Before we discuss the causes of migraine headaches, let’s first take a look at the basic symptoms and etiology. Not only are migraines one of the most painful health conditions a human being can endure, but they are also one of the most poorly understood.
Migraines typically occur on one of the side head in the temple region and/or under the eye, however, they can occur in other areas. They usually last from 4 to 72 hours. Most people must lie down in a dark, quiet area until it is over. They occur more often in women than men.
Experts claim that they present most often in the morning, but that has not been my experience. It is reported that women are three times more likely to experience them than men. This is likely because it appears that they are often triggered by hormonal fluctuations in the body.
As anyone knows who has the pleasure of living with the skull-splitting pain, a migraine is the mother of all headaches. Finding the words that adequately describe the experience, the pain and the intensity is difficult. Words like throbbing and pulsating just don’t seem to do it justice.
The pain is indescribable, excruciating and incapacitating. Pain can vary in intensity from one episode to another. My experience has been that each episode is unique, although they all are similar in many ways and run a similar course. Other common symptoms of a migraine include nausea and/or vomiting, and heightened sensitivity to sound, light and smells.
A migraine headache is an experience like no other. In my personal opinion, it’s more painful than child birth, and after it’s over there’s no beautiful bundle of joy. At its worse, it can be completely disabling and at best it is disruptive to daily life and functioning.
Regardless of the causes of migraine headaches, there are two different types. Classic and common. The classic type is accompanied by some sort of sensory warning like flashing lights or spots in front of the eyes, often referred to as an aura, while the common type is not. However, the common type can also be accompanied by a variety of early warning signs like visual disturbances, minor twinges of pain, dizziness, changes in mood or others that may be unique for each individual. The common type occurs more frequently than the classic.
You may want to be aware that I write this page as both a holistic health practitioner and a woman who has lived with chronic migraines for more than 15 years. So what I am going to share with you comes largely from personal experience in the hopes that it will help others identify their own triggers, patterns or cycles.
The more you understand about your own personal migraine headache experience, the better equipped you are to deal with it effectively and develop coping strategies that will minimize the impact it has on your life.
To give you a little background on my experience, my migraine headaches are almost always on the right sight of my head. However, sometimes the pain will travel and expand down to the lower back side of the head on both sides. It usually involves the right temple, the right eye, and the whole right side of my face. My right eye usually swells up like a monster eye and their is swelling on the right side of my face as well. Occasionally, I get a black eye. I’ve only ever had a couple that were any shorter than 10-12 hours. Most of mine last 16 hours before the storm begins to break.
Causes of migraine headaches aside, I’ve found that a good sense of humor in the face of such a grueling experience is a helpful coping tool and I’ve been using this fun little ranking system for my migraines for many years. Since the experience of my migraine headache often feels like a devastating storm, I rank each one of them according to Hurricane Category status. Just like a real Hurricane, Category 1 is the weakest and least destructive and Category 4 is really severe.
Within each migraine headache category there can be degrees of severity as well. It may be a mild category 1, 2, 3, or 4 or a severe category 1, 2, 3 or 4. Each episode is different. Some are fast movers with high wind and tear everything up in their path, while others move slow with lots of heavy rain. Fortunately, I don’t get too many category 4’s. I have a lot of category 1 and 2s and a moderate amount of category 3s.
For those who have chronic migraines the quality of life can be impacted greatly. Life can feel pretty uncertain and unpredictable. Plans, events, tasks and chores may always have to be tentative, depending on whether a migraine appears. Learning to live with such agonizing pain is an incredible challenge. This can all be very frustrating and difficult to adapt to, to say the least.
Although the main symptom of migraine headaches is pain that occurs in the head, it is a whole body experience. It has a profound impact on the central nervous system, which is ultimately connected to every system in the body. The intense migraine pain can be over, but it can take several days to recuperate completely.
For example, my whole body often feels like I’ve been beat up or at war after a powerful episode. My son takes a look at me when I’m in the recovery phase and says “you’re all mangilated today.” Whenever I come out of an intense category 3 or 4, I often feel like I’ve been in another dimension and just returned to earth. It is sometimes a dream like state.
Fortunately, when you understand the causes of migraine headaches you are enabled to take a variety of steps that can decrease the quantity and severity of your flares, improve coping skills and quality of life, and even alleviate the pain all together.
I have learned that I can turn off about 80 to 90 percent of my migraines completely with a very specific mindfulness meditation technique combined with breathwork, you can learn this technique in less than 90 minutes in my book, Mindfulness Over Migraines. I have found this to be an invaluable self-management tool in my life.
Understanding the Causes of Migraine Headaches
Even though we don’t completely understand the precise science for the causes of migraine headaches, what we do know without a doubt is that they are a complicated, multi-faceted phenomenon that involves a variety of interconnected elements such as the trigeminal nerve, blood vessels, neurons, the brain, the brain stem, neurotransmitters, the vascular system, hormones and the autonomic nervous system.
For many years, the dominating theory of what causes a migraine was believed to be a condition of the vascular system. Then scientists came to believe that the root cause of abnormalities in blood vessels in the head lies in the trigeminal nerve pathway. The trigeminal nerve is the largest, most powerful and complex nerve in the head. It is responsible for sensations in the face like heat and pain. It’s also important for motor functions like chewing, biting and swallowing. It connects to the maxillary nerve, opthalamic nerve and mandibular nerve and influences their function as well.
It has also been discovered that the neurotransmitter in the brain, serotonin, drops when someone has a migraine. When this happens, it is believed to trigger the trigeminal nerve to release neuropeptides, which then travel to the outer covering of the brain where it triggers dilation and inflammation of the blood vessels, which then results in the pain and other accompanying symptoms.
Some studies have found they can turn off the pain by injecting serotonin. It was believed that a deficiency in the neurotransmitter serotonin and/or imbalance in other neurotransmitters may be a root factor in migraines and some people find relief by identifying their neurotransmitter imbalances and restoring them to balance. In my own life, I have found that two of the most common causes of migraine are an excess of glutamate or histamine, and taking steps to keep them from becoming elevated greatly reduces the number of migraines that occur.
However, the stimuli that trigger this chain reaction vary greatly from one individual to another and the reason for this phenomenon is still unclear. For one person the process may be set into motion with fluctuation in hormones, eating a chocolate bar, or drinking caffeine, while for another it may be cheese or pickles.
I would like to point out that the drop in serotonin may be in response to the stress of the migraine and not the cause of the migraine itself. As anyone knows who endures a migraine, they are a highly stressful event. When we are under stress, our neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, GABA, etc. are called upon to modulate the stress. The brain may use up all its serotonin in trying to deal with the stress of the migraine. It may not be a cause of migraines. Additionally, increasing the serotonin levels would also help bring down glutamate and histamine, so it could be its impact on these neurotransmitters that provide relief.
There are a variety of other theories out there as to other contributors or causes of migraine headache, including deficiencies in magnesium and essential fatty acids, abnormalities in calcium channels, hormones, abnormalities in the central nervous system, undiagnosed food sensitivities, inflammation of the maxillary nerve, overgrowth of Candida yeast, cavitations, and environmental toxins, have all been found to be linked to migraines.
However, more recent research suggests that the core cause of migraine headaches resides in the autonomic nervous system and that the swelling of blood vessels in the brain and other factors like a drop in neurotransmitters are secondary and occur in response to the changes in the autonomic nervous system. It has also been found that not everyone who experiences a migraine has swelling of the blood vessels in the brain. Some people don’t have pain either.
Primarily, there is an imbalance or dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system, which is also called the involuntary nervous system, modulates those functions in your body that occur automatically, like blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, breathing, circulation, senses, bladder function and narrowing or widening of the blood vessels.
It consists of two parts called the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, is also known as our fight or flight or system or stress response system. It is considered the accelerator of the autonomic nervous system, while the parasympathetic nervous system is considered the breaks of the autonomic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system makes us alert, increases energy, restricts circulation, enhances our senses, increases blood pressure and heart rate, slows down digestion, dilates pupils, relaxes the bladder, while the parasympathetic does the exact opposite and decreases energy, slows down blood pressure and heart rate, improves digestion, constricts pupils, enhances circulation and gives us a sense of calm and relaxation.
In a perfect world, the two systems are supposed to work in tandem. However, there are many factors that can disrupt the fragile balance and result in dysfunction. When this occurs, then what typically happens is that the sympathetic nervous system remains in control most of the time, and the parasympathetic is underactive.
This is called dysautonomia or autonomic nervous system dysfunction and is a major contributing factor to many chronic health conditions besides migraines, including, insomnia, high blood pressure, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, heart disease, violent tendencies, autism, gulf war syndrome, PTSD, impotency, anxiety disorders, depression, addiction and much more.
The crucial point you want to be aware of in regard to the autonomic nervous system is that it becomes dysfunctional or out of balance for a variety of contributing factors, which may include but is not limited to: emotional trauma like childhood abuse, war, poverty, violence, surviving a natural disaster, loss of a loved one, or any form of great loss; physical trauma, environmental toxins, poor diet, sugar, over consumption of starchy carbs, caffeine, nicotine, drugs, alcohol, nutritional deficiencies, metabolic problems like hypoglycemia, excessive oxidative stress, hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances, emotional stress, structural disorders like TMJ, food sensitivities, overgrowth of unfriendly organisms like Candida yeast, parasites and bacteria, adrenal fatigue, chronic stress of any kind and even lack of meaning and purpose in your life.
Your autonomic nervous system works in conjunction with the brain stem, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones and other parts of the brain to do its job adequately. Thus, why there are so many varying types of triggers for people with migraines.
The underlying factors that cause dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system are commonly referred to as migraine headache triggers. A trigger is something that sets the migraine cycle into motion. Most people tend to have something that works as a common trigger, however some people may not be aware of what their triggers are.
Triggers can vary from one person to another, however some common triggers are dehydration, hormonal changes, certain smells or foods and skipping meals. By becoming aware of triggers and learning to avoid them, migraine headache sufferers can sometimes reduce the severity of the pain, reduce the length of time their headache lasts, and sometimes reduce the frequency of their occurrence. However, even with the most stringent avoidance plan, there is no guarantee that one won’t occur. Unfortunately, there are times when there is nothing to be done, but the ride the wave of pain until it’s over.
So although the core cause of migraine headaches may lie in autonomic nervous dysfunction, the many contributing causes of migraine headaches may vary from person to person, depending on their unique biochemistry.
As I see it, all the factors we have discussed are involved, but I believe the autonomic nervous system is at the seat of the problem. In my own situation I can clearly see that the trigeminal nerve is definitely associated with this process. I never had migraines until I had a bunch of teeth extracted and another tooth with an old cavity flared. After these teeth were extracted, I developed atypical trigeminal neuralgia and it was at that time, that migraines appeared in my life. It seemed it was the damage to the trigeminal nerve that caused them to arrive. However, once they took place in my life, then there were many triggers like foods, chemical or vegetation odors, hormones etc. that set them into action.
Additionally, since the mindfulness based technique that I developed and present in Mindfulness Over Migraines works by targeting the brain and the autonomic nervous system and it is so highly effective for turning off the pain, this illustrates that indeed the autonomic nervous system is running the show.
The key to managing migraine headaches is to restore balance to the autonomic nervous system, and this is done by addressing each of the underlying factors that may apply to your biochemistry. If you can identify all the core factors, then you can reduce the amount of migraines you experience, or perhaps eliminate them all together. A variety of functional medicine tests can assist you in this process.
For example, if a deficiency in magnesium or omega 3s is your root factor and you correct these deficiencies then you may not experience migraines anymore, same applies to some other core contributors like neurotransmitter or hormone imbalances or structural disorders. Of course, eliminating migraines is always preferred over managing them, when possible.
Although at this time researchers are not sure of the “true” causes of migraine headaches and there is no real “cure.” Pain can be managed and migraine relief can be found to some extent with a variety of holistic and alternative health methods. The most important keys in managing this condition are education, awareness and lifestyle changes.