Getting ahead of migraine

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2013-07-01

Most people turn to prescription and over-the-counter medication for help to alleviate migraine symptoms. While some will experience some relief, others will experience little or none. It is worth looking at the complementary approaches that are being used in conjunction with pharmaceutical intervention, as well as exploring the possible causes and preventative strategies currently available. Some of the treatments mentioned here, including naturopathic, chiropractic, acupuncture and massage therapy, are covered at least in part by some provincial medical insurance plans. They are worth looking into; however, unlike the long list of pharmaceutical drugs that are subsidized through our medical insurance plans, these complementary modalities can be prohibitively expensive, especially for women who may not have access to extended health insurance through employment.

John Molot, a Doctor of Environmental Medicine with practices in Ottawa and the Environmental Health Clinic, Women’s College Hospital, in Toronto, is about to publish his book 12,000 Canaries Can’t Be Wrong. Molot stresses that environmental influences, in particular chemical pollutants, contribute to chronic illness, and that how those influences affect an individual will depend on her physiological strengths and weaknesses and what she has been exposed to. Stress is a big factor and no two people will experience the same stressors the same way: “Some people will get a headache and some people will get gastrointestinal complaints, so it varies, but it also varies according to sex,” he says.

Every cell is a living organism and as such produces its own byproducts of metabolism. If the cell is not able to remove the toxic byproduct (oxidant), damage (oxidative stress) will occur within the cell itself, explains Molot. Antioxidants in the diet help maintain the detoxification system so that it can clear out these byproducts efficiently. Unfortunately, our systems are so burdened by the chemicals we ingest that, depending on exposure and our ability to detoxify, cellular damage could result: “We can start to measure changes in the way cells function so that one of the things we’re seeing as a result of oxidative stress is changes in neurons (brain cells), so we’re seeing a rise in chronic pain disorders.”

Women detoxify less well than men. Molot explains: “Men have better kidney function, which helps eliminate water-soluble toxins, and their detoxification systems in the liver work more efficiently. In the liver, there are two phases of detoxification: phase one prepares the toxins for phase two, which is to make the toxins water soluble, so the kidney can eliminate them. However, the new products from phase one are often more toxic. Unfortunately, women often have a faster phase one than phase two, so toxic by-products build up; sort of a log jam of toxins.” Toxins that cannot be easily eliminated get stored in fat, and as women generally have a higher percentage of body fat than men, they tend to store more toxins in their bodies. As well, women are exposed to more chemicals on a regular basis: in the home where they use cleaning and laundry products, as well as in the daily application of chemical-containing products on and therefore into their bodies. Consequently, women are more prone to chronic illness, including chronic pain disorders, such as chronic migraine.

Individuals who experience recurrent migraine have changes inside their cells as a result of oxidative stress, which in turn is due to the burden of chemical pollutants in the body. “Those people who have poor enzyme systems are more likely to suffer, some of that is genetic and some of that is by not taking in the required antioxidants because of poor diet,” says Molot. He also adds that the cell membrane is part of an intricate communication system and that each cell has receptors for specific messages: “This is like a key fitting into a lock, or the space station docking, it has to fit perfectly into the receptor and if it does, then the receptor gives the message to the cell.”

Receptors are sensitive to chemical pollutants. If neurons involved with the mechanism of pain become sensitized, a chronic pain disorder can develop. “So what gets turned on doesn’t necessarily get turned off by just trying to enhance the detoxification system, because it’s not about toxins being built up, it’s about the changes that occurred in the cells that may or may not be reversible—we don’t understand it that well,” says Molot.

Managing migraine: the importance of detoxification

Although there appears to be no known cure for migraine, there are ways to reduce its frequency, duration and to some degree its severity. Most patients learn to manage their condition over time. When treating patients, Patricia J. Wales, a Calgary-based Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, looks at diet and the ability of the body to remove waste products, which can build up and become toxic to the body if not properly eliminated. Toxicity can be a factor in triggering migraine and other conditions. For this reason she stresses the importance of having regular bowel movements, at least once daily.