Bitters for Migraine Prevention and Liver Health

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.

Guido Masé

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. Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=408281

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.

Best Practices in the Kitchen to Prevent Migraine

As a general rule, eating to prevent migraine involves avoiding fermented and high histamine and foods in favor of freshly prepared, PREbiotic, and mineral-rich foods – as outlined in the SimplyWell Migraine Relief Protocol.

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.

Prebiotic Foods

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:

  • raw carrots
  • 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
  • cold lentil salads or Dosa wraps

Cautions: those with SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth will not do well on prebiotics and will need to address SIBO first.

Selenium-rich Foods

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.

Sulfur-rich Foods

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.

Methylating Foods

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).

Healthy Fats

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.

Another glaring problem is that of industrial feedlots and the enormous cost to the environment in the production of mainstream meat products and the inhumane treatment of animals raised for food.

Image by Mishka Henner

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.

Vegan Diets

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.

  • ginger
  • chamomile
  • holy basil
  • dandelion root
  • passionflower
  • lemon balm
  • black seed (nigella sativa)
  • chicory
  • peppermint
  • chaga
  • lemon balm
  • moringa
  • nettle
  • neem leaf
  • feverfew
  • butterbur

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.
  • Cheese-free pesto
  • Nut-based creamy sauces, like this creamy ranch dressing
  • Cream-based sauces like this lemon cream sauce are fine as long as they don’t contain additional cheese or wine.

Dairy

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.

Grains

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.

Sweets

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.

 

 

Wholesome Sesame Flax Crackers

Recently a good friend of mine have been supporting each other to plan meals and healthy snacks for the week ahead, then cook and prep them together while we help to watch eachother’s kids.  We feel more connected in community and we share the efficiency of childcare and cleanup.  Then for the rest of the week, we just reach in the fridge or freezer and pull out food that takes only moments to make.

I know personally that when dealing with histamine intolerance it can be hard to find healthy snacks, and inbetween meals is one of the most vulnerable times because when our blood sugar is low its easy to cave in to eating food that triggers migraine.  Many snacks are also sweet.  So our challenge was to create some healthy savory snacks.

We chose to make these crackers as a healthy base on which to spread all kinds of yummy sauces and nut cheeses.  While these crackers are not particularly glamorous on their own, they are an amazing substrate on which to put other stuff.  And they’re super healthy.  The flax seeds contain important glutamate scavengers, the sesame seeds offer calcium and magnesium, and the sunflower seeds offer copper and B6.  Perfect!

These crackers are easy to make if you have a dehydrator.  This week I’ve enjoyed pairing them up with cheese-free pesto and almond cheese.  I like to double this recipe so I have many on hand for the entire week.

Basic Raw Cracker Recipe

2 cups ground flax seeds (blend in blender)
2/3 cup whole flax seeds
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon Italian spices (fresh or dry oregano, thyme, basil, parsley, chive, etc)
2 2/3 cup water
1 1/3 cups sunflower seeds
1/2 cup sesame seeds

Mix everything together in a mixing bowl.

Line two dehydrator trays with parchment paper or teflex sheets. Spread batter evenly on two trays using the back of a spoon.

Start dehydrating the crackers. I generally dehydrate everything at 120 degrees for the first hour, then I reduce the temperature to 105 degrees for the remainder of the cooking time.

Score the crackers. Once the crackers are starting to harden up (four hours later?), use a knife to score the crackers along wherever you want the crackers to separate. (This will make them easier to break later on.)

Remove paper or teflex. Once the crackers are holding their shape together very well (8 hours in the dehydrator?), break them apart along the score lines. Remove the parchment or teflex sheets and place the crackers directly on the dehydrator tray.

Finish dehydrating. Some people like their crackers a bit moist. I like this particular recipe to be very dry. If you plan on keeping them for a few weeks or more in storage, then you must ensure that there is no moisture left.

The original recipe from Rawtarian can be found here. She also has many other cracker recipes that are a bit more jazzy.

[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.

The SimplyWell Protocol is available here, or you can book a consultation with Marya.
Learn more about Marya’s healing journey here.
[/author_info] [/author]

 

Three Incredible Cheese-free Pesto Recipes

I frequently get asked for help with recipe ideas for sauces and dressings to spruce up low-histamine foods, so I wanted to offer these pesto recipes up for your consideration. Eating low-histamine needn’t be bland! I found these amazing pesto recipes in my friend Helen Spieth’s “Guided Fall Cleanse and Nutritional Program”, which she does twice a year out of Portland, OR. I wanted to feature and highlight these different versions of pesto because pesto is a great way to get olive oil into your diet.  As you may know, olive oil is high in oleic acid and has been shown to decrease histamine load, especially in the lymphatic system.  It also increases the enzyme DAO (which breaks down histamine), so I recommend people get a lot of olive oil in their diet (cold-pressed organic virgin of course!).

Directions: combine all ingredients except oil in a food processor and pulse until well combined.  Add a little extra olive oil to get it going.  While the machine is running, slowly drizzle in the oil until the desired consistency is achieved, adding more if necessary.  Put in jars and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Cleansing Pesto

2 cups basil
1 bunch cilantro
2 cups parsley
2 cups soaked sprouted almonds skins removed
3-4 garlic cloves
3/4-1 cup olive oil
1/2 a lemon
1/2 tsp salt

Spinach Lemon Basil Pesto

1.5 cups fresh basil
1/2 cup fresh spinach
1 Tbsp grated lemon zest
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemons (2-3)
1/4 cup toasted walnuts
3-4 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste

Lemon Dill Pesto

1 bunch fresh dill
4-5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
2-3 Tbsp lemon juice
1-2 tsp lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste

[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.

The SimplyWell Protocol is available here, or you can book a consultation with Marya.
Learn more about Marya’s healing journey here.
[/author_info] [/author]

Coffee and Migraine Headaches: Benefits and Drawbacks

The majority of migraineurs I see in my coaching practice are addicted to coffee.  And why not?  After all, coffee constricts blood vessels and thereby alleviates headache symptoms. There’s a good reason why caffeine is added as a key ingredient in some NSAID migraine meds like Excedrin: caffeine lowers adenosine levels (but like all other migraine meds as well as coffee itself, Excedrin also causes rebound headache). Coffee actually has a lot of great health benefits, some of them particularly relevant to those with migraine, which is probably one reason why so many with migraine are so dependent on it.  All of us also know that coffee consumption has some drawbacks as well – causing us to either feel physically or psychologically bad for drinking coffee when we do. So are coffee and migraine headaches incompatible, or complimentary?

Quite a few of us yo-yo between these two states: going through phases of intense coffee use and then denial, back and forth.  Others have wholeheartedly and without reservation accepted their coffee obsession, without any qualms.  A few lone souls have actually managed to completely stop drinking coffee.

Coffee is just too delicious and too sacred a ritual for the majority of my clients to give up with any ease.  Usually I will recommend that people NOT try to give up coffee in the early weeks of implementing the SimplyWell Migraine Relief Protocol because I think it is often unrealistic and too challenging to expect people to start drastically new dietary and lifetsyle habits while also going through withdrawal from their favorite drink.

But when we recognize we’ve reached a place where we are truly ready to do anything to heal, the time comes to really take stock of what we consume regularly, ESPECIALLY if our use of it is chronic, addictive, or we feel we literally can’t function without it.  That’s a sign that the substance offers substantial benefits but is also probably being misused.

Like all foods with inherently dynamic properties, there is ample evidence for both the benefits and drawbacks of coffee consumption as it relates to those with migraine.

Above all, my intention here is simply to share some of the research that I’ve found on both the positives and negatives of coffee and migraine headaches and how I personally choose to interface with coffee.  My intention here is neither to demonize or glorify coffee.  It’s a food grown from a plant, and you know how I adore plants.  I believe we need to be able to integrate food into our life while being very mindful and educated about each food’s properties, and then check in with our inner body wisdom and experience to make the final call about how much to incorporate that food into our life.

Coffee and caffeine’s affects on us are complex and vast. The most thorough and balanced article on coffee’s benefits and drawbacks that I was able to find concludes that much of the research on coffee is conflicting at best, because:

. . . most research studies observe and measure the effects of a single dose of caffeine rather than the effects of chronic ingestion. Yet most coffee drinkers drink coffee daily. As a number of studies have shown, single-dose experiments don’t necessarily reflect the effects of our regular routines. . .  [But what is clear is that] caffeine impacts whether certain chemicals are available; how receptive our brains are to them; and whether we’re even making those chemicals in the first place (Source).

Coffee benefits for those with migraine

Coffee imparts certain benefits to those with migraine especially.  The question is whether these short-term benefits are worth the drawbacks. So first, what’s so fabulous about coffee, above and beyond the taste and the ritual, specifically for those with migraine? Here are the highlights that I find intriguing:

  • “Chronic caffeine intake has been shown to increase the receptors of serotonin (26-30% increase), GABA (65% increase), and acetylcholine (40-50%). This may contribute to the elevated mood and perceived increase in energy we feel after a coffee.” (Source)
    Why this is relevant: Migraineurs tend to have lower levels of most neurotransmitters, including serotonin and acetylcholine, but more receptor sites for them (presumably because their levels are so low, they need more receptors to benefit from the few that are available). Coffee inadvertently increases receptivity to serotonin, GABA, and acetylcholine BECAUSE it depletes our bodies of them (maybe not such a good thing, but the initial effects of increased receptivity feel good).
    “In the human body, when neurotransmitter receptors . . . increase their sensitivity, it generally suggests a reduction in functional capacity and activity of neurons associated with those receptors. Either the brain needs more chemicals to do the job, or the neurons involved aren’t working as hard. This might mean that a certain neurotransmitter is in short supply, or that its activity needs to increase.” (Source)
  • Caffeine inhibits blood platelet aggregation (it does so by inhibiting the release of serotonin). Why this is relevant: Migraineurs generally have thick, sticky blood.
  • Caffeine synergizes with progesterone, and increases its concentration in blood and tissues. (Source)  Why this is relevant: progesterone is a glutamate scavenger.  It is also essential for the production of cortisol, which puts the brakes on histamine.  Progesterone offsets estrogen, an excessive amount of which contributes to histamine overload and interferes with proper signaling in your thyroid gland.  Increased progesterone can improve liver and thyroid function as well.  All of these are good things for those with migraine.
  • Coffee contains magnesium and potassium. Other vitamins and minerals found in coffee include vitamin K, riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, choline, calcium, phosphorus and manganese, but these are not present in dosages high enough to warrant drinking it. Why this is relevant: Migraineurs get migraines due in part to deficiencies in essential vitamins and electrolytes.
  • Caffeic acid, found in coffee as well as other plants like celery and the herb Danshen, lowers CGRP levels.  Why this is relevant: CGRP, an inflammatory neuropeptide, has shown to exist in higher levels in those with migraine.
  • Coffee raises blood pressure.  This is perhaps the greatest benefit of coffee, and explains why it can get rid of a headache once in awhile.  Coffee raises blood pressure by way of stimulating adrenaline. Why this is relevant:  those with migraine generally have low blood pressure, so raising it and thereby getting rid of the headache is a huge relief. The blood vessel constriction and raising of blood pressure results in reduced blood flow to the brain.  Check out these before and after images of the brain after coffee consumption.
  • “Caffeine affects the activity of a naturally occurring and necessary brain substance called adenosine. Adenosine levels in the blood go up during migraine attacks. Furthermore, adenosine when injected into a vein can trigger migraine attacks. Adenosine is widely available in the brain, and can produce many effects including less brain electrical activity, temporary widening of blood vessels, and control of some aspects of sleep and movement. Adenosine acts by sticking to specific receptor molecules on the surfaces of some brain cells. Caffeine can block the action of these receptors, and, thereby, stop the effects of adenosine. We do not know how these effects of caffeine result in acute anti-migraine and pain control actions.” (Source)
  •  Caffeine shows promise as a means to reduce β-amyloid levels which cause lesions in the brains of migraineurs and those with Alzheimer’s. So far, this has been demonstrated in transgenic mice.
  • Coffee is high in niacin.  One cup of coffee contains about 40 mg of niacin. Niacin helps to lower glutamate and increase blood flow in small capillaries of the body.

Coffee drawbacks for those with migraine

  • Despite increasing receptor sites for serotonin, caffeine inhibits the release of serotonin. Why this is relevant: low serotonin is a major cause of migraine, and elevating serotonin’s levels also serves to stop the overproduction of inflammatory brain chemicals like glutamate and CGRP. While lower serotonin levels result in increased receptor sites (as discussed in the benefits section), low serotonin is not a good thing for migraineurs.  Changes in serotonin levels from coffee consumption lead to the “characteristic withdrawal symptoms (such as agitation and irritability) when coffee intake is stopped. The brain has come to expect more action in its serotonin receptors, and when its abundant supply of happy chemicals is abruptly cut off, it gets crabby. . . .” (Source) To help with migraine symptoms, we want to increase serotonin, not inhibit it.
  • “Caffeine produces its stimulant effects by inhibiting the release of GABA and thereby allowing the increase of excitatory neurotransmitters. The less GABA, the more nerve transmissions occur. Think what too much coffee feels like: that is the sensation of glutamate without enough GABA.” (Source) Why this is relevant: migraineurs need to increase their GABA.  They can do so through improved gut health and consumption of prebiotics as outlined in the SimplyWell Migraine Relief Protocol.  Inhibited GABA is not desirable for migraineurs, because it leads to excess glutamate (which in turn leads to excess CGRP, an excitatory neurotransmitter elevated in those with migraine).
  • Coffee inhibits the absorption of iron, as well as vitamin B6 and thiamine.  This is true even in the case of decaf coffee, because the nutrient depletion happens not by way of caffeine, but by way of the tannins in the coffee that bind to these minerals and vitamins.  For this reason, tannins in tea are also problematic and steal B vitamins.  Why this is relevant: Iron and B6 are both involved with the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. B6 is also needed to create Diamine Oxidase (DAO), the enzyme that breaks down histamine. Thiamine is important for the creation of acetylcholine, which is needed for proper vagal tone and to keep inflammation in the body down. Migraineurs are generally anemic and low in these vitamins already.  They need the constituents necessary to produce serotonin, DAO, dopamine, GABA and especially acetylcholine.
  • Increased alertness (or anxiety) due to caffeine may be mainly due to blockage of adenosine receptors which normally inhibit glutamate release. Why this is relevant: migraineurs have high levels of glutamate, which causes excitotoxicity in the brain.  We need our adenosine receptors to be working properly so as to prevent an excessive buildup of glutamate. Glutamate released into synapses is normally reabsorbed back into neurons by the ion-exchange transport system, or soaked-up by astrocytes which convert the glutamate into glutamine (a molecule which cannot cause excitotoxicity). However part of the pathology of migraine is imbalanced electrolyte levels which impact the effectiveness of ion-exchange.
  • Caffeine increases cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine, mimicking a state of acute stress. Why this is relevant: stress increases histamine and inflammation, which we all have enough of already.
  • Caffeine is metabolized more slowly in women, especially those on oral contraceptives or postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy, due to the fact that it is detoxified using the same enzyme used to metabolize estrogen. Why this is relevant: more women than men get migraines and many women are on hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives.
  • Chronic coffee consumption increases insulin resistance. This typically occurs with a diet high in refined sugars and starches, and many people consume their coffee with pastries or refined carbs. This horrible combination creates inflammation and neurotransmitter imbalances. Why this is relevant: Migraineurs already have imbalanced sugar metabolism and low blood sugar.  We don’t need more.
  • Caffeine decreases vitamin D receptor protein expression (Source).  Why this is relevant: Vitamin D is essential for lowering inflammation, proper digestion, deep sleep, and for serotonin production.
  • Coffee is a diuretic, ie, dehydrating. Why this is relevant: As migraineurs, our kidneys and adrenals are already stressed out from the constant inflammation in our system.  Due to their compromised status, we already excrete important vitamins and minerals like sodium, magnesium, and the B vitamins faster than most people.  And we are already dehydrated.
  • Coffee is acidifying. Why this is relevant: due to having compromised kidney function, most migraineurs also have compromised pH balance (ie, are already acidic).
  • Coffee consumption causes dependency and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. “Studies of caffeine dependency and tolerance show that daily caffeine users are actually more motivated to consume it to avoid withdrawal symptoms, than to experience the lift that its stimulant properties may provide.” (Source)
  • “Research has shown that some conditions, such as long-term antibiotic use or excessive consumption of alcohol or caffein can deplete inositol stores. Suboptimal levels of inositol can negatively impact brain function, and memory loss may be an indication of inositol deficiency.” (Source)

The healthiest coffee

The healthiest coffee to drink is cold-brewed, organic water-pressed decaffeinated coffee.  Conventional processes used to decaffeinate coffee use a lot of harmful chemicals.  Decaf coffee contains some caffeine.  And it is still acidifying for the body.  Once you have bought your water-pressed decaf coffee, you can cold brew it according to these instructions here.

Alternately, you can make an herbal “coffee” substitute using healing herbs that actually support digestion, liver health, and adrenal function.  Check out my chicory, dandelion, and chaga “coffee” recipe here.

The ultimate question is always: what does your bodywisdom say about your coffee consumption?

I’ve learned over the years that I actually don’t love coffee.  I love the flavor and ritual of coffee.  And there is something about the joy of doing something that I tell myself I shouldn’t just because it’s fun to live a little, to indulge in life’s pleasures and to counterbalance any tendency towards strict denial in life.  But ultimately I’d rather have a clear head, healthy kidneys, and a happy stomach.  So I only drink coffee about twice a month to remind myself that I don’t actually enjoy the feeling coffee gives me, even while I love the taste.

So what’s the takehome?

Is the occasional cup of coffee going to counterbalance all your efforts to get rid of your migraines?  No. Will occasional cups of coffee actually be supportive to you as someone with migraines?  Yes.  Is the consumption of daily cups of coffee, even decaf coffee, going to undermine all of your other good lifestyle habits?  If you are consuming coffee in excess out of stress, depletion, and a deep sense of fatigue – absolutely. We may want to keep in mind that caffeine is a defensive toxin designed by various plants to repel herbivores from its the berries and seeds. On the other hand, humans evolved eating small amounts of toxic substances which stimulate the liver.

What do the neurologists say about caffeine consumption if you have migraine?

It is important to emphasize that caffeine consumption is rarely the sole “cause” of frequent headaches including migraine. However, it is a modifiable risk factor, unlike many other unavoidable migraine triggers. Caffeine is often a significant and overlooked contributor to the problem of frequent and chronic daily headache. Migraine sufferers should use caffeine less frequently or remove it entirely as one component of a program of therapies for success, and it requires no prescription. (Source)

[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.

The SimplyWell Protocol is available here, or you can book a consultation with Marya.
Learn more about Marya’s healing journey here.
[/author_info] [/author]

Improve Your Sleep & Brain Health with This Electrolyte Sesame & Honey Recipe

honey for better sleep

Getting better sleep is perhaps the most crucial – and elusive – lifestyle improvement for those with migraine headache.

Without adequate sleep (and especially deep REM sleep), the body and brain can’t repair itself.  Many of us with a history of chronic migraine may not even remember what it feels like to wake up from sleep refreshed and energized.  Instead, most people with migraine will not only have poor sleep and fewer REM deep sleep cycles than healthier people, but migraines will actually start in the middle of the night.  The result is waking up with a headache – a horrible way to start the day.

Some people even wake up very early in the morning – between 1am and 4am with the headache, and never fall deeply back into sleep.  This is because both adrenaline and glutamate levels peak at this time when the brain is starved of proper nutrition and fluid to regenerate. The solution is to give it the proper nutritional support prior to going to bed in the form of sufficient electrolytes, glucose, tryptophan, and GABA-enhancing prebiotics.  All of these ingredients will help to counterbalance the excess cortisol and glutamate that normally peak when the brain is stuck in a dysfunctional circadian rhythm.  For more info on circadian rhythms, check out this article.

My question is always: are there simple culinary Folk Medicine remedies that can help to solve these seemingly intractable problems?  The reason I always ask this question first is because I’ve never found there is NOT a simple, affordable, safe Folk Medicine solution that works as good, but usually better, than pharmaceutical options – which just scramble our fragile systems even more.

As it turns out, honey has long been recognized throughout history for its energy and brain boosting effects.  Now, science is catching up on the explanations for why honeys is so supportive of brain health.

Honey has an appreciable nutritional value. Raw honey possesses anxiolytic, antinociceptive, anticonvulsant, and antidepressant effects and improves the oxidative status of the brain. Several honey supplementation studies suggest that honey polyphenols have neuroprotective and nootropic effects. Polyphenol constituents of honey quench biological reactive oxygen species that cause neurotoxicity and aging as well as the pathological deposition of misfolded proteins, such as amyloid beta. Polyphenol constituents of honey counter oxidative stress by excitotoxins . . . and neurotoxins . . . Raw honey and honey polyphenols attenuate the microglia-induced neuroinflammation that is induced by ischemia-reperfusion injury or immunogenic neurotoxins. Most importantly, honey polyphenols counter neuroinflammation in the hippocampus, a brain structure that is involved in spatial memory. Honey polyphenols also counter memory deficits and induce memory formation at the molecular level. (Source)

From the research I’ve done into sleep and migraine, I’ve created this delicious sleepy-time drink that can be consumed prior to bed and actually works to help establish solid, regenerative sleep.  You won’t find this recipe elsewhere on the web, so if you have any friends with sleep issues, please share this article!

But first, a few lifestyle choices that will act as powerful (and obvious!) leverage points for better sleep:

  1. Limit screen time past 9pm. Turn off your cell phone, get off the computer, turn off the TV.  Why not even turn off your router!  Give yourself a break.  Develop clear boundaries around technology use.
  2. Implement a simple relaxation routine into your evening prior to sleeping.  This could be as simple and variable as taking a hot bath, making the space for mediation or prayer, reading poetry, snuggling with your kids, making love to your Beloved or exchanging massage with them, doing some yoga, or burning some incense (I personally love sweetgrass, palo santo, or cedarwood shavings burnt on charcoal). Anything that relaxes you!
  3. Get outside during the day (or supplement with Vitamin D) and move your body.  Getting both sunlight and exercise improve sleep and serotonin production.  If you can’t get outside, look into vitamin D supplementation.  It’s been shown to be chronically low in people with migraine, and is essential for establishing healthy sleep patterns (and a host of other things, including digestion).  Blood values for vitamin D should be a minimum of 30ng/ml, up to 80ng/ml.  Low vitamin D levels have also been associated with low serotonin levels.
  4. Examine your relationship to caffeine and coffee, and adjust accordingly.  Some of us are so sensitive to caffeine and coffee that drinking a small amount in the early morning can be one reason we have a hard time falling asleep even long after the coffee was consumed.
  5. Take good care of your adrenals. “An effective way to manage chronically elevated cortisol levels is to ensure that the adrenal glands are supported by proper nutrition. Vitamin B6, vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), and vitamin C often become depleted with prolonged hyperactivity of adrenal gland activity and increased production of cortisol.” (Source).  Most people with migraine are depleted of B6 an B5 because their gut flora have become so dyregulated that the gut flora no longer produce the B vitamins for them, and their ability to absorb the nutrients and cofactors needed to utilize them in food is also compromised.
  6. Reduce your histamine load.  High levels of histamine interfere with sleep.  You can follow a low-histamine diet until you get your histamine overload addressed.

Restorative Sleepytime Drink Recipe

In order to increase blood volume, serotonin, melatonin, GABA, and energy for the brain, our ideal drink would include electrolytes, glucose, tryptophan, and prebiotics.  To make this recipe simple and avoid complicated and lengthy prep time prior to going to bed, you’ll want to prep the milk portion of this recipe and the honey and salt portion separately and have them prepared for easy mixing every night.

Also keep in mind that there is some evidence that tryptophan needs to be consumed prior to the honey for the honey to get the tryptophan into the brain, in which case it is valuable to drink the nutmilk portion throughout the day and the honey portion prior to bed.  However in this case, if drinking the honey with the nutmilk prior to bed is more appealing than the honey/salt alone (whether or not you have had the nutmilk earlier in the day), that is a good option.

This recipe is only for those who tolerate honey, which doesn’t spike insulin levels like other simple carbs. The honey used in this recipe must be organic. Honey can accumulate GMO pollen grains and pesticides. A lot of conventional honey is made from bees fed high fructose corn syrup, and/or is adulterated with high fructose corn syrup. Highest quality is of importance here.  Honey is an amazing food full of 18 amino acids.  It is antibacterial and soothing to the throat and stomach.  Honey raises blood sugar gradually, unlike consumption of refined sugars.

Nutmilk Portion
Sesame seeds are the seeds highest in tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin).  They also contain calcium which helps the body to utilize tryptophan.  Almonds also contain tryptophan as well as magnesium, which aids in sleep.  You can make a nutmilk out of both sesame and almonds, or either of these alone, or experiment with variations on this theme (pumpkin seeds are also high in tryptophan, and shredded coconut contains it as well).

Note: Almonds are expensive and extremely water and labor intensive – they actually have to import bees from New Zealand to pollinate monoculture almond groves.  Therefore, a simple sesame seed nutmilk is the more sustainable option.

Here’s an example of the ratio of almond to sesame seeds that I personally enjoy most:

1/2 cup hulled raw sesame seeds (the majority of the oxalate content is in the hulls, so get unhulled)
1/2 cup of almonds
4 cups of water

Blend on high power and strain through a cheesecloth, nutmilk bag or fine mesh strainer. I personally prefer a mesh strainer even though it requires me to use a clean finger rotated in a circular motion in the strainer to help the nutmilk through. After all the milk has been strained through, I empty the strainer of the larger chunks before pouring the next portion through.  The nutmilk made with a strainer rather than nutmilk bag seems richer and thicker.

Honey & Salt Portion:
1 cup of water warm enough to dissolve honey (but not boiling, to preserve vitamins and enzymes in honey)
2/3 cup of organic raw honey (10 Tablespoons)
2 Tablespoons of Himalayan Pink or Sea Salt

To Make Your Drink Each Night:
Warm or cold, drink the following mixture prior to brushing teeth and going to bed:
1/2- 1 cup of the nutmilk
1 teaspoon of the honey salt mixture
1 teaspoon of resistant potato starch (to feed friendly flora and increase GABA).

This nutmilk recipe is also delicious used throughout the day to keep blood sugar levels up, and not only for consumption prior to bed. In that case you can also just store the mixture in the fridge with all the ingredients already combined, just be sure to agitate the potato starch if you do that, as it tends to settle at the bottom.

Comments are open for this post.  Please let me know how it works for you! Happy Sleeping!

[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.

The SimplyWell Protocol is available here, or you can book a consultation with Marya.
Learn more about Marya’s healing journey here.
[/author_info] [/author]

 

Savory Indian Prebiotic Lentil Dosa Wraps

The recipe below is a wonderful Indian flatbread that is delicious, savory, and incredibly satisfying for those of us who are avoiding wheat and gluten.  It is also a perfect dish for those of us wanting to improve gut health through prebiotics – since the resistant starch in the rice and lentils of this dosa batter will feed the friendly gut bacteria, thus lowering inflammation.  Lentils are an excellent source of iron!!

I have used a variety of different types of lentils to make this batter – from French green lentils to the little red lentils.  My personal favorite is the traditional yellow dal lentils that can be found in Indian markets and organic in some health food stores.

While this flatbread becomes more flavorful and fluffy the longer the batter is fermented, for our purposes in making a low-histamine wrap we will not ferment it as long.  It is sufficient to soak the rice and lentil batter covered on the counter for 3-4 hours until the grains have softened up for a smooth batter. For those who only get migraines once in awhile, it should be fine to keep the remaining dosa batter in the fridge overnight and use the next day, since the level of fermentation at that point is nowhere near as problematic as other foods that have been fermented for longer time periods.

These dosas are great used as a wrap for traditional Indian fillings like potato curry, but also good filled with any number of other savory ingredients for which you would normally use a flour tortilla.

Prebiotic Dosa Batter Recipe

1.5 cups of lentils (you can use a mixture of channa dal, red lentils, green lentils, or urad dal – or any of these alone)
2 cups of rice (basmati, jasmine, or parboiled rice)
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional)
1/2 t salt

Blend ingredients in a powerful blender such as a Vitamix at high speed until the grains have turned into a fine flour.  Add water gradually until the batter forms a paste, similar in consistency to crepe batter – or as desired, depending on how thick you want the dosa.  I perfer a thin crisp dosa made with a thinnner batter. (Alternately, you can soak your grains until the water runs clear and then blend the soaked grains in water to make the desired consistency).

Let batter mixture sit covered on the counter for about 4 hours in the blender, then blend again for a few minutes to make the batter extra smooth.  You can also leave the batter in the fridge for up to 8 hours before blending.  If you are highly sensitive to fermented foods and get very frequent migraines, err on the side of cooking with a fresher batter.

Heat a cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat with ghee or a high-heat cooking oil like coconut or grapeseed oil.  Pour a ladleful of batter into the pan and spread it into a circular shape.  You can add herbs sprinkled into the batter at this point if you prefer. Cook on medium-high heat until the batter bubbles or is crisp brown on the other side, then flip and cook the other side for a few seconds until lightly browned.

Eat hot and enjoy!

Another version of this recipe can be found here.

[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.

The SimplyWell Protocol is available here, or you can book a consultation with Marya.
Learn more about Marya’s healing journey here.
[/author_info] [/author]

 

 

Creamy, Decadent, Low-histamine Ranch Dressing Recipe

People often write to me asking me about what they can eat in the way of healthy sauces and dresssings while on a low histamine diet, so I thought I’d share this amazing “ranch” dressing with you. A friend of mine brought this delicious and creamy dressing to my house the other night and I found it easy to adapt to make it low-histamine.  All I did was switch out the vinegar for lemon juice and the date for maple syrup!  Fresh dill is one of my favorite flavors so I’m happy to share this with you!

 

3/4 cup filtered water
1 cup raw cashews, soaked and drained
2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
1 tsp maple syrup
1 teaspoon minced garlic
 (1 clove)
1/2 teaspoon onion powder, plus more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons Herbamare or salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped green onions, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh dill, plus more to taste

Throw the water, drained cashews, lemon juice, lemon juice, maple syrup, garlic, red onion, and Herbamare into your blender, and blast on high for 30 to 60 seconds until smooth and creamy.Stir in the fresh herbs, and add more to taste.

The original recipe can be found here!

Enjoy! And stay tuned for more recipes!

Low Nitrate Green Drink Recipe that Won’t Trigger Migraine

Are you aware that some green leafy veggies are high in nitrates and therefore may contribute to migraine headaches? Hence the need for a low nitrate green drink.

While higher levels of nitric oxide (and raw, green, leafy veggies) may be a good thing for people with hypertension and high blood pressure, it’s not so great for those of us with hypotension and low blood pressure.  Nitrates contribute to vasodilation and low blood pressure, and when our blood pressure is low (as most of ours are who are prone to migraines), there is insufficient blood and therefore oxygen getting to the head (as well as impingement on nearby cranial nerves). If you’re not familiar with this problem, please read my blog post “Migraine Trigger Alert! High Levels of Nitrates in Green Leafy Veggies.”

Below is the recipe I use when I want a low nitrate green drink.

It’s absolutely delicious, and the mint acts as an antihistamine! According to Anthony William, cucumber juice helps to reduce nausea.

Cucumber juice is also one of the best natural diuretics around, aiding in the excretion of wastes through the kidneys and helping to dissolve uric acid accumulations such as kidney and bladder stones. It has the ability to help reduce edema, bloating and swelling in the body.  It also has wonderful anti-inflammatory benefits which can significantly benefit autoimmune and neurological disorders such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Migraines, Anxiety, Depression, Shingles, Eczema, Psoriasis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, & Lupus. (Source).

Run these veggies through your juicer and enjoy!

1/2 head of Romaine Lettuce
1 medium sized cucumber
1/2 large pear
1/2 cup fresh mint
1 carrot
1/2 lemon without peel
1 stick of celery
1 inch of ginger (optional)
1 carrot (optional)

I hope this information will empower you to keep eating your greens in a way that is truly nourishing to you given your unique sensitivities. I will continue to update this article as I learn more about nitrates.

[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 and health coach specializing in chronic migraine headache relief and alleviation of brain fog, indigestion, and histamine intolerance through plant-based solutions. She practices out of Portland, Oregon. In January of 2016, Marya healed herself of chronic debilitating migraine headaches caused by pharmaceutical medications she received after a c-section operation. Her life purpose is to educate people about broader health-care and self-care options through promotion of specific fabulous medicinal foods that have been forgotten or ignored. [/author_info] [/author]

Natural, Plant-based CGRP Receptor Antagonists for Migraine Relief

CGRP receptor antagonist

Drug companies are making their first pharmaceutical medications that are actually geared towards treating migraine directly.

Until recently, meds prescribed for migraine have been developed for other conditions but used by migraineurs with varying degrees of success.  Now, new injectable migraine drugs slated to come out in 2017 or 2018 aim to reduce migraine symptoms by inhibiting CGRP or acting as CGRP receptor antagonists. These new generation pharmaceuticals appear to be quite effective and for many migraineurs who have been suffering for decades without truly effective medications, their availability will come as a relief – until they get the sticker shocker.  These drugs will cost anywhere from $12,00-50,000 a year.  Like Botox injections, they may not be covered by insurance providers.  These CGRP receptor antagonists will also be made using genetic engineering, specifically through monoclonal antibodies.

Monoclonal antibodies are designed to bind to a specific substance. They can detect or purify that substance. CGRP monoclonal antibodies bind to CGRP to prevent the activation and sensitisation of trigeminal nerves. CGRP monoclonal antibodies prevent migraine by: binding with the CGRP released from trigeminal sensory nerve fiber; preventing activation of trigeminal nerves; preventing attacks in migraine susceptible individuals (Source)

The pharmaceutical family of triptans work as serotonin receptor agonists (increasing serotonin uptake); they also work via influence of CGRP levels by initially decreasing them.  The bad news is that eventually circulating CGRP levels actually increase with chronic exposure, leading to MOH (migraine overuse headache).  So triptans cause chronic migraine when stopped, which leads to dangerous dependency and overuse – since continual use may be the only way to stave off the rebound headache.

Sumatriptan, a pharmaceutical intervention used to abort migraine, has been shown to decrease CGRP levels concomitant with symptom relief. Sumatriptan is primarily classified as a 5-HT1 (serotonin) receptor agonist, but has also demonstrated inhibition of action potential signaling by inhibiting [calcium] channels in CGRP fibers. Calcium influx upon depolarization is a fundamental signaling mechanism which, among a host of other functions, stimulates the release of CGRP. (Source).

It becomes relevant to ask (as a promoter of Folk Medicine) whether Mother Nature has already provided us with natural, safe, gentle, affordable, and effective CGRP receptor antagonists in food or plant form?  As it turns out there are many plants that contain CGRP receptor antagonists or prevent levels of CGRP from escalating.  No surprises there!  The question is to what extent these plants may actually be comparably helpful and effective for migraine.  That’s a question that I pose here without a known answer, but which seems eminently practical to ask, given the unknown effects of emerging technologies such as genetically-engineered medications and the longer track record for safe use of plants such as those outlined in this article. But first . . .

What is CGRP?

CGRP stands for calcitonin gene-related peptide. CGRP is a neuropeptide – a molecule made up of 2-50 amino acids (as distinguished from a protein, which contains 50 amino acids or more).  Amino acids transport and store nutrients. One route through which food substances may impact CGRP secretion is through interruption of calcium signaling, which can trigger CGRP release. CGRP levels have been detected in the serum of migraineurs, with elevated levels in individuals with chronic migraine headache as compared to those with episodic migraine.

When CGRP is injected via IV it delivers a migraine attack in migraineurs – so researchers in phase 2 trials of the injectable medication now in development wanted to find out if inhibiting CGRP levels would have the opposite effect and prevent a migraine attack. It did – but there was also a strong placebo effect (15% of placebo had no migraines whilst 26% with the treatment experienced no migraines during this period).

It’s interesting to note that the brain itself can’t feel pain – the sensation of pain is triggered when CGRP is released, binding to receptors in the trigeminal nerve and causing vasodilation in blood vessels lining the meninges (the membrane which covers the brain).

So, which Specific Plants Naturally Reduce CGRP Levels?

The two most promising plants featured below (Sangre de Grado and grape pomace) are very high in proanthocyanidins, a powerful flavonoid that has been shown to play a role in boosting serotonin (5-HT) levels in the brain (not just the gut) of mice.  Essentially, proanthocyanidins seem to act as MAO inhibitors (meaning that they increase serotonin by way of inhibiting the enzyme that breaks them down).  When serotonin levels increase, CGRP levels decrease.

“. . . proanthocyanidin produced a marked increase of 5-HT levels at 25 and 50mg/kg in three brain regions, the frontal cortex, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Noradrenaline and dopamine levels were also increased when higher dose of proanthocyanidin (50mg/kg) administration both in the frontal cortex and hippocampus. These effects were similar to those observed for the classical antidepressant imipramine (10mg/kg, i.p.). Moreover, Our study suggested that proanthocyanidin (12.5, 25 and 50mg/kg) dose dependently inhibited monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) activity, while MAO-B inhibitory activity was also found at higher doses (25 and 50mg/kg) after 7days administration. MAO-A selective inhibitor, moclobemide (20mg/kg, i.g.) produced MAO-A inhibition of 70.5% in the mouse brain. These findings suggest that the antidepressant-like effects of proanthocyanidin may involve the central monoaminergic neurotransmitter systems.”

As it turns out, some plants work to slow activation of CGRP in the first place (grape pomace, ginger, butterbur), while others work at the level of the receptor sites (ie, as a CGRP receptor antagonist) – or both (Sangre de Grado).  It’s very likely that there are many many compounds in plants that play a role in CGRP levels.  I will add to this list as I do more research, but below are the most exciting plants I’ve found so far in this inquiry.

Sangre De Grado (aka Dragon’s Blood, Sangre de Drago, Croton lechleri)

Sangre de Drago, aka Dragon’s Blood, is a viscous, red tree sap that has been used by indigenous cultures of the Amazon River basin for thousands of years in their ethno-medicine. Most of the sap is harvested from the upper jungle of Peru and Ecuador, although the plant is common throughout the Amazon.  The plant that we are referring to here is in the Croton species (and not from species Dracaena, Daemonorops, Calamus rotang and Pterocarpus).

Sangre de Grado is a powerful antibiotic, antiviral, antiseptic, antifungal, antihemorrhagic, analgesic, and antioxidant. An article published in the Nutrition Journal in 2010 testing 3100 foods, beverages, spices and herbs worldwide found that Sange de Grado had the highest antioxidant content of the 59 herbal products tested in the database at 2897.1 mmol/100 g – much higher than the next highest herb formula Triphala at 706.25 mmol/100 g.

While Sangre de Grado has been used effectively for thousands of years in Amazonian medicine for skin wounds, gum health, gastrointestinal problems, ulcers, hemorrhage and bacterial and viral infections (especially Hep B and C), our primary interest in this article is how it affects CGRP levels and what the implications for that effect are.

It’s encouraging that blood engorgement, edema, and excessive sensitivity to pain were all reduced with administration of Sangre de Grado at a 1:10,000 dilution, in a study titled “Inhibition of Neurogenic Inflammation by the Amazonian Herbal Medicine Sangre de Grado”.  The researchers concluded that:

Sangre de Grado is a potent inhibitor of sensory afferent nerve mechanisms and supports its ethnomedical use for disorders characterized by neurogenic inflammation. . . . [Sangre de Grado’s] applications in Amazonia are not limited to cutaneous disorders. [Sangre de Grado] is also taken orally, in dilute form, for severe gastrointestinal distress. . . Despite the widespread use of [Sangre de Grado] in Amazonia as an analgesic, antidiarrheal, and wound-healing agent few in the Western world are aware of its existence and little is known about how it achieves these therapeutic benefits. We postulated that these benefits may result from a suppression of sensory afferent nerve activation and the present results support this conclusion. This hypothesis was generated from experience and the knowledge that sensory afferent nerves serve as broad-based sentinels in the skin, gut, and lung, and that the rapidity by which [Sangre de Grado] relieved pain . . .  was consistent with a neurogenic mechanism. In addition, the serendipitous personal observation by an author that [Sangre de Grado] relieved the symptoms of cutaneous capsaicin (sensations associated with an overly spicy meal) focused our attention to sensory afferent nerve mechanisms. [Sangre de Grado] appears to suppress the activation of sensory afferent nerves at a prejunctional level, in addition to inhibiting the tissue responses to CGRP, a primary neurotransmitter of sensory afferent nerves. (Source)

This report makes it clear that Sangre de Grado is good at alleviating many issues associated with migraine, including loose stool and sensitivity to chilli (which contains capsaisin, a known CGRP activator and trigger of histamine overload). Since we know that migraines have a digestive component as well as a neurological component involving blood vessel dilation, the ability of Sangre de Grado to calm digestion, constrict blood vessels, and reduce pain from nerve inflammation would make it very attractive as an experimental treatment.  The fact that it may be providing these benefits by way of inhibiting tissue responses to CGRP is even more exciting.

In laboratory tests, Dr. John Wallace of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine research team has demonstrated that Sangre de Grado blocks the activation of nerve fibers that relay pain signals to the brain, therefore functioning as a broad-acting pain killer. Wallace states that:

Not only does Sangre de Grado prevent pain sensation, it also blocks the tissue response to a chemical released by nerves that promotes inflammation. There is currently no other substance that we know of that shares these same activities. (Source)

It could also be that topical application of Sangre de Grado in the neck and base of the skull (where cranial nerves including the trigeminal nerver are located) could also help with inflammation associated with migraine. The authors point out that:

. . . [Sangre de Grado] was an effective analgesic and anti-inflammatory agent when applied topically, even when the hyperalgesic [pain] stimuli were applied by intradermal injection. This suggests that active components have sufficient lipophilicity to readily cross the skin. . . . this transcutaneous absorption appears to be rapid. (Source)

What are the compounds that make Sangre de Grado so medicinal?  As with most plants used as medicine in whole form, it’s likely a specific combination of compounds all working together, but what is clear is that proanthocyandins account for 90% of Sangre de Grado’s chemical composition. Proanthocyandins can be found in many plants including red grapes (as discussed in the next section). Proanthocyanidins inhibit enzymes that produce histamine, and have been shown to have protective effects on gastric mucosa in experiments on rats via their anti-histamine effects. Proanthocyanidins also inhibit the same class of prostaglandins (PGE2) that are associated with migraine.

Botanist Dr. James Duke points out that,

. . . in addition to the proanthocyanadins (including Pycnogenol) and taspine, there’s another active ingredient – dimethylcedrusine. While each of these alone – dimethylcedrusine, pycnogenol and taspine – was shown to effectively heal wounded rats (with squares of skin exfoliated, i.e., peeled off) by European scientists, the whole dragon’s blood was shown to speed healing four times faster. The whole was better than the sum of its parts. Synergy makes the whole herb stronger; diversity makes the rainforest stronger. (Source)

Various online sources that I’ve seen have reported relief from arthritis, IBS, psoriasis, ulcers, cancer, and many other inflammatory conditions through the use of 10-15 drops of Sangre de Grado taken internally per day.  Amazonian Shaman Don Jose Campos mentions in his book that Sangre de Grado is one of the most powerful and effective medicines for a wide variety of health problems, but that it’s important to never exceed 20 drops per day as a dose.

It’s unclear whether Sangre de Grado used over the course of weeks could eventually heal the underlying pathology of migraine headache including its digestive component, or would best be used as a temporary way to avert an oncoming migraine. Given that this medicine has been used safely by many people at doses mentioned above for other conditions, it would seem to be a simple enough experiment to try at modest doses and gradually build up to 15 drops a day until an effect or benefit is noticed. (As always, if you are on medication, check with your physician first for any contraindications).

Sangre de Grado is the most promising of the plants I’ve researched because it acts BOTH to prevent release of CGRP as well as to block CGRP receptors (ie, it is both a CGRP inhibitor and receptor antagonist). Sangre de Grado seems to be an overlooked medicinal resource from the rain forests of the Amazon that may offer useful therapeutic advantages over pharmaceutical migraine medications.

Note: It’s important to get Sangre De Grado from a source that uses sustainable harvesting methods. I get my Sangre de Grado from Whole World Botanicals. (I have no personal relationship or financial interests in this company).  Also, make sure to get the sap straight, NOT in an alcohol based tincture, since alcohol can trigger migraines.

Grape Pomace

Grape pomace is the remaining skin and seed byproduct leftover after grapes are pressed. This waste product is often thrown away or put back into the soil, or sometimes given to animals in their feed to improve their health, as it is a potent antioxidant.  Occasionally it is used for resale as a nutritional supplement.  It appears that few have explored its potential for use with migraine headache, although this company (Two Willows Farm) is selling grape seed and skins with or without pine bark (which has also been effective in alleviating migraines).

As it turns out, grape pomace also contains proanthocyandins, (the main constituent of Sangre de Grado), although it is unclear whether it is due to proanthocyandins that it affects CGRP levels. As mentioned in the section above on Sangre de Grado, proanthocyandins – specifically, those from grape seed – inhibit proinflammatory prostaglandin E associated with migraine.

Grape pomace is also high in the flavonoid quercetin, which is a known mast-cell stabilizer (and therefore reduces histamine levels).

Brain mast cells can also secrete pro-inflammatory and vasodilatory molecules such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), selectively in response to corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), a mediator of stress which is known to precipitate or exacerbate migraines. (Source)

In Italy, researchers found melatonin or melatonin-like stubstances in different grape varieties.  Low melatonin levels are associated with migraine.  As it turns out, melatonin also inhibits CGRP levels (at least in rats).  (Low melatonin is also associated with adrenal insufficiency, so presumable, improved melatonin levels would help with kidney/adrenal health as well).

Concentration-dependent dilation of the rat middle cerebral artery produced by CGRP . . . was significantly inhibited in the presence of . . . melatonin. . . In addition, CGRP-mediated increase in adenylate cyclase activity was also significantly attenuated by the receptor mediated action of melatonin. These results indicate that melatonin may interact with CGRP to regulate cerebral arterial tone. (Source).

A study at George Mason University (Effect of Grape Pomace Extract on In Vitro CGRP Secretion as a Proxy for Migraine) concluded that “Results from the study provide evidence that chemicals in grape pomace extract reduce the levels of CGRP secreted.”  In other words, they don’t work as CGRP receptor antagonists, but rather prevent the secretion of CGRP in the first place. Another set of rats orally fed grape seed extract for 14 days had lower basal expression of CGRP in the neurons and microglia of the trigeminal nucleus caudalis than control rats.

In the study “Impact of Food Components on in vitro Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide Secretion—A Potential Mechanism for Dietary Influence on Migraine”, impacts of grape pomace, ginger, and S-petasin (a compound found in butterbur) were studied on cell cultures.

Interestingly, grape pomace extracts displayed the strongest ability to inhibit CGRP secretion of any of the tested substances. This is notable not only for the scale of the inhibition, but also because the grape pomace extracts did not significantly inhibit calcium uptake upon stimulation. This suggests that inhibition of CGRP release of grape pomace extracts occurs by a mechanism different from calcium channel inhibition. . . Presumably, as red grapes, both pomace extracts would also contain anthocyanins, procyanidins, flavonols, and catechins. It is reasonable to propose these phenolic acids and polyphenolics may be responsible for the activity witnessed here.(Source)

As with many studies of plant compounds, the conclusions about the role grape pomace plays in CGRP levels were reached based off of analysis of results obtained from studies in cell cultures or animals, and not consumption by human beings.  But there have bee studies of grape pomace’s effects on other health markers in humans.  Grape pomace extracts and procyanidins have been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis and shown to slow down degradation of skin collagen and elasticity associated with ageing.

Additional research has shown that in ruminants, grape pomace consumption increase sperm motility and improved faecal microflora in lambs.  Grape pomace also was shown to enrich soil phosphorus levels in soils supplemented with grape pomace biochar.  The dietary fiber and phenols in grape phenolic extract (1mg/mL) also induced a “significant biomass increase of L. acidophilus grown in liquid culture media“, which could theoretically translate into improved gut health and microflora when consumed by humans.

Currently, I am in the process of sourcing whole, dried, organic grape pomace in the Columbia Gorge region where I live to feature in my shop. The drying process does reduce the total phenolic content as compared to consumption of fresh grape pomace, but the end product still contains significant beneficial properties. My hope is to find a source in whole dried form that can then be powdered on the spot in a spice grinder for optimal freshness by the migraineur, preventing oxidation that would occur with pre-ground grape pomace powders.

Ginger & Butterbur

As the above cited study states, both ginger and butterbur (in the form of s-petasin) demonstrated “a mild decrease in calcium uptake as well as a mild reduction in CGRP secretion”, which may have been affected by the calcium channel blocking effects of these two plants.

While there may be other properties in both ginger and butterbur that help with migraine through other mechanisms, it appears that neither have such significant effects on lowering CGRP levels on their own as compared to either Sangre de Grado or grape pomace, which do not seem to be calcium channel blockers.  Perhaps a blend of these herbs and foods would have a more positive synergistic effect?

Other Plant Compounds that Affect CGRP Levels

Plants, as a rule, possess dynamic properties – with multiple molecules working together in synergistic (and unpredictable ways).  I wanted to share some notes I’ve taken about different plant compounds and how those compounds may affect CGRP, without concluding that all plants containing these compounds will necessarily help reduce migraines (as indicated by the fact that theobroma cacao lowers CGRP levels but is also a known migraine trigger.  It could be that the tyramine levels in cacao due to fermentation have a stronger physiological effect than the CGRP-inhibitory effect of the theobroma).  Notice that many compounds that inhibit CGRP also happen to reduce glutamate levels and are vasoconstrictive. CGRP and glutamate levels are both affected by calcium channel activation.

Compounds that Lower CGRP (Potentially Helpful in Alleviating Migraine)

  • Piperine – found in black pepper; also vasoconstrictive.
  • L-malate (ie, malic acid) – found in apples and many other tart fruits. It is a precursor to oxaloacetate, which reduces glutamate levels as well.
  • Ferulic acid – found in flax seeds, rice bran, and the Chinese herb Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza). Also reduces glutamate leves. Flax seeds also contain prebiotic gums.
  • Caffeic acid – in coffee, danshen and other plants such as celery.
  • Rosmarinic acid, an ester of caffeic acid – found in the herb Danshen and rosemary essential oil; also known to be a vasoconstrictor.
  • Interestingly, theobroma cacao from chocolate (a known migraine trigger) was also shown to decrease CGRP levels (in rats). Perhaps the tyramines overshadow the benefits of reduced cgrp!

Compounds that Raise CGRP (best avoided)

  • Capsaisin – present in chilli.
  • Cannabidiol – in cannabis; also a vasodilator. “the cannabidiol-evoked CGRP release depended on extracellular calcium.”

Stay Tuned for More Info . . .

Stay tuned for future blog posts in which we will explore the role that GABA, Serotonin, gut bacteria, melatonin, and electrolytes play in CGRP levels.

Please note that this information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat migraines, or act as a replacement for medical care from a medical professional.

[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.

The SimplyWell Protocol is available here, or you can book a consultation with Marya.
Learn more about Marya’s healing journey here.
[/author_info] [/author]