Over the course of my research into health, wellness, and optimal digestion, I’ve frequently been reminded of the value of consuming bitter foods to stimulate the liver and produce more bile. We evolved eating many more bitter-tasting foods than your average person eats today, with the primary and sometimes only bitter food consumed by most westerners in a given day now being coffee.
Most digestive bitters marketed for medicinal purposes are supplied in the form of a tincture of herbs in alcohol. This is one reason that I’ve avoided bitters for the most part in my healing journey, along with many other tinctured medicines. While grain alcohol does not contain the same level of histamine-triggering compounds as other alcohols like wine or beer, in my worst times of histamine overload I felt it was still better to avoid tinctures along with other fermented foods. I knew that I could simply stimulate my liver health by consuming dandelion greens or adding some aloe vera to a smoothie or onto my tongue. Yet I never got into a regular practice of consuming bitters until now.
Recently I’ve been reading over an excellent book by master herbalist Guido Masé called “The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.” Guido Masése is the chief herbalist at Urban Moonshine, a Vermont-based company that sells bitters and other exquisite herbal concoctions. Guido is also a clinician at the Burlington Herb Clinic and teaches herbal medicine at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism and the University of Vermont. As I discovered in the course of reading his book, he’s also a historian, expertly weaving together herbal lore, mythologies and historical context with his cutting-edge scientific understanding of plant properties. You can visit his blog, A Radicle, here.
How can bitters help those of us with migraine?
Because migraine is a chemical sensitivity issue, we need to not only reduce the number of chemicals we are exposed to but also support our body’s ability to manage, neutralize, and excrete environmental toxins (especially herbicides, pesticides, and chemical treatments sprayed on our food) and metabolic waste products via improved liver function and bile flow. Bitters help us to do that. As Guido explains:
Let’s take a moment to examine the ‘detector’ our physiology uses to assess the degree of metabolic challenge that our food contains. The bitter taste receptor is part of a family of proteins known as TRs (taste receptors). There seem to be six different types of TRs and some degree of variation within each different type. For example, the receptor for sweet flavor is one type of protein, coded for by three genes, and able to detect sugars. The receptor for umami is similarly simple and detects amino acids (protein). Sour taste is mediated through two different receptor subtypes, able to detect hydrogen ions (responsible for acidity). We have a receptor for fats and another for salt (sodium). . . . But the bitter taste receptor family, known as the T2R receptor family, is made of over twenty different subtypes, coded for by some thirty-four genes, and able to detect over one hundred often completely unrelated chemical compounds. . . . Stimulating T2Rs has profound implications throughtout the digestive system and in the liver . . . For now, suffice it to say that getting the signal of bitterness on the tongue increases the antioxidant enzyme and bile secretions in the liver through the combined action of the hormones, such as cholecystokinin, and nerves, such as the vagus nerve. . . . Interestingly, T2R receptors are found in many other tissues of the body, indicating that their chemosensory ability is not limited to the tongue. . . . Researchers have discovered these bitter taste receptors in the airways of the lungs, and even in brain cells. (Source: “The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.”, Masé)
The liver is the central hub where most of our detoxification pathways are carried out – and picks up the slack from the detoxification that would normally be provided by an intact gut microbiome. When our gut flora are out of balance and the bacteria that help us to detoxify are wiped out by antibiotics, medications, and environmental assaults, our liver has to work extra hard. When the liver is overloaded, bile flow is affected (and with it, our ability to emulsify fats and absorb fat-soluble vitamins crucial for health). Reduced bile flow in turns can potentially lead to gallbladder attacks or stones. (Conversely, one of the best ways to support the liver and gallbladder is to heal your gut – as outlined in the SimplyWell Migraine Relief Protocol). Guido describes below how liver cells need stimulation and chemical challenge in order to function (unlike other kinds of cells, which simply need nutrition):
If we are talking about processing chemicals, we have to talk about the liver. While many tissues in the body have the ability to produce enzymes and antioxidants that help to neutralize toxins, none compare to the four-pound sponge located no our right upper abdomen, halfway hidden behind the ribcage. It is a tireless metabolic workhorse – but, curiously enough, if left alone it does very little. Isolated liver tissue and isolated liver cells do not seem to do much of anything, neither synthesizing bile nor producing high levels of metabolic enzymes. Researchers attempting to study how liver cells behave have learned that, in order to better replicate the conditions found in living beings, the cells have to be bathed not only in nutrients, but also in a cocktail of chemicals. It is only then that they begin to act like their true selves. (Source: “The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.”, Masé)
What role does the liver play in histamine intolerance and overload?
Alison Vickery addressed this in a blog post on that exact topic (“What if This Was About the Liver?“). In this post, she describes her recovery in terms of the following steps 1) address any gut dysbiosis, 2) Reduce toxin exposure, 3) eat a high protien, nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory diet, 4) rebuild with specific foods and herbs, and 5) consume liver protective and regenerative supplements.
I have dramatically improved my histamine tolerance, and put my mast-cell activation type symptoms into remission, and dropped by 2/3rds my inflammation markers, by supporting my liver. And it makes sense that the liver plays a role in histamine intolerance. Histamine is not just disassembled in the gut by diamine oxidase (DAO). It is also disassembled in the liver by histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT or HMT) where it is in high concentrations. Why would HNMT be in the liver? The liver disassembles ALL inflammatory material including histamine released from mast-cells, along with a long list of chemicals manufactured by the body and those ingested. (Source)
Bitters: The Poison Antidote
The development of bitters came from the idea that if the body is regularly stimulated with a bitter or poison challenge, it will be better able and more used to processing an unexpected or unwanted poisonous assault. Historically, the creation of bitters is credited to Mithridates Eupator of Pontus, who reigned over what is now Turkey from 120 – 53 BC.
Mithridates had an urgent incentive in developing them as an attempt to prevent himself from being poisoned by his feuding and murderous family. At age 14, his father was poisoned to death and his mother took control of the kingdom, sparking his interest in discovering a poison antidote. As Guido Masé describes it,
The young prince hit upon an interesting idea: perhaps, if full doses of poison could kill, then smaller doses might strengthen him against death. Simply employing plants that tasted like poison but were not toxic themselves (like the root of high mountain gentian) might do the trick. Mithridates retreated from palace life for a period and apparently delved deeply into venom brewing and antidote crafting, because when he returned, both his mother and his brother were poisoned and died. The prince became king, married his sister, and set about building an army – all the while looking over his shoulder, fearing the murder in his evening meal, but confident that the regular use of his antidotes would keep him alive. (Source: “The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.”, Masé)
Mithridates’ poison antidote concoction likely involved a mixture of bitter and aromatic plants. He experimented extensively with monkshood and nightshade, gentian, calamus, iris, parsley, carrot seed, and various resins, gums, and tree saps mixed with aromatic plants such as ginger, cardamom, and rose in smaller portions. He tried his concoctions on himself in order to discover proper dosages and build up a tolerance. His primary aim was to create an antidote so powerful that it could reverse the effects of a poison administered by a scheming relative and save his life. To help him with his task, he consulted with herbalists, shamans, and professional poisoners, where he learned to extract venom from vipers and use poisons from fly agaric mushrooms. (Incidentally, both venoms and magic mushrooms have been used successfully to combat chronic headache).
We Used to Eat More Bitters
During the Industrial Revolution, when many people moved from the countryside to cities to work in factories, the diversity of plants in the average person’s diet began to drop:
This change was slow at first, with many folks still connected to the country and the wild, bitter botanicals such a life offered. Inevitably, after a few generations, however, families picked fewer dandelion greens in the spring, relying less on foraging for supplementing their meals. Instead, for most people, the supplement became an extra helping of carbohydrate. And while we blame so much of our modern public health concerns on the rise of sweet in the Western diet, we can’t forget that at the same time we handily eliminated much of what was bitter and wild in our food. . . we have decided that our diet should be free of uncomfortable foods, foods, that are wild, bitter, fibrous, weedy, or otherwise challenging. (Source: “The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.”, Masé)
The impacts of this change not only to consumption of sweeter foods but also less consumption of bitter foods had profound implications not only for the health of our bodies, but also the health of the land. With more fields dedicated to the production of carbohydrates, we have seen a huge addition of chemical additives to the ecosystem.
Corn farmers applied 57 million pounds of glyphosate (Roundup), more than 51 million pounds of atrazine, and some 20 million pounds of other herbicides in 2010. By comparison, all the herbicide applied to potatoes amounted to about 4 million pounds, of which more than half was actually fungicide. (Source: “The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.”, Masé)
The sweet flavor does very little to activate the gut (instead, it activates reward circuitry in the brain). This wasn’t as much of an issue in the past as it is now, since many sweeter foods were usually consumed in whole plant form along with the other bitter elements in the rind or peel and their respective benefits. However, our current penchant for sweet processed foods and lack of consumption of bitters is wreaking havoc not only on our digestive tracts but also on our environment in the form of Big Ag.
My Personal Use of Bitters
Currently my practice of ingesting bitters involves small amounts of neem powder placed on the tongue a few times throughout the day (the lovely neem plant is featured at the top of this page). Some traditional herbs for migraine, like feverfew, owe some of their effectiveness to their very bitter flavor. Since I am breastfeeding, I have opted out of taking larger quantities of neem or any other bitter plant, as it reduces milk supply. However, simple stimulation of the taste buds with even very small amounts of bitter plants is a sufficient prompt to get the liver primed to detoxify other substances that enter our bodies via food, water, air, and pharmaceutical medications.
So, while we and our livers are currently inundated with no shortage of chemical assaults, most of them are foreign substances compared to the toxins that our liver evolved to process (which included toxins from bacteria, the bites of venomous insects and animals, or directly from poisonous roots, barks, leaves, seeds, and berries). Perhaps by using the bitter plants which our liver is more evolutionarily designed to be stimulated by, we can help it to process the new chemicals that are relatively new to our environment. (Source: “The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.”, Masé)
Like Mithridates, we do need to be vigilant in order to avoid being overwhelmed by our big bully family members – corporate polluters who care more about power and profit than the health of the whole. Regular intake of bitters can help us to be more resilient to the world we live in.
I want this article to be about what you can eat, not what you can’t. But because migraine is essentially an issue of lymphatic congestion caused by compromised gut flora and environmental toxicity exposures that our bodies are too overwhelmed to handle, the issue of food sourcing and food quality is also important to mention – so please pay attention to the last two sections of this article to stay mindful of ways to avoid adding to the chemical overload.
Please note that the practices outlined below do not take into consideration every single food sensitivity that every migraineur may have (that diet would be breatharianism). The list below emphasizes healing foods that support gut health and electrolyte balance and generally prevent histamine overload. Sensitivities to oxalates, salycylates, sulfites, benzoates, etc. are not addressed here.
I’ve written about prebiotic foods and why I adore them so much already, but want to do another quick overview here. Prebiotic foods are foods that contain soluble fiber which is resistant to breakdown in the small intestine and preferentially feeds the healthy bacteria in our guts. They are very different from probiotic foods and priobiotic supplements in that they support the growth of healthy bacterial populations already present rather than trying to introduce new bacteria. Many strains of PRObiotics are histamine-producing (which is why kim-chi can give you a migraine), whereas PREbiotics contain no histamine and reduce histamine load. There are different types of prebiotics, including arabinogalactans, resistant starch, inulin, galacto-oligosacharides, pectins, and gums.
It’s essential we eat a lot of these foods to maintain a diverse microbiome. Many people are averse to foods high in prebiotic fibers because they can initially cause gas and bloating. In many cases this is just a temporary discomfort – and a sign that the pathogenic bacteria are being replaced with healthy bacteria. Gas and bloating is an expected “side-effect” that occurs as your body’s gut flora recalibrate. However you do want to go slow on introducing prebiotic foods into your diet (as outlined in the SimplyWell Protocol). I have many prebiotic-rich recipes in my recipe section. The easiest foods to incorporate into your diet to get sufficient prebiotics are:
cold bean dips like hummus
potato salad (with lemon juice instead of vinegar!)
raw jicama (use it in salads or drizzled with lime juice)
raw radishes (eaten alone or in salads)
cold rice (I make a lovely tabouleh using rice instead of bulgur wheat)
anything made with fresh or dried shredded coconut
Cautions: those with SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth will not do well on prebiotics and will need to address SIBO first.
Selenium is needed to make glutathione, the body’s most important antioxidant (which is usually low in those with migraine, because the high inflammation levels mean that this antioxidant is in constant demand and therefore depleted. Interestingly, triptan medications used to treat migraine also deplete glutathione). Selenium is also essential for thyroid health.
It is commonly said that Brazil nuts contain the most selenium of any food. But according to Chris Masterjohn, PhD, the amount of selenium in Brazil nuts is highly variable, and entirely dependent on quantities of selenium in the soil the trees are growing in (since Brazil nut trees do not utilize selenium for their own needs). Due to this, you may want to eat other foods that are high in selenium as well, such as blue corn and fish skin (so if you eat fish, be sure to eat the skin – this will also help to detoxify any heavy metals in the fish).
Cautions: Selenium is a sulfur-based molecule, and those with sensitivities to sulfur-rich food will not do well on selenium supplements or foods high in selenium until they address their sulfur issues. See Dr. Greg Nigh’s protocol for more info.
It’s true that some people with migraine can’t tolerate sulfur-rich foods. This is a sign of a compromised phase 2 sulfation detoxification pathway in the liver and should be addressed with your holistic health provider or in a migraine relief coaching session. For those who can tolerate sulfur-rich foods, they are very beneficial for cleaning the liver among other functions. It’s interesting to note that glutathione, the most important antioxidant in the body which is normally low in those with migraine, is a sulfur-based compound. The best sulfur-rich foods are:
radishes, horseradish, mustard
bok choy, cabbage, mustard greens
protein-bound sulfur in meats
onions and garlic
Cautions: Those with SIBO may have high sulfur and will need to address their sulfur sensitivities before eating sulfur-rich foods. See Dr. Greg Nigh’s protocol for more info.
You don’t have to take methylfolate or methylcobalamin to methylate properly (these may actually cause problems for those with migraine). Foods high in choline and trimethylglyceine can also lend methyl groups, help your liver to detoxify, and prevent migraine. The best source of choline is egg yolks. Poultry, rice, and peanuts are also good sources, as is sunflower lecithin. It’s best not to overcook egg yolks so that you preserve some of the sulfur as well. Choline is also important for improving levels of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter which regulates the vagus nerve, improves vagal tone, and reduces inflammation.
For trimethylglyceine, eat foods from the amaranth family – quinoa. I personally love incorporating organic quinoa orzo into my dishes. The trimethylglyceine in quinoa and beets will also help your liver to detoxify excess xenoestrogens, so go slow and gentle on these – especially on the beets. Eating organic liver sourced from healthy animals is also a good way to support methylation (and will also provide you with balanced levels of copper and zinc, as well as B vitamins).
Cautions: Overmethylation can also cause headaches, so avoid methylated B vitamins. Beets are also a good source of trimethylglycine but because they are a migraine trigger they are best avoided (they are high in arginine, nitrates, and oxalates).
Because migraine is caused in part by lymphatic congestion, and the lymphatic system is a lipid-based system (ie, a fat-based system), consuming healthy fats is essential to support your body’s ability to detoxify. Fats are also a superb form of energy that are easily utilized by the body and do not (contrary to popular belief) lead to weight gain.
Saturated fats are preferable because they don’t go rancid/get oxidzed as easily as unsaturated fats. Saturated fats also have many other beneficial properties.
The most important fat to implement into your diet is olive oil. The oleic acid in olive oil increases the diamine oxidase enzyme responsible for the breakdown of histamine. Olive oil also has analgesic (pain relieving) qualities similar to Ibuprofen. Another benefit is that it is not processed with the use of solvents such as hexane as many other vegetable oils are. It’s important not to cook olive oil at high heat, however. Drizzle it onto food once it has been cooked, or use it in salad dressing. The olive oil you purchase must be virgin unrefined organic olive oil.
Coconut oil is a superb oil for supporting gut health. The fatty acids in coconut oil increase butyric acid (butyrate) in the colon (prebiotic foods, once digested, also produce butyrate). Butyrate increases GABA, the calming neurotransmitter in the brain, which also puts the brakes on glutatmate toxicity. Butyrate also increases ketones in the liver, thereby optimizing blood sugar regulation and even ATP energy generation on a neuronal level. Butyrate also helps to maintain the integrity of the gut lining. People who are sensitive to the sulfur in coconut meat are usually not sensitive to the oil. Always buy organic virgin unrefined oil.
Ghee (clarified butter) and butter are both excellent fats to incorporate into the diet liberally, with ghee being even better than butter because it contains no casein and can withstand high temperatures. Ghee should be your high heat cooking oil (you can learn to make your own here). Both ghee and butter contain 3-4% butyric acid, the highest source for any food. However, unlike coconut oil, butter and ghee contain omega-3 fatty acids which are needed to balance other Omega-6 vegetable oils. Omega-3’s have been shown to decrease inflammation and mediate pain. It’s very important to buy only grassfed, pastured, or organic ghee or butter to avoid contaminants which tend to bio-accumulate in the fat of animals raised for butter.
Red Palm Oil is an amazing oil which contains tocotrienols, a rare and important form of vitamin E, as well as squalene, a potent antioxidant which aids the body’s ability to eliminate environmental toxins, including radiation. Red palm oil is beneficial for arthritis, gastrointestinal upset, and gout. It boosts energy and improves circulation. It helps to improve absorption of vitamin D and build important hormones such as progesterone (a glutamate scavenger). This amazing oil in unrefined red form is has also been shown to help with lead detoxification in rats, and to decrease blood platelet aggregation (ie, makes blood cells less sticky). To top it off, red palm oil is also one of the highest plant-based sources of CoQ10. Red palm oil is a medium-heat oil. It is important that it be sourced in a way that doesn’t destroy ecosystems. I use Nutiva Organic Red Palm Oil, which is grown in Ecuador rather than SE Asia so does not negatively affect Orangutang habitat.
Lard and tallow are both excellent fats and also contain omega-3 fatty acids. Because lard and tallow are both rendered down from the entire animal, the issue of purity is crucial. This is not a type of fat that I personally use often because it is challenging to find quality sources of grassfed, pastured, or organic lard and tallow. (Unfortunately, I am not convinced that all pastured animal products are pure. I live in Oregon where I regularly see cattle grazing in open fields directly next to roundup-ready corn fields, which are sprayed with glyphosate.)
Cautions: Oxidized oils can seriously disrupt enzyme function, so making sure your oils are of top quality is key. Also, overall people with migraines have poor liver and gallbladder function – therefore, while healthy fats are important, it is still valuable to not go overboard with fat or oil consumption even when they are of quality. For more information on fats and oils read the book “Deep Nutrition”.
Meat and Seafood
As always, the most immediate issues here as meat consumption pertains to migraine are freshness and quality (that means canned fish and salami are not supportive of migraine). Unfortunately, most meat that we purchase, even that which we consider fresh, is actually somewhat aged. Beef and lamb are usually cured/aged, and fresh fish such as salmon can be on the shelf for as long as 18 days prior to sale. The presence of bacteria in these less-than-fresh meat products may not be a huge problem for people who only get migraines once in awhile. However for those who are stuck in chronic migraine, it’s important that much fresher meat be consumed, such as meats and seafoods that were frozen at slaughter.
If you are highly sensitive to histamine, then the meats need to be eaten fresh and right away after you prepare them. Leftover meats and especially canned fish like tuna have been known to trigger migraines.
Quality is also important, so opt for meats from the healthiest animals you can find, raised without the use of antibiotics or genetically engineered grain. Buy organic meats whenever possible or better yet, buy localy-produced meats. However, it appears that often times smaller-scale farmers raising local meat still use genetically engineered grains or may not be able to afford organic grain. There is also one issue to consider which is that animals raised by organic standards have probably still been vaccinated using genetically-engineered vaccines.
Because of these problems, I feel that eating less meat is better when it comes to eating healthy and consequently, reducing migraine. I don’t see how we can eat sick animals that are destroying the environment, and expect to get better on that.
As with any food, individual preferences and tolerance will play a role here. It is valuable to consider also whether or not you have sufficient stomach acid to break down the meat that you are eating, since undigested meat can ferment in the colon. Therefore, eating smaller portions of meat (2-3 ounces per meal) for optimal digestion, and eating it less frequently, are options to consider. It appears inevitable that the more meat is consumed, the less vegetables and fiber-rich food are consumed, because meat is so filling.
I want to mention one other potential problem with meat consumption. Although the amino acids in meat are very valuable as building blocks for enzymes and building tissue, the breakdown of animal protein also results in nitrogen in the body. This nitrogen converts into ammonia, and under normal circumstances, the body is able to convert the ammonia into urea and excrete it in the urine via the urea cycle.
However, due to certain genetic polymorphisms, as much as 30-40% of the population may be compromised in their ability to effectively eliminate ammonia as urea. For this group of people, eating less meat is important as one way to reduce ammonia. It is also possible that there are other ways that ammonia builds up in the body even in the presence of intact urea pathways. This is something I am currently researching. It is clear that a buildup of ammonia in the body leads to leaky gut syndrome and, in combination with the presence of glutamate in the system, contributes to encephalopathy (brain inflammation) and therefore is probably a contributing factor in migraine. For an excellent podcast on this topic, please listen to Chris Masterjohn on “Are We All Evolved to Eat a High Protein Diet?”
(Incidentally, the alternate pathway for urea elimination in those with compromised urea cycles is via arginine. As it turns out, lysine will block arginine since it shares the same receptor site, and lysine rich foods just so happen to be foods like parmesan that we recognize as migraine triggers. Intriguing.)
Last of all, I do want to mention the value of organ meats for healing. Of all meat, organ meats are the highest in fat-soluble vitamins crucial for bodily repair. Therefore if you have access to quality organ meats and are not offended by their flavor, making fresh pate or eating liver or heart may be hugely supportive to your health, especially the health of your liver and heart.
To what extent are vegan diets supportive of migraine or detrimental to healing? My personal view is that vegan diets are a great cleansing diet for a limited amount of time. They are especially valuable as a way to get a huge amount of plant matter into your body, and reset your relationship to meat. If you go back to eating meat after having been vegan, like I have, you will notice just how dense and hard to process meat is compared to other foods. On the other hand, this density is valuable for grounding and also seasonally may be more appropriate at some times than at others (in winter, for example).
The vegans I know all eat very differently, so having the absence of meat or dairy be the defining characteristic of veganism is not actually a description of how each vegan will eat.
Historically, there are no examples of vegan societies (that I am aware of). This does not mean that it is not an evolutionary step that more and more people are choosing to eat vegan given the environmental and ethical issues that arise with our problematic culture of meat production. Just because wide-scale veganism has never been seen before doesn’t meant that it’s not worthwhile to try it. But, it appears from my research that it is extremely difficult to get the same quality and amount of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, and E which are crucial to healing and especially important for lymphatic and brain health while on a vegan diet. (One workaround for vitamin A as a vegan is red palm oil, since the beta carotenes in red palm oil convert more readily into vitamin A in this fat-based substance than eating beta carotenes from other plant sources).
Whether or not being vegan in general is healthy or not, I am not convinced that it is healthy for a sick person who is trying to heal to try to do so while vegan. People with migraine may be less efficient at converting plant-based nutrients into similar forms found already in animal products than vegans without chronic illness. One of the most important vitamins for healing migraine is vitamin A in the form of retinol, which is needed to make ceruloplasm so that copper can be bioavailable for DAO and MAO to break down histamine and tyramine.
Teas and Coffee
As I mentioned in a previous blog post on the benefits and drawbacks of coffee, tannins in both coffee and some teas are problematic because they bind to and deplete essential B vitamins. Therefore if you consume coffee or tea it’s essential to take a B vitamin complex to replace these (however, B vitamin supplementation can also be a migraine trigger itself – stay tuned for more blog posts on this topic and how to deal with it.) For a healthy herbal coffee recipe alternative, click here. The healthiest caffeinated teas are green tea and guayusa. Guayusa is an Amazonian tea in the holly family (a relative of Mate), but does not contain tannins so will not deplete your body of B vitamins.
The noncaffeinated teas most supportive or gentle for those wanting to prevent migraine are listed below. They are all delicious and many are also medicinal. My current favorite hot beverage is chamomile tea with honey and coconut cream (also a prebiotic). The last three in the list here are bitter and therefore supportive of liver health.
black seed (nigella sativa)
Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings
Liberally salt your food. Sodium increases the uptake of Diamine Oxidase enzyme in the cell (thereby reducing histamine). It also helps cells to stay hydrated by bringing water into the cell. Additionally, it helps to increase blood volume, meaning more blood will get to the head, preventing migraine. Salt can raise blood pressure, which for most people with migraine is good (since migraineurs generally have low blood pressure). Unfortunately, most sea salt has been shown to be contaminated with plastic estrogens. Therefore, use Himalayan pink salt or any other salt mined from ancient stores.
The most supportive spices are ginger, garlic, onion, chive, parsley, cardamom, oregano, pepper, thyme, rosemary, mint, black pepper, black seed (nigella sativa, roasted), mustard, and basil. Many of these spices have anti-inflammatory and medicinal compounds.
You can also get creative adding flavor to foods with lemon zest, orange zest, lavender water, or rose water.
Absolutely remember to avoid the top high-histamine spices: cayenne, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, chilli. Also watch out for turmeric (curcumin), which is high in salycilates and reduces DAO.
Sauces & Dressings
It’s true that eating low histamine can be pretty dire in the sauces department. Many sauces contain MSG, soy sauce, vinegar, or some kind of “umami” (Japanese for “goodness”) flavor. Without these high histamine flavor options, it’s true that food will be a bit more bland. Below are a few options
Homemade tomato relish instead of catsup (use fresh tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, and maple syrup and blend). Tomato does have some naturally-occuring MSG in it but fresh tomato should not be a problem for those who do not have chronic migraine – wheareas tomato paste and sauce is more potent and problematic.
Cream-based sauces like this lemon cream sauce are fine as long as they don’t contain additional cheese or wine.
Because most dairy consumed is in cultured or fermented form (yoghurt, cheese, etc), eating low-histamine means cutting out most dairy. On the other hand, dairy contains prebiotic galactooligosaccharides as well as riboflavin and balanced electrolytes. I have had clients report getting temporary alleviation from raw milk fasts! (Although unfortunately, the results weren’t repeatable).
Caution around dairy consumption is important, though, because dairy is mucous-forming as well as acidifying. Many people can’t handle the casein, lactose, or milk proteins as they change after pasteurization (as compared to raw dairy).
The safest dairy to eat is butter, ghee, cream and milk (ideally in raw form). The safest form of cheese is fresh mozarella cheese (but eating this won’t help you prevent migraine, it will just add a smaller load to your histamine than, say, parmesan cheese will). Opt for the freshest, most local organic unpasteurized milk if it is available. Raw milk contains valuable enzymes for digesting milk. Unfortunately many local producers of raw milk can’t afford organic grain so it can be challenging to find both local and organic milk.
These days, with the dominant trend in Paleo cooking, grains are being avoided by more and more people. Grains are carbohydrates, and carbs are also being demonized. I will never be able to demonize carbs, because it is through consumption of prebiotic starches found in carbohydrate foods that I got well. I have seen mixed evidence as to how bad the presence of phytates in grains really are. Phytates contain inositol, which is an essential compound for improving receptivity in neurons to important neurotransmitters. I believe that grains are an important part of a healthy diet, eaten in moderation. On the other hand there is evidence that relying on too many grains, especially whole grains with the bran intact (where the phytic acid is) can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
For migraine, quinoa is the most supportive grain, for reasons already mentioned (helps detoxify the liver of xenoestrogens and also methylate).
Rice is an important grain for those with migraine as it is a prebiotic when served cold (though rice grown in the deep South of the United States is often contaminated with arsenic – YUM).
Corn can be problematic because culturally, we don’t usually process it in the way that traditional cultures did through use of wood ash lye (this is known as nixtamalization). Consuming polenta and corn chips not processed through nixtamalization can lead to niacin deficiencies – so if you eat corn, opt for tortillas, tamales, hominy, or other corn products properly processed with lye.
Millet is the most alkaline grain, though it is very high in oxalates and can interfere with thyroid function as well as contribute to pellagra (niacin deficiency), so avoid millet.
Wheat contributes to glutamate load. A very small amount of organic wheat, if tolerated, is fine.I believe that the majority of problems people are having with grains (and especially wheat) has to do with:
the presence of herbicides and pesticides sprayed on conventional grains, especially the presence of glyphosate/roundup on conventional wheat
inability to properly process carbs due to gut flora imbalances and subsequent vitamin B depletion necessary for proper carbohydrate metabolism
rancidity in grains, especially grains that are milled
oxalates in grains, which people are intolerant to due to the presence of pesticides and herbicides in their diet, from which the body makes oxalates. (For a great podcast on oxalates, click here).
the presence of vitamins used to fortify grains, such as folic acid in wheat, which is not well tolerated by those with migraine due to the fact that it contributes to glutamate overload
the presence of potassium bromate and other flour treatments, especially in wheat, which may interfere with thyroid function
the fact that many grains like wheat are specially bred now to contain higher amounts of gluten than those in the wheat strains we evolved eating
genetic engineering of grains: while wheat is technically not an approved genetically engineered product, large test plots of GMO wheat have contaminated the food supply.
Cross-contamination of GMO corn grown for feed has also infiltrated the corn supply. (Blue corn is the safest corn to eat and also high in selenium).
Nuts and Seeds
The crucial thing to keep in mind when consuming nuts and seeds is their rancidity. Nuts and seeds can be preserved and stored in the freezer for a few months to prevent this. Nuts and seeds are amazing healing foods because they contain many important minerals like copper and zinc, vitamin E, as well as selenium and tryptophan needed for proper neurotransmitter functioning. However, nuts are also a known migraine trigger. I believe this is because they are generally high in arginine, which feeds latent herpes viruses living on the cranial nerves and in the brain, as explained here.
Brazil nuts are well known to be high in selenium so many people eat a few of these daily to get sufficient selenium. Unfortunately because Brazil nut trees do not require selenium themselves, their uptake of selenium is entirely dependent on the soil the tree is growing in and is highly variable. They also go rancid easily.
With all of these considerations, eating very small portions of fresh, unroasted and unsalted nuts according to tolerance is healthy. One way to do this is to buy your nuts with the shell on, as this keeps them fresh and prevents overeating.
Beans and Pulses
As mentioned in the section on prebiotic foods, beans and pulses are a very valuable source of nutrition for those battling migraine – they are full of prebiotics and protein as well as important B vitamins. If you tolerate them, they should be eaten liberally. Many people who think they don’t do well with beans may want to try waiting a few weeks before ruling them out – it could be that the prebiotics are causing increased gas as they change the gut flora for the better. Gas is a normal and expected side-effect of eating prebiotic foods initially, but this dies down after a few weeks of consistent consumption. If you are sensitive to the lectins in beans you will need to address that before being able to reap the benefits of beans. However, I am not convinced that lectins are necessarily a huge problem especially as they are disabled by heat. It could be the presence of other things such as sulfur in beans that give people issues when they have an underlying sulfur sensitivity.
Many migraineurs have trouble with sweets and carbs. This is due in part to depleted gut flora and the subsequent low B vitamin levels needed to process carbs. For those who do tolerate some sweets, the best sweeteners are small amounts of maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar. Honey is actually a prebiotic (though it also contains sulfur).
Some foods, such as carob and coconut meat, provide less concentrated sweet flavor. Feel free to peruse my recipe section for safer sweet treats, such as my “Lower Histamine Carob Almond Fudge Recipe” and others. When in doubt, eat seasonal fresh organic fruit for a sugar fix if you tolerate it. Absolutely avoid all dried fruit including dates and raisins as these are major migraine triggers.
Avoid these Obvious (but Unfortunately Ubiquitous) “Foods” – if You Don’t Already
It should go without saying that in addition to avoiding fermented and high histamine foods, it is important not to consume “food-like” substances (aka, highly processed “foods”), genetically-engineered foods, foods sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, and animal products from animals raised on genetically-engineered grains or foods sprayed heavily with herbicides and pesticides. In other words, in addition to eating low histamine, eat organic and local as much as possible if you really want to prevent migraine.
Best Food Storage – Canned, Tetrapack, or Frozen?
For those times when you are unable to eat completely fresh food, opt for frozen food over canned food. Even BPA-free cans contain harmful chemicals. Anything that is shelf stable is probably not supportive of migraine and will contain histamine, tyramine, putrescine or cadaverine. Any food that is shelf-stable could be a potential migraine trigger, whether from the way that food changed on the shelf or because of the packaging they sit in. Foods that you normally would buy in tetrapacks, such as nutmilks, broths, etc should be discarded and made from scratch.
Finally, Perform a Fridge and Cabinet Audit if You Really Want to Prevent Migraine
Many of the problematic foods will be in your cabinets in the form of condiments and canned foods. Also the doors of your fridge will contain many histamine-triggering foods as well. Refer to the list of high-histamine foods and systematically rid your kitchen of them – or designate them to a separate shelf if you live with people who eat histamine-rich foods. It’s hard to resist temptation and prevent migraine when these foods are scattered througout your kitchen.
After you’ve done the purge of histamine-rich foods, set the intention to eat organic whenever possible. While organic standards do not ensure that foods are completely free from chemicals, eating them does lower our exposure by orders of magnitude – for some foods more than others. If you cannot afford organic food (we all could if it was subsidized in the same way “conventional” food was), it is worthwhile to take the time to educate yourself about which foods are the most heavily sprayed. Spinach, strawberries, and potatoes, for example, absolutely need to be eaten organic as these are some of the most pesticide-laden crops. Click here to educate yourself about the Environmental Health Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen”, and other resources for eating clean, such as their “Clean Fifteen” list of conventional foods least sprayed. EWG even has a Healthy Living App.
One food that absolutely must be eaten organic is wheat – if it is eaten at all – as well as barley, beans, and oats – all of which are often sprayed with roundup (Glyphosate) at harvest time to evenly dry and “ripen” them before going to market.
You’ve probably noticed that it’s not just synthetic fragrances that are a horrible trigger when you have headache and migraine symptoms – some essential oils (especially the more floral and low-note oils like jasmine and patchouli) can wreak havoc on your fragile brain too. That’s because those and many other oils are hypotensive (ie, vasodilating) oils. Therefore, migraineurs may want to avoid geranium, jasmine, marjoram, rose, valerian, lemon, melissa, neroli, nutmeg, vetivert, and ylang ylang essential oils, especially when they are symptomatic.
As we know, migraine for many of us is triggered by vasodilation – which means blood vessels impinge on nearby cranial nerves in the neck leading up to the head. This blood vessel dilation is responsible for low blood pressure and a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the brain. In order to constrict our blood vessels and improve blood flow to the head, we need vasoconstrictive (ie, hypertensive) essential oils. And it turns out that there are many more oils aside from the classical headache treatment using peppermint oil that can help us, which Mother Nature has so kindly provided!
In this blog post, I want to share with you my recipe for a vasoconstrictive/hypertensive essential oil blend. The oils I’ve chosen to use in my own SimplyWell Migraine, Headache, & Brain Fog Support Blend are only a few of the vasoconstrictive essential oils out there. My friend Lauren over at AroMed essential oils noted to me that all of the oils chosen in this blend are also great for digestive issues. No surprises there, since most migraines are digestive migraines!
So Which Essential Oils are Hypertensive?
The research into the properties of most of these oils is seemingly straightforward, but we need to keep in mind that many plants are adaptogenic – meaning that a single plant can respond to us in a way that is not static, but rather catered to what our particular imbalance is. For example, some plants can raise blood pressure in someone with low blood pressure, and lower blood pressure in someone with high blood pressure. Neat, huh? Seriously folks, plants are magical, kindred helpers! This adaptogenic ability of some plants may explain some of the discrepancies when reading about an oil being both hypertensive AND hypotensive.
From my research, I’ve read that the following oils will help to constrict blood vessels and thereby raise blood pressure: grapefruit, black pepper, frankincense, cypress, orange, rosemary, peppermint, basil, thyme, balsam of peru, hyssop, geranium rose, and holy basil. (I’ll be sure to add to the list as I uncover more research).
Here’s my personal take on the recipe:
I believe that true Folk Medicine is medicine that is created by and accessible to the people – which is why I am sharing my own personal blend here for those of you who like to make your own products rather than buy them. Feel free to tweak the ratios of the oils presented here and share what you’ve learned in the comments below if you feel called.
3 parts organic grapefruit essential oil
3 parts organic black pepper essential oil
2 parts basil organic essential oil
1 part organic rosemary essential oil
1 part organic peppermint essential oil
1 part organic frankincense essential oil
2 parts or more organic olive oil (depending on how concentrated you want this)
I decided to make my blend with 20% organic olive oil. Why? Who want’s diluted essential oils? Well, because of the fiery quality of the peppermint and because some people are more sensitive to straight essential oils when applied neat to the skin. Everyone’s different, so I’ve added organic olive oil to the blend to buffer some of the intensity of the oil while applied topically, but keeping it potent enough to be very aromatic and effective simply by inhaling.
Olive oil has also been shown to reduce neuro-inflammation from pesticide exposure in rats. That might be why consuming some olive oil will help to eliminate migraine symptoms if you happen to indulge in something made with wheat flour from grain doused in roundup or other pesticides. I’ve personally noted a big difference in my reaction to wheat, and I wonder if this is due not to the gluten in wheat, but to different farming practices for wheat grown in different regions. (Wheat grown in damper regions is more likely to be sprayed with roundup to “finish” the wheat, since roundup is a dessicant and will dry kernels out evenly. Roundup is also regularly used on oats, barley, and beans for the same reason – even though these are not genetically-engineered, roundup-ready crops).
How to Use the Oil
Although I am not marketing my blend for internal use due to liability issues, the oils are organic so they are therapeutic grade – and I know that some people (such as myself) are comfortable with using organic oils internally and probably will. In my own case, I have used this oil blend successfully to mitigate some brain fog that I got after indulging in a bowl of spicy New Mexico green chile. I placed a single drop of this blend on the roof of my mouth in the area where the soft palate begins. This is also an area right below the pterygopalatine ganglion (also known as the sphenopalatine ganglion). Stimulation of this ganglion has recently been shown to diminish cluster headaches. The fibers that go through this ganglion also go through the trigeminal nucleus along with the trigeminal nerve. The vagus nerve goes through the trigeminal nucleus as well. The glossopharyngeal nerve may also be affected by essential oils placed on the palate. This nerve innervates the partotid gland, which is directly responsible for vasodilation. All of the nerves mentioned here are implicated in migraine.
Important Note: One reason that I am not recommending this oil for internal use even though many could and might benefit from it that way is because grapefruit is known to affect many pharmaceutical medications – the juice, at least, can increase the absorption of the drug into the bloodstream. I have no idea if the compounds in the oils would do that too, but if you are on meds, it is best to be cautious ingesting this oil or drinking grapefruit juice or eating grapefruit.
To use the oil aromatically rather than topically, place 4-8 drops of it onto a tissue or your hand and inhale until symptoms improve. For migraine at night, place the tissue near your pillow and sleep on your side to breathe the aroma continuously.
Don’t want to make it yourself? You can get the blend in our shop!
For those of you who aren’t really into DIY, I’ve made my blend available for sale as a service. Buying all the oils in bulk to produce your own blend can get expensive, so if you don’t want to go that route of investing upfront in all the oils, I’ve done that for you.
We’re so excited to make this essential oil blend available in our shop after receiving great feedback from those who tested it out for us. This blend of oils can help to alleviate brain fog and headaches and reduce the severity of migraines. It is a great tool to have on hand while you are working to heal your gut with the SimplyWell Migraine Relief Protocol (at which point, you shouldn’t need this oil anymore!)
How nice of Mother Nature to make all this medicine available to us!
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.simplywell.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Marya.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Marya Gendron is a biodynamic craniosacral therapist, health coach, and wellness researcher. She specializes in chronic migraine headache relief and alleviation of brain fog, indigestion, and histamine intolerance through plant-based solutions.