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What's causing my migraines?

I can very clearly remember experiencing my first migraine. I was about 24 and I’d just had my first baby. I was driving and suddenly felt as if one side of my face became paralysed. I remember it lasted for about half an hour and then I had a fairly benign headache. I thought I’d had a stroke at the time! I had many migraines in the following years and often experienced terrible visual disturbances. I remember I lived in fear of being out with my small children and feeling a migraine coming on. Luckily for me once the aura shifted and my sight returned the headache was fairly manageable. I never suffered from nausea or vomiting but I know that many people do. What is a migraine? It’s different from other headaches because it is often more severe, longer lasting and involves the nervous system – in fact, it is referred to as a neurological disorder. The headache is mostly one-sided and throbbing. It’s often worse for any kind of movement and I guess that’s why people say, ‘when I have a migraine I have to lie in a quiet, darkened room’. This is hard to do when you’ve got young children, or it hits when you’re at work. So what causes migraines? I’ve done a lot of reading about this and the simplest way to look at it is that brain function is affected, and this is probably due to temporary changes in blood vessels such as dilation or contraction as well as altered signalling by the nervous system. These things can alter how our body interprets pain and can also lead to other symptoms associated with migraines such as the visual disturbances referred to as the aura and sensitivity to smells and sounds. Chemicals which talk to our nervous systems called neurotransmitters may be out of balance, especially serotonin which effects how we experience pain. There’s often not much you can do once you feel a migraine coming as medication is often not very effective, especially if you experience nausea and vomiting. You might notice that certain things or triggers increase the risk of you getting a migraine and in fact it’s a good idea to note any patterns that you notice as this will help to identify the underlying cause of your migraine. These triggers can include certain foods, smells, changes in light as well as increased stress. Many women also find that they experience migraines around the time of menstruation indicating that hormonal fluctuations are also potential triggers. Tyramine is a vasoactive amine and it can trigger the brain changes we discussed earlier leading to migraine headaches. Tyramine is produced from the breakdown of the amino acid tyrosine, and this increases when foods are aged, fermented or stored for periods of time (i.e not eaten fresh). So, any foods that are processed to extend their shelf life such as bacon, ham or salami, as well as aged cheeses, fermented soy products including soy sauce and tempeh are high in tyramine and should be avoided. Alcoholic beverages also need to be avoided as well as caffeine. Any foods which contain MSG, nitrates, nitrites, sulphites or aspartame are also potential triggers. Basically, all fresh food is allowed with the exception of onions, and general guidelines for following a low tyramine diet include cooking fresh ingredients and avoid eating left overs. There also appears to be a link between skipping meals and migraines due to alterations in blood sugar levels. If you think that your diet might be contributing to your migraines it might be a good idea to keep a diet diary for a period of time. It’s often the case that some foods containing tyramine are tolerated but once a certain threshold is reached a migraine is triggered. Identifying other potential triggers alongside dietary changes is also important as this can increase your threshold and decrease the frequency of your migraines. To find out more about how to identify your migraine triggers book a naturopathic consultation with Larissa Jane Naturopathy for a full assessment of your symptoms as well as your diet and lifestyle and an individualised treatment plan focusing on migraine prevention.

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