The majority of people do not think that antibiotics cause migraine headaches – or that pharmaceutical medications used to manage their migraines may be directly inhibiting their ability to heal.
If you ask most people with migraines if indigestion, inflammation, muscle tension, and hormones are all part of their migraine headaches, quite a few of them will say YES. Many of these people are also aware that getting plenty of potassium and magnesium is important for proper electrolyte balance, but may not understand why their electrolyte levels are off.
Increasingly, more and more people are also aware of a disorder called Histamine Intolerance, and understand that their indigestion and migraine headaches may be resulting from an overload of histamine which occurs in the gut when the body is unable to break histamine and tyramine-rich foods down due to an enzyme deficiency (primarily, DAO, aka diamine oxidase).
Most migraineurs are also aware that dilated blood vessels are implicated in migraines, but won’t see a connection between their low blood pressure and the blood vessel dilation during migraine.
This constellation of symptoms can be very difficult to understand, and rarely do we see a clear presentation for what these different symptoms have to do with each other much less what their underlying cause is.
In this article, I’d like to share with you the pieces of the puzzle as I have come to understand them in the process of healing my own migraine headaches and histamine intolerance. It’s my (layperson’s) belief that even sporadic antibiotics cause migraine by way of negatively affecting primarily the gut flora and the kidneys.
Laypeople and medical doctors use the term “cause” and “causation” differently. Strictly speaking, it is inaccurate to claim that antibiotics “cause” migraine headaches, in the sense that we know that many migraine headaches have other or multiple confounding causes as well. In a very general way, this article is simply pointing out that antibiotics can be one of the major causative factors in the development of migraines in many but not all cases of migraine, and that this is often not fully recognized. Clearly, antibiotics is a huge category of drugs with many different specific effects depending on the type of antibiotic used, but generally speaking, they are all recognized to negatively impact gut flora balance and kidney health.
Please note that this hypothesis and all the information contain here is based off of my own research, self-experimentation and observations helping others as an experientally-trained health coach, and not as a traditionally-trained medical doctor.
Mainstream and Alternative Classifications of Migraine Headache and the Role of Pharmaceuticals in Migraine Causation
The International Headache Society’s ICHD-3 classification system outlines three types of migraine: migraine with aura, migraine without aura, and retinal migraine. Migraine types formerly thought to be distinctive disorders, such as chronic migraine and hemiplagic migraine, are now being classified as “complications” of migraine.
In contrast, clinical nutritionist Byron J. Richards has created his own classification system for migraine headaches because, “From a practical point of view the different types of headaches that Western medicine classifies have little use in fixing the source of the problem and stopping the headaches from happening in the first place.” He classifies migraines into four types of headache: Lymphatic/Pressure Headaches, Hormonal Headaches, Blood/Toxic Headaches, and Nerve Inflammation Headaches. He says:
It is a sobering commentary on the skill of Western medicine that their toolbox for this issue is limited to a variety of pain killers – which sometimes treat or manage the pain in a symptomatic way and sometimes don’t work so well. While some type of pain killing is better than the headache, getting stuck in the rut of ongoing painkiller use is also problematic and not addressing the source of the problem.(Source)
WebMd doesn’t recognize that antibiotics cause migraines. It describes “medication headaches” and reports that many drugs, including antibiotics, can induce “acute headache”:
Many drugs can induce acute headache, including nitroglycerin, antihypertensive agents (beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme [ACE] inhibitors, and methyldopa), dipyridamole, hydralazine, sildenafil, histamine receptor antagonists (e.g., cimetidine and ranitidine), NSAIDs (especially indomethacin), cyclosporine, and antibiotics (especially amphotericin, griseofulvin, tetracycline, and sulfonamides).
If, however, we know that many people with histamine intolerance manifest with symptoms of migraine, the question becomes which medications in particular lower DAO or trigger mast cells to release histamine. A growing list of medications known to be indirectly implicated in migraine headaches, histamine intolerance, and mastocytosis is outlined here.
In addition to the direct impact of meds on mast cells, gut microbiome, kidneys, and liver (not to mention thyroid, pancreas, etc), it is well established that many pharmaceuticals are “Drug Muggers” – they steal vital nutrients needed by the body to make enzymes and complete any number of important functions, like facilitating muscle relaxation. (So, deficiencies in vitamins and minerals caused by pharmaceuticals can contribute to hypertension of muscles in the neck and cervical area. These nutritional deficiencies are compounded by gut inflammation and leaky gut caused by antibiotics).
Notice that none of the explanations in this section for how meds affect us implicate antibiotics in chronic migraine. So why do I insist that antibiotics are the main culprit? Because their use leads to a predominance of histamine-producing bacteria in the colon, and hormonal, electrolyte, and blood pressure problems that manifest due to kidney dysfunction. If we look at the history of people with migraines, they almost all have had numerous doses of antibiotics throughout their life (who hasn’t?). Many who have tried my protocol confirm that their migraine headaches started after a major surgery or dose of antibiotics. This assault so undermined their own body’s resilience that a chronic debilitating condition resulted.
It’s my view that these cases are not a result of that single dose of antibiotics or pharmaceuticals, but rather, that the person was already compromised from intermittent antibiotic use throughout their life and that one incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As with many other pharmaceuticals (such as vaccines), the question is: how many doses can the body handle, and at which point is a threshold reached that tips the body over into chronic inflammatory disease?
All medications probably affect the microbiome, which explains why people who take daily pain meds or migraine meds do not respond as well to the SimplyWell Migraine Relief Protocol as those who only do occasionally. From an evolutionary perspective, pharmaceuticals and synthetic chemicals are novel and challenging for our bodies. We did not evolve to process them.
Why do so many people with migraine headaches have high levels of histamine?
It’s great that more and more people, including physicians, are becoming aware of the problem of histamine intolerance. Anyone familiar with histamine intolerance will know that DAO (diamine oxidase) is one of the enzymes that breaks down tyramine and histamine, both of which are found in a lot of foods, especially aged or fermented foods (and supplements). Therefore, the idea goes, histamine intolerance is caused by low DAO levels. This is the classical perspective on histamine intolerance. It’s also well known that some opiates trigger mast cells to degranulate and release histamine that way. This is called mastocytosis. So clearly there are many routes through which one can end up with a lot of inflammation (ie, histamine) in the body. A DAO level test can be done, but if a person were to show normal levels of DAO, this would not mean that they don’t have histamine intolerance, in my view. It would only mean that there was so much histamine in the body that even normal DAO levels couldn’t break it all down.
I personally prefer to refer to the symptoms of an overfull “bucket” of histamine as “Histamine Overload” rather than “Histamine Intolerance.” “Histamine Intolerance” implies there is a malfunction in the person’s body, whereas “Histamine Overload” correctly describes an excessive amount of histamine caused by factors that have overwhelmed the body’s ability to break it down.
I feel its always important to remember that the view of disease that sees the body as a malfunctioning machine that needs to be fixed is outdated and inaccurate. The body is incredibly sophisticated and intelligent, and sends off alarm signals and symptoms when it has been assaulted, overwhelmed, or is lacking the support it needs to function optimally.
I think the more important and overlooked factors in Histamine Overload manifesting as migraine headaches (besides low DAO) are:
- Excessive bacteria in the gut (colon) that produce histamine. (Histamine-producing bacteria include: Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus delbrueckii, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus reuteri, and Lactococcus lactis, Enterococcus faecalis, and various types of E. coli.) This is rectified by prebiotics that feed friendly bacteria, as outlined in the SimplyWell Migraine Protocol.
- Estrogen dominance. Estrogen is known to suppress DAO and increase histamine. Estrogen dominance is also addressed through the ingestion of specific plants in the SimplyWell Migraine Protocol.
- Damaged cell receptor sites for DAO. DAO receptor sites are affected by Na+ and Cl- levels, ie, electrolyte balance (Source here). Could the damage to the the kidneys and the subsequent effects on electrolyte balance be affecting not only DAO levels, but also cells’ receptivity to DAO? The SimplyWell Migraine Protocol improves electrolyte balance and cell receptivity to DAO.
Why do so many people with migraine headaches have dilated blood vessels, low blood pressure, and electrolyte imbalances?
There seem to be mixed views as to whether migraine is an issue of constricted or dilated blood vessels. But it is clear that with migraine, there is less than optimal blood flow and that this leads to loss of oxygen to the brain and attendant pain.
Constricted blood vessels would seem to logically be the cause of lack of blood flow, whereas it would seem dilated blood vessels would lead to more blood flow. However, the opposite is true. The important key to understand here is that dilated blood vessels are also associated with low blood pressure. Most migraineurs have low blood pressure, so while the vessels may be dilated and wide open for the blood to flow, if the pressure of that blood is low, it will not be able to bring the blood and oxygen to the head.
Additionally, low blood pressure will prevent good circulation to the extremities, which is why many with migraine headaches have cold hands and feet, tingling in hands and feet, and various peripheral neuropathy issues.
So the root question is actually, “Why do so many migraineurs have low blood pressure?” Well, what regulates blood pressure? The kidneys do. They regulate blood pressure partially by way of how they regulate electrolyte balance. Antibiotics are known to cause electrolyte imbalances via damage to the kidneys. This can be mitigated as outlined in the SimplyWell Protocol by consuming the optimal levels of potassium to sodium electrolytes (2:1 ratio), which will raise blood pressure, increase DAO levels, and improve cellular respiration and metabolic function.
As it turns out, there are also bacteria in the digestive tract that help to regulate blood pressure as well. Therefore, anything that assaults the colonic bacterial balance and the kidneys (ie, antibiotics) will seriously compromise a person’s ability to regulate their blood pressure.
Researchers at The Johns Hopkins University and Yale University have discovered that a specialized receptor, normally found in the nose, is also in blood vessels throughout the body, sensing small molecules created by microbes that line mammalian intestines, and responding to these molecules by increasing blood pressure. The finding suggests that gut bacteria are an integral part of the body’s complex system for maintaining a stable blood pressure. (Source)
To make matters even worse, stress also dilates blood vessels, as does histamine. So once you are caught in a state of inflammation and high histamine, which in and of itself is very stressful, your blood vessels will be constantly dilated. When this happens, small amounts of blood proteins (fibrin, glubulin, and albumin) leak into the interstitial spaces, get trapped around the cells compromising optimal electrolyte balance and cellular respiration, and congest the lymphatic system. When the lymphatic system is congested and cannot be fully cleaned out via the venous blood because the kidneys are congested from antibiotics, varying degrees of sepsis result.
I’d like to give credit to Angela Stanton (creator of the Stanton Protocol) for her insights into low blood pressure and the importance of salt to raise blood pressure. Stanton’s protocol is based on reduced carbohydrate consumption and increased potassium and salt intake. Her protocol does not address histamine intolerance or inflammation in the gut, however. The prebiotics in the SimplyWell Migraine Protocol are an example of how healthy sugars from root vegetables can and do lower insulin sensitivity, thereby making carbohydrates easier for the pancreas to process, and less triggering for migraineurs.
What role do hormones play in migraine headaches?
The adrenal glands sit atop our kidneys and regulate our stress hormones. Going through a surgery or getting antibiotics is extremely stressful, especially if the damage done from that surgery leads to a debilitating condition like chronic migraine headaches.
For many women like myself, the triggering surgery may have been a c-section operation. So on top of antibiotics and the stress from the surgery, the mother is going to have taxed adrenals from sleep deprivation from caring for her child, and in some cases years of breastfeeding which can be literally very draining even in the absence of migraine headaches. There are clearly many compounding factors that contribute to stress and adrenal fatigue, but I contend that it is the original stress to the kidneys from antibiotics and surgery that undermine the mother’s ability to be resourced and resilient in the face of the new challenges of motherhood.
The adrenal glands use progesterone to make cortisol. Therefore, the more stressed out you are, and the the more cortisol you produce, the more progesterone you will need to manufacture it. Progesterone puts the brakes on estrogen. If progesterone becomes depleted because of the high demands on it by the adrenals, there will be an excess of estrogen in the system. Estrogen suppresses DAO, thus leading to excessive histamine.
The liver processes estrogen. Many people try to treat their migraines by focusing on liver health, but it may make more sense to heal the gut first and thereby support the liver. Some bacteria in the colon act to help detoxify the body, and therefore can be seen as a “second liver” (see Dr. Perlmutter’s book “Brain Maker” for more info). If the liver is already overloaded because the colonic bacteria that act as the second liver are missing, the liver will be more compromised, further contributing to the hormonal imbalance.
Luckily, this situation can be mitigated by improving gut flora balance and eating estrogen-reducing foods like raw carrot as featured in the SimplyWell Protocol. Once the most debilitating symptoms of histamine overload and migraine headache subside, sleep patterns will be re-established, the body can rest and repair itself and the kidneys/adrenals will gradually heal.
The SimplyWell Migraine Protocol can mitigate the damage done to the gut and kidneys by antibiotics.
It’s important to note that while clearly, not all migraine headaches have the same root causes, people with different migraine types are responding well to the SimplyWell Migraine Protocol, indicating that in many cases, migraines with the same root cause (imbalanced gut flora and compromised kidneys) can manifest with different symptoms in different people.
I developed the SimplyWell Protocol in January of 2016. It is a completely drug-free, plant-based approach to migraine headaches that relies on the use of specific vegetables and fruits (especially prebiotics available in various humble starchy roots) to feed healthy gut flora, balance estrogen levels, clean out the liver and gallbladder, and support kidney function (and thereby lymphatic health).
I didn’t fully understand why or how the protocol worked when I first discovered it, but the past nine months of research have shown me specifically why the plants used in the protocol work so well, and has helped me to connect the dots as to how and to what extent my different migraine symptoms were related to each other.
It was through the firsthand experience of reducing inflammation in my colon and the subsequent disappearance of my migraines that I realized that compromised digestion was the primary source of my histamine load and therefore, that antibiotics were the primary culprit in my imbalance. It was also in the process of cleaning up my diet and doing a few six day grape fasts which flushed my kidneys out of large chunks of mucous that I started to look into the connection between antibiotics and kidney disease. It is well established that antibiotics damage the liver, thyroid, gallbladder, and kidneys, but it took me months to realize the implications of compromised kidney function on blood pressure, hormonal and electrolyte balance, and chronic migraine headaches.
The bottom line?
There is an enormous need for us to discover alternatives to pharmaceutical treatment, which are not only ineffective at addressing the root cause, but in many cases are exacerbating or undermining the body’s self-healing abilities. This suppressive approach to medicine is in its death-throes. People are waking up to a new paradigm of medicine that involves a return to common-sense, self-care, and natural solutions. The problems is that while many people believe in a very general way that food is medicine, it can take years to discover which foods are the best medicine for specific conditions like chronic migraine headaches.
We are in the process of reclaiming our Folk Medicine and also discovering new applications for plant-based solutions that address modern problems largely caused by pharmaceuticals that our grandparents didn’t have to deal with and so were not in the lexicon of their Folk Medicine before it was lost.
I’m overjoyed to offer the Simplywell Migraine Protocol to the Folk as a gift from Mother Nature as she continually reveals options for us that are gentle, nourishing and profoundly effective at addressing intense chronic pain conditions such as migraine headaches. Part of my excitement in sharing these plant-based solutions comes from all the positive “side-effects” of truly holistic medicine (like clear skin, more energy, deeper sleep, improved gum health, diminished PMS and cramping during menstruation, etc). The good news is that the body doesn’t know how to selectively heal, which is why a whole host of bothersome long-term ailments simply dissolve once the body is truly supported through proper nutrition.
It’s my hope that we can start to wake up to the reality of the damaging effects that antibiotic medications are having on our whole physiology, which for some of us manifests as migraines. Luckily, there are very simple, affordable, and gentle plant-based solutions to reverse this damage, as outlined in my SimplyWell Migraine Protocol