A Functional Medicine Approach to Migraines

There are headaches – and then there are migraines.  Migraines are no joke! These mega headaches can cause vision changes, vomiting and difficulty speaking.

In fact, migraines are the second leading cause of disability in the United States, accounting for about 6% of all disability claims.

Migraine Stages and Symptoms

A migraine is a headache that causes severe pain.  The sensation is typically pulsing or throbbing and usually on one side of the head.  A migraine attack can last for hours to days.  The pain is often severe enough to interfere with normal daily activities, like working or parenting.

A migraine typically progresses through four stages: prodrome, aura, attack and post-drome. 

The prodrome stage is subtle changes in your health, like food cravings, neck pain, fluid retention and constipation.  Not everyone experiences (or notices) this phase.

The aura stage is typically visible in nature, including vision loss or seeing various shapes or colors. The nervous system as a whole is impacted (pins and needles in your arm or leg or weakness in one side of the body).  The aura stage occurs immediately before or during the attack.

A migraine attack lasts from a few hours to several days.  They can occur a few times a year or several times a month.  Migraine sufferers may experience the following symptoms:

  • Headache pain (typically throbbing or pulsing)
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes smell and touch
  • Nausea and vomiting

The stage after a migraine is called the post-drome, during which people typically feel drained, exhausted or achy.

What Causes a Migraine?

Inflammation plays a crucial role in the development of a migraine.  In functional medicine, we work to uncover the underlying cause of the inflammation so the client can address the problem at the level of cause.

Common causes of migraine-inducing inflammation include:

Hormonal Imbalances: A more common – but very complicated – cause of migraines is hormonal imbalances.  Many women are low in progesterone due to chronic stress, which robs the body of the precursors necessary for progesterone to make stress hormones instead. Other common female hormone issues include excess estrogen, low estrogen, or excess testosterone. Appropriate levels of the sex hormones help regulate the immune system and inflammation.

Blood Sugar Swings: Stabilizing your blood sugar is crucial if you suffer from migraines.  Most people are on a blood sugar rollercoaster from a diet that is too high in sugar and simple carbohydrates and too low in protein and healthy fats.   Eating an imbalanced diet, too little, or too infrequently will also trigger blood sugar swings.  This is why the first step of addressing chronic migraines is always to look at nutrition (which will also help reserve hormonal imbalances).

Iron-Deficiency: Anemia is another common trigger of migraines. It’s crucial to test for anemia, and while an iron supplement can help, it’s important for a patient to understand why they developed anemia in the first place.

Chemical Sensitivities:  There are many toxins in our environment – the food we eat, the water we drink and the beauty products we slather on our skin each day.  A chemical sensitivity – or an inability to properly detoxify – may be to blame for your migraines.

Medications for Migraines

In the conventional space, you may be prescribed a medication to treat the symptoms of your chronic migraine.  In functional medicine, we know that supplementation can certainly help, but we also seek to understand the underlying triggers so a patient does not have to take a medication for the rest of your life! 

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Dr. Sauer

Dr. Forrest Sauer

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