchers found these small white matter lesions (WMLs) in the healthy controls as well, but not as many as in women who suffered from preeclampsia 5 to 15 years prior to the study. We also see these lesions, which appear as small spots, on MRI scans of patients with migraines. The exact nature of these spots remains unclear, but the leading theory is that they are due to impaired blood flow.

The authors looked at a wide variety of factors that might have predisposed women to preeclampsia and subsequent WMLs, but did not find any. They did confirm previous findings indicating that age and high blood pressure increases the number of WMLs, but those with preeclampsia had more WMLs in the temporal lobes of the brain. They also found a decrease of the cortical volume, which means loss of brain cells on the surface of the brain.

Surprisingly, one of the factors they did not measure was magnesium levels. If preeclampsia responds so well to magnesium, it is possible that these women have chronic magnesium deficiency. Magnesium deficiency predisposes people not only to migraines, but also to heart attacks and strokes. The test that should have been done is red blood cell (RBC) magnesium since 98% of magnesium is inside the cells or in the bones. The most commonly used serum magnesium level measures the remaining 2% and is highly unreliable.

If you’ve suffered from preeclampsia or eclampsia, in addition to reducing other risk factors for vascular problems – control your blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol, stop smoking if you smoke, lose weight, and exercise, you may also want to ask your doctor to check your RBC magnesium level. If the level is low or at the bottom of normal range, take a magnesium supplement. A good starting dose is 400 mg of magnesium glycinate taken daily with food. If subsequent tests show no improvement, the dose can be increased to 400 mg twice a day and even higher.

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