Food for Thought: Food Sensitivity and the Migraine

Many therapies for migraine headaches involve pharmaceutical therapy. Other therapies involve avoidance of common triggers.

New evidence suggests that individual hypersensitivity may be a cause of multiple chronic conditions, including migraine headaches. 

Patients with chronic migraine headaches can’t easily explain just how debilitating their headaches are to those who haven’t experienced the throbbing pain, coupled with light sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting.  The experience of living with a chronic disease, which migraine headaches are, is disabling, and causes the migraineur anxiety and guilt, adding to the stress of this illness. 

Many people experience the occasional tension headache or sinus infection that results in headache pain. However, for those who suffer with migraines, the experience is recurrent, chronic, and debilitating. The migraineur may miss important family occasions or work obligations. They may try to power through, but the pain of a migraine, and the symptoms associated with migraine headaches, make it nearly impossible to “put a good face on it.” 

If you suffer from migraine headaches, you have probably visited your local emergency department more than once, and you have probably seen a neurologist. Treatment in the emergency department is symptomatic, and a neurologist may prescribe certain medications, including beta-blockers or anti-epileptics, as prophylactic solutions. Most people find these solutions inadequate. When a migraine occurs, your neurologist may have prescribed a triptan medication, to attempt to abort the attack. Sometimes this works, but it often doesn’t. 

Migraines are not completely understood, but it is believed that low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin may contribute to migraine headaches. Low levels of serotonin are targeted in treatment of depression by drugs like Prozac, which prevents the reuptake of serotonin by neurons, thus increasing the level of serotonin in the brain. It does not seem to be a coincidence that migraine sufferers may also experience episodes of clinical depression. 

Migraine headaches run in families – there is a well-established genetic component. If your parents both experienced migraine headaches, there is a 75% chance that you will also experience migraines. The interesting thing about genetics is that while they play an important role in the development of various characteristics and diseases, environment plays an equally important role. In the context of migraines, this may mean that by avoiding “triggers” you can change the course of events, reducing or eliminating migraine headaches from your busy schedule. 

Known triggers include sleep deprivation, hormonal changes in estrogen levels, and certain foods, which include alcohol, foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), tyramine, nitrates and nitrites. But studies have recently targeted individual food hypersensitivity as a possible culprit in the etiology of migraine headaches. 

Although you may consume a healthy diet, and may avoid known trigger foods, you could be causing your migraines by consuming foods to which you alone are hypersensitive. Allergy testing has traditionally focused upon identification of immediate reactions through the formation of IgE antibodies, but recent research suggest that IgG antibodies, which cause more delayed reactions, may be responsible for a variety of chronic conditions, including migraines. 

IgE allergy testing involves exposure to a only immediate allergies such as pollens, molds, and food allergies like peanuts and shellfish. IgG testing can be performed with a blood sample which is tested through an immunoassay such as Immuno Labs’s Bloodprint® test, the test used in a recent study at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. 

In that particular study, participants were tested for IgG reactivity to a number of common foods. Those foods were then eliminated from their diets for 90 days. The results were promising. Not only was the frequency of migraine headache reduced, but also multiple quality of life endpoints were improved significantly, including physical functioning, pain, vitality, and mental health. 

Food sensitivity is not an allergy, but rather intolerance for certain foods. The effect is delayed, so the patient with food intolerance may never relate the physiological response or illness to the consumption of a specific food. Some food intolerances involves a simple inability to digest the food, as in lactose intolerance. Other foods, such as caffeine-containing substances, may cause adverse effects that are pharmacologic. For those with food sensitivity that results in delayed inflammatory effects, there may be chronic conditions which can only be eliminated by avoiding the food altogether. In order to do so, you have to start with an understanding of the foods to which you may be intolerant. IgG testing is an excellent first step. 

Prescription drugs have many side effects, and if they were always effective, migraine sufferers would not number 28 million Americans. We are all aware of the many toxic substances we are exposed to on a daily basis. Some of these are consumed in our diets. However, some innocuous and even otherwise healthy food items may be contributing to chronic health problems. If you suffer from chronic migraine headaches, it is worthwhile to consult your physician and discuss possible food intolerances through the Immuno Bloodprint® test. 

Many physicians rely heavily upon pharmaceuticals in their therapy, and if your doctor is not willing to consider alternative therapies, you deserve a second opinion. As a physician, I am very aware of the bias towards pharmaceutical therapies. In recent years, however, I have become more aware of the role of diet in maintenance of health, and now I am intrigued by the recent studies that strongly suggest chronic illness may be a result of food sensitivity.

Ref: Lewis, J. E., Lopez, J., A. G., Woolger, J. M., Chen, L., Melillo, A. B., . . . Alonso, Y. (2013). A pilot study eliminating immunologically-reactive foods from the diet and its effect on symptomatology and quality of life in persons with chronic migraines and headaches. Open Journal of Internal Medicine, 3, 8-14. Retrieved from 10:4236/ojim2013.31003


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