Why You Need to Know About Niacin B3 for Migraine

The hunt for B vitamins that don’t trigger migraine

Earlier last year, in my ongoing hunt for a Folk Medicine solution to easily, safely, and affordably abort migraine headaches, I got distracted by a long and circuitous diversion when I found myself studying B vitamins.  I wanted to understand why some people with migraine who clearly need B vitamins so much can’t tolerate them. I had personally been triggered by methylated B vitamins myself and had heard stories from clients reacting poorly to them.

In the process of discovering which B vitamins may be causing the most havoc for those with migraine, I also discovered that niacin worked beautifully to abort migraine.  But the irony is that it is niacin – aka nicotinic acid or B3 – that I was initially the most skeptical of.  I wrote about my concerns that niacin might be triggering migraine in this blog post:  (“Does Niacin B3 Contribute to Migraine and Histamine Intolerance?”). Please read that blog post for a primer on Niacin.

I was suspicious of niacin as a potential trigger because niacin is a “methyl sponge” – ie, it mops up methyl.  It is generally known that high histamine is associated with undermethylation.  I had tied my own migraines to histamine intolerance and helped many with migraine to eliminate their migraine symptoms through a low histamine diet while rebuilding gut health using my SimplyWell Protocol, with excellent results.

If it is true that those with high histamine are undermethylated already, wouldn’t lowering their methylation with niacin deepen the histamine load and add to migraines? This was my concern. Surely the few anecdotal reports of people I had found online who had had success with niacin to abort migraine were not really suffering from true migraine then – or were they?

While niacin does mop up methyl, it turns out it is actually required for the breakdown of histamine:

“Alcohol Dehydrogenase (ADH) is the final step in histamine breakdown. This is the same enzyme that breaks down alcoholic beverages. This explains why some individuals flush when they drink. It is also a good reason to perhaps skip cocktails, beer, and wine during hay fever season. This enzyme actually has four different cofactors including zinc, vitamin C, thiamine (B1) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD—a niacin-based flavoprotein).” (Source)

Folic acid and folate trigger migraine because they contribute to glutamate load – and niacin reduces folate.

It appears there is more to migraine than histamine or methylation. I’m beginning to wonder if in fact the low histamine diet and gut healing in the SimplyWell Protocol is successful because it also raises niacin (by way of feeding gut bacteria that produce it), and lowers glutamate.  Maybe glutamate toxicity is playing an even bigger role in migraine outcomes than histamine or methylation status.  Not so incidentally, it seems that folic acid and folate supplementation is the biggest culprit in triggering migraine (even methylated folate) – and niacin reduces folate.

“Folates are comprised of numerous glutamic acids conjugates. The higher the dose of folates, the greater the propensity towards an increase in the pool of free glutamate. Hence, the “excitatory” and neurological types of adverse effects of folate in certain individuals.” (Source)

According to Dr. Albert Mensah, those who are undermethylated have low brain serotonin and also

“. . . have a genetic tendency to be very depressed in calcium, magnesium, methionine, and Vitamin B-6 and may have excessive levels of folic acid in nuclei of brain cells.” (Source)

I make a point to eat a lot of vegetables to get naturally-occuring folate since I choose not to supplement with synthetic  folic acid or folate, for reasons stated above. One concern I had with taking niacin (eventhough I take mine in my own hand-blended B complex with other Bs but without folic acid or folate) was that it might deplete folate, since niacin-derived NAD is a necessary co-factor for the enzymes dihydrofolate reductase in the folate/tetrahydrobiopterin cycles and S-adenosylhomocysteine hydrolase in the methionine cycle (Source).

A recent blood test showed no folate deficiency even while supplementing with 80mg of niacin a day (and sometimes more when I aborted a headache) for three months. It seems my concerns about taking niacin depleting folate and folic acid may be unfounded – perhaps because undermethylators are high in folic acid.

Luckily, the B-complex B-Minus by Seeking Health contains no folic acid or folate (or methyl b12).  It also contains some niacin B3, whereas many other B blends contain niacinamide or non-flushing B3, which does not have the same benefits as niacin as nicotinic acid does.

Why niacin sufficiency is so important for those with migraine

Because migraine is a chronic systemic inflammatory condition affecting the whole body, there are many angles from which to view migraine causality.  One perspective worth recognizing is that migraine is a metabolic disease caused by inefficiencies in enzymatic processes.  Because vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are all needed for enzymes to work, it makes sense to ask to what extent nutritional deficiency is playing a role in migraine.  This is especially important in the case of niacin, which is used in more biochemical reactions than any other vitamin-derived cofactor once it is converted to the enzyme NAD.

 “. .Your body uses NAD (with a hydrogen it is NADH) in over 450 biochemical reactions, most of which are involved in anabolic and catabolic reactions. Most people tend to associate NAD with glycolosis (sugar breakdown) and ATP (energy production). However, NAD is involved in many other reactions as a cofactor, including either the synthesis (anabolism) or the breakdown (catabolism) of just about every molecule our cells make: steroids, prostaglandins, and enzymes. NAD is involved in cell signalling and assists in ongoing repair of your DNA.” (Source: Niacin, the Real Story)

Technically, niacin is the third B vitamin discovered (although because it can be made from tryptophan in the body it actually should be classed as an amino acid). Niacin deficiencies in the general population but also in those with migraine may be more widespread than realized because testing for niacin deficiency is not a common practice.

Niacin B3 is vitally important, especially for those with migraine because it:

  • raises blood sugar (good for migraineurs with low blood sugar)
  • breaks down glutamates (often the cause of that migraine that starts at 4am)
  • it helps synthesizes sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone (low estrogen and progesterone lead to migraine)
  • helps heal leaky gut
  • helps metabolize excess ammonia (cause of leaky gut and also brain inflammation)
  • increases serotonin
  • removes heavy metals
  • cleans out the lymphatic system
  • helps to break down beta-amyloid lesions in the brain (common in migraineurs)
  • thins the blood – ie, has an “anti-sludging effect” (migraineurs have sticky blood)
  • mops up adrenaline, thus reducing anxiety
  • improves sleep

Causes of niacin deficiency and pellagra

Compromised gut flora due to the use of antibiotics, consumption of high-carb diets, estrogen dominance, and stress all contribute to niacin deficiency. A diet high in the amino acid leucine may also contribute because it interferes with the conversion of tryptophan to niacin. Leucine is high in whey and soy protein concentrates and is also known as the food additive  E641 as a flavor enhancer (Source). Niacin deficiency can also be caused by Hartnup’s disease, where there is a block in the tryptophan-nicotinic acid pathway. Consumption of polyunsaturated fats DHA, EPA, and linoleic acid also play a role because they activate the conversion of tryptophan to quinolinic acid, and inhibit the formation of niacin (Source).

Problems caused by niacin deficiency can range from mild to fatal, as in the case of severe pellagra. Mild niacin deficiency is characterized by mental fatigue, irritability, weakness, indigestion, and skin irritations, while mild to advanced pellagra involves headaches, insomnia, loss of strength, light sensitivity, nausea, indigestion, and hypersensitivity to smells (Source). In acute niacin deficiency, an encephalopathy is found which closely resembles Wernicke’s syndrome – a thiamine B1 deficiency disease usually found in alcoholics and discovered post-mortem.

Prior to the discovery that pellagra was caused by niacin deficiency (and subsequent fortification of flour with niacin in 1940), it was thought to be an infectious disease.  Three million pellagra cases and 100,000 deaths resulted from niacin deficiency in the US in the first half of the 20th century – with 30,000 of those deaths occurring in 1930 following the Great Depression (Source: “Niacin, the Real Story”).

Given that migraine headache is experienced by a disproportionate amount of women compared to men, it’s really interesting to make note of the fact that:

“Pellagra occurs about twice as often in women as in men, and this is because estrogen activates an enzyme that alters metabolism of tryptophan, blocking the formation of niacin . . . Progesterone inhibits the activity of that enzyme. Progesterone also . . . decreases the excitatory carcinogens and increases the formation of niacin.” (Source)

Niacin is a known – but obscured – migraine solution

From my research it appears that the benefits of niacin for migraine are known but not widely shared, realized, or emphasized.  A few websites mention niacin as being helpful along with a long slew of other substances, most notably riboflavin (B2), feverfew, butterbur, ginger, magnesium, etc etc.  With niacin mentioned in passing along with this long list of other contenders, it is easily overlooked and does not stand out as a legitimate solution. The majority of the websites I saw didn’t mention that niacin could abort a migraine outright, or how to do it, they just said it was supportive of migraine.

The two sites I did find that said migraine could be aborted with niacin didn’t mention that it could also be used to prevent migraine, or why it worked.  The authors of the book “Niacin, the Real Story” (by Hoffer, Saul, Foster) only had a very small section on the topic sharing a single report from the Scottsdale Mayo Clinic in which a patient had responded to sustained-release niacin.  They also mention that a 2005 review of nine articles investigating niacin therapy for migraine stated:

“Intravenous and oral niacin has been employed in the treatment of acute and chronic migraine and tension-type headaches, but its use has not become part of contemporary medicine, nor have there been randomized controlled trials further assessing this novel treatment . . . Although niacin’s mechanisms of action have not been substantiated from controlled clinical trials, this agent may have beneficial effects upon migraine and tension-type headaches.” (Source)

Clearly, there is benefit in the use of niacin for migraine, but for some reason these benefits have become obscured, forgotten, ignored, buried, unrealized, or just not very rigorously studied. I want to bring niacin back into the limelight.

Going off the Protocol to experiment with niacin

A nagging voice of intuition kept asking me why there would be anecdotal reports and some support from studies that niacin helped migraine if it actually exacerbated it. I’m glad I got over my initial caution with niacin so I could discover its benefits.

I’ve learned I have to stay on my SimplyWell Protocol to be completely free from migraines. But I still go off of the Protocol form time to time to test the extent to which the underlying root causes of my migraine have been healed (or not), and to experiment with new approaches to migraine.  After three weeks off the Protocol, the telltale migraines do come back. Last time I went off the Protocol, I used this as an opportunity to try out niacin. The niacin worked beautifully (usually at a dose of 500mg) to dissolve both headaches and a few migraines.  I then went back on the Protocol.  Each time I get off of it, I’m reminded that preventing migraine with the Protocol is much easier and more desirable than having to rely on a pill to abort migraine.

Now that I’m back on my beloved SimplyWell Protocol, and am migraine free again, I still continue to utilize niacin in my B complex that I make myself.  I love niacin, because it clearly stabilizes my mood, improves my sleep quality, has completely eliminated any brain fog I used to wake up with in the morning (which usually went away after an hour), and has given me more resilience in being able to eat very high histamine foods without even a glimmer of brain fog.  I take it daily, and truly appreciate it’s value for improving my quality of life. I try not to share anything with my migraine clients that I have not personally tried or use regularly myself.

Feedback from clients on niacin

I’ve received feedback from a number of clients who have used niacin for migraine, with mixed results. As with all things, diversity in response, approach, and interest is the name of the game.  That includes people who just don’t like the idea of taking a synthetic supplement, even while they rely on synthetic pharmaceuticals to abort migraine.

A few of my clients have had great success aborting migraine with niacin – these are the people who don’t mind the flush. One client even said that the flush of niacin felt almost identical to the flush she gets from her Imitrex shots. Some people, myself included, enjoy the flush.

Another client was encouraged by the research I shared but chose to do a lot more research herself and after doing so, decided to take time-release niacin before bed.  She no longer wakes up with migraine in the morning like she used to, and she has replaced her nightly triptans with niacin. Personally, I am not in favor of time-release niacin due to its potential challenges it poses for the liver to process it, but my client has done her research and made her own conclusions.

Others can’t tolerate the flush and some even find the experience downright awful (itching, burning, prickling, shivers, nausea).  From the people I’ve worked with taking niacin, I’ve observed that it is generally those who have had migraine for a longer time period, who eat a normal diet including high histamine foods, and who also take medications for migraine that have the most unpleasant reactions.  For these people niacin may not be a viable option for aborting migraine, though they may benefit from getting smaller doses in a B complex taken with food to avoid such reactions.  On the other hand I also had a client who had migraines for a long period and took medications while eating high-histamine food who felt fine with the flush and used niacin to get off her meds.

Some people don’t even get a flush even on very high doses of niacin, and also aren’t able to abort a migraine with niacin without a flush – while other people can abort a migraine with niacin even in the absence of a flush. So responses are all over the board.

Flushing from niacin usually indicates a high level of histamine (since niacin empties the mast cells of histamine), while a lack of flushing from niacin usually indicates a very high threshold for niacin and potentially a very deep deficiency and/or an excess stress manifested as adrenaline in the body.

“When an individual is stressed, their requirements for vitamin B3 will need to increase, due to increased amounts of adrenalin (epinephrine) being released from the adrenal medulla, creating more oxidized adrenalin. To convert the increased oxidized adrenalin back to original adrenalin, the reducing ability of NAD is necessary, and thus the need for more vitamin B3. Perhaps the lack of or reduced flushing among these patients was due to an increased metabolic need for vitamin B3 (i.e., a more rapid conversion of vitamin B3 to NAD within the body), necessitated by heightened periods of stress.” (Source)

Most people can abort a migraine with 250mg of niacin on an empty stomach or with only a small amount of food if the migraine is caught early on.  If it is not taken until the migraine is advanced, more may be needed for it to work.  Generally 250-500mg is sufficient to abort a migraine for most people, but individual tolerances for niacin vary widely.

Follow the money

In 2017, the global market for drugs used to treat migraine is $3 billion and rapidly growing. The money spent to pay expert practitioners to (often unsuccessfully) treat migraine is surely even more. Niacin costs about .06 cents per capsule.  Triptans cost about $28 per pill. The new CGRP receptor antagonist drugs, which use recombinant DNA, will probably cost tens of thousands of dollars per shot, and may not be covered by insurance.  The fact that niacin is available in most every drug store or grocery store and is not widely known about for use with migraine is amazing when you consider how incredibly important, supportive, and effective it is at addressing some of the root causes of migraine.

I find it inexcusable that so many people are suffering so much with migraine headache – fully 1/3 of them caused by medications themselves – even while such simple, effective, and affordable solutions such as niacin exist. The good news is that niacin is only one of many natural approaches to aborting migraine.

Want to learn more about niacin for migraine?

This blog post is an excerpt from a new e-book I am writing that includes more information on niacin, including:
  • Why not just get niacin from food?
  • Niacin, Tryptophan, and Serotonin
  • Gut flora imbalances and their effects on niacin
  • Niacin and hormones
  • How niacin works with riboflavin
  • Is niacin a replacement for the SimplyWell Protocol?
  • How to abort a migraine with niacin
  • How to prevent migraine with niacin
  • Cautions, contraindications, and safety concerns with niacin
The good news is that for those who have sensitive stomachs or cannot tolerate the niacin flush, I’ve discovered another even gentler and more effective way to abort migraine using an essential amino acid that is virtually unknown as a solution for migraine.
I have searched for over a year to find alternatives to NSAID’s or pharmaceuticals that are effective, and I’m so excited to have found them. The ability to get rid of headaches and migraines using natural supplements can be a huge leverage point during the first few months on the SimplWell Protocol because these supplements are supportive and nutritional rather than suppressive and toxic.
Stay tuned – this e-book will be available in the coming months.

7 Common Blind Spots in the Management of Migraines

Over the course of my time coaching people to alleviate migraines, it’s become clear over and over again that some doctors and naturopaths may inadvertently be causing MORE headaches and migraines through the recommendations they make – especially when it comes to management of migraines caused by digestive problems and subsequent histamine intolerance.

I’m actually very grateful that a naturopath I was seeing early on for my migraines (prior to developing the SimplyWell Protocol) prescribed an herbal remedy that contained cinnamon as its first ingredient.  I was experiencing peripheral neuropathy along with the migraines and, rightly so, she thought the increased circulation boost offered by the cinnamon would help alleviate that (actually, it was my lymph that was congested).  When the remedy made me even sicker, I took a close look at the ingredient list and through doing some online research, realized that cinnamon is a major trigger for those with histamine intolerance.  This was the clue that I needed which sent me down the path of investigating migraine through the lense of histamine intolerance, which probably wouldn’t have happened had she not suggested I take cinnamon.

This was a good lesson in realizing that all reactions to medications whether positive or negative are telling us something: even bad reactions may be helpful if we can use them as a clue to better understand what’s going on in our bodies.  Conversely, sometimes the substances that we’re taking don’t manifest as obvious problematic symptoms that we can link to them, so we may inadvertently be using supplements or eating foods that are actually causing harm without knowing it. And then there’s the problem which is all too common of taking so many supplements and medications that it is nearly impossible to know which is causing what effects, for better or worse.

Below is a rundown of the most common ways to manage migraine, usually at the advice of a holistic or conventional professional health care provider, which may be exacerbating rather than mitigating your migraines.  It helps to be mindful about these blind spots so that you can interface with your health care professional in a more educated way.  Be forewarned that many health care practitioners may not be aware of what histamine intolerance is, since it is not a formal diagnosis.  I have heard of many cases of doctors undermining or questioning the existence of histamine intolerance.  Other practitioners may be aware of histamine overload but don’t link it to migraine.  Luckily, more and more more practitioners are learning about histamine intolerance and its causes.

Blind Spot #1: Fermented Foods & Probiotics

As people wake up to the importance of good gut health and its role in basically everything, many are getting on board the fermented food bandwagon. After all, it makes sense that if your gut flora have been depleted by antibiotics and meds (which most of ours have), that replenishing them with more good flora by way of fermented foods and probiotic supplements would be beneficial.  But this is not always the case.

One of my pet peeves is to see how widespread the fervent belief in the value of fermented foods is.  Fermented foods are the holy grail of gut health right now – except that they actually make a lot of us sick. As I have explained here in this blog post on histamine intolerance, fermented foods (yes, even the beloved home-made sauerkraut, kimchi, or kombucha) become problematic for those of us who are low in the enzyme, DAO (diamine oxidase), which helps to break down histamine.  Most fermented foods as well as probiotic supplements contain a mixture of histamine-producing, histamine-neutral, and histamine-degrading bacteria. (If you do feel you need a PRObiotic, choose only those strains that are histamine-degrading, like l. plantarum, l. rhamnosus, or b. infantis).

As a result of this DAO enzyme deficiency, those with the deficiency who eat fermented foods will not be able to break the food down properly, so by the time it reaches the colon, it will start to ferment even more.  Opportunistic bacteria in the colon, many of them also histamine-producing, will also try to lend a hand in the breakdown of the food.  By this point, your serum levels of histamine are probably quite high, and symptoms of bloating, brain fog, and migraine may appear.

Let’s be clear that I am not demonizing fermented food.  Fermented foods are beneficial if you can break down histamine.  The problem is not histamine-rich foods, but the nutritional and mineral deficiencies that make it impossible for the body to produce enough enzymes.  B vitamins, in particular, are building blocks for enzymes, and many B vitamins are normally provided by our gut flora.  However, if our gut flora are depleted, we won’t have these building blocks in place.

Luckily, we have extra help from PREbiotics, which also increase healthy gut flora but are much more supportive for those with migraine. Prebiotics and probiotics are normally complimentary, so once we have stabilized with the SimplyWell Migraine Relief Protocol, we’ll find we can gradually reintroduce the wonderful and otherwise beneficial fermented foods like sauerkraut that used to give us problems.

Blind Spot #2: Bone Broth & Collagen

Bone broth and collagen are usually recommended as a means to improve the integrity of the gut lining.  Full of minerals, healthy fats, and most importantly chock full of important amino acids, bone broth and collagen at first glance appear to be really good for building gut health.  And they are – IF you have the nutritional building blocks for the enzymes needed to properly convert glutamic acid (one of the most abundant amino acids in bone broth). 

The problem is similar to that of histamine overload exacerbated by low diamine oxidase enzyme – it means that an otherwise beneficial substance becomes toxic when it is unable to be transformed or broken down due to enzyme deficiencies.  The problem is also a cyclic, chicken-and-egg problem: how do you build gut health and enzyme function if your gut health is so poor that you can’t properly absorb or assimilate the nutrients needed to make the enzymes needed for good gut health?  Because healthy gut flora normally produce many of the B vitamins that are essential for enzymatic function, consistent B vitamin and mineral supplementation is usually crucial here.

But until then, bone broth and collagen may pose some problems for those with migraine, because the glutamine and glutamic acid in it has a molecular structure very similar to monosodium glutamate (MSG) – a known migraine trigger. Despite the fact that glutamic acid is used by the body for the creation of glutathione (which is generally low in those with migraine), some caution is still in order here.  Migraineurs also have high levels of glutamate in certain parts of the brain, which leads to excitotoxicity.  Glutamine and glutamic acid are converted into glutamate.  Therefore migraineurs are best supported by avoiding substances that contribute to excessive glutamate load.

Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, coauthor of the highly acclaimed book Nourishing Broth: An Old Fashioned Remedy for the Modern World, points out that:

The glutamine content of broth increases with cooking time as do the levels of all other amino acids. Thus long-cooked bone broth is more nutrient rich and preferable for all who can tolerate it. . Appropriate supplementation and detoxification may also help sensitive people handle glutamine. People with severe MSG sensitivity are often low in vitamin B6 or unable to convert it to the active form of pyridoxal-5-phosphate (p5p). Becoming replete in B6 and the other B vitamins may help. Glutamine sensitivity can also come from lead toxicity, widespread today due to lead contamination of our food and environment.

A separate issue in consuming bone broth or collagen if you have migraines is that of freshness and quality.  Bone broth must be made and consumed fresh because – just like any other food – bacteria start to break down broth the longer it has been around – making packaged or leftover bone broth much more of a trigger than fresh homemade bone broth.

And, as is true of all animal products we eat, any bone broth consumed must be 100% organic.  Dr. Stephanie Seneff explains how the herbicide roundup (generic name glyphosate) can contaminate many products made with gelatin:

Once you think of glyphosate insinuating itself into collagen, it’s an easy step to imagine that glyphosate would be a major contaminant in gelatin, a very common food additive and the main constituent of gelatin-based deserts. Gelatin is routinely added to marshmallows, pudding, gummy bears, yogurts, margarine, frosting, cream cheese, sour cream, non-dairy creamers and fat-reduced foods. Gelatin is typically derived from the bones joints and skin of pigs and cows. These animals are fed high doses of glyphosate in their GMO Roundup Ready corn and soy feed. The glyphosate that makes its way into their joints ends up in your gelatin dessert.

Gelatin is also the main constituent of gel caps, which have become a standard way of packaging both pharmaceutical drugs and nutritional supplements such as fish oil. I would predict that any nutritional supplement housed in a gel capsule is going to cause you much more harm than good, because whatever benefit the contents provides is more than offset by the damaging effects of the glyphosate. This also means, of course, that bone broth, a highly nutritious food, must be made from grass-fed beef rather than from the large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). One solution is to be sure that your supplements use vegan gel caps, which are made from cellulose, a plant-derived polysaccharide that would probably be much less at risk of glyphosate contamination. (Source)

Bummer.  Major bummer. And if that weren’t enough of a bummer, glyphosate also interferes with how the body is able to utilize glyceine, one of the other amino acids that bone broth supplies.

Takehome: if you only get migraines once in awhile, bone broth and collagen may be supportive of your healing (only if it is 100% organic due to the glyphosate contamination issue).  But if you have chronic migraines and very high histamine, and are easily triggered by food, it may be best to opt out of consuming a lot of bone broth, or only eating occasional bone broth you make yourself that has been made with short cooking times. Be absolutely sure not to buy packaged broths, and opt for supplements made with vegetable, rather than gelatin, caps.

Blind Spot #3: Methylated B vitamins

These days taking methylated forms of B12 and folate is all the rage. As more and more people do genetic testing and find they have the MTHFR gene mutation, they and their doctors may believe they need methylated B vitamins.

I was always suspicious of methyl B12 as a stand-alone supplement, because I’ve personally experienced migraines triggered by B12.  Multiple clients of mine have repeatedly mentioned that they also get migraines from methylcobalamin. I have come across some evidence that B12 can be toxic in the presence of glutathione depletion.  Glutathione is our most powerful and abundant antioxidant in the body, and migraineurs are generally low in it. (As it turns out, triptans – the most popular drug for the treatment of migraine – also cause oxidative stress in the liver and thereby deplete glutathione, at least in rats).

Not only folic acid, but also methylated forms of folate can be problematic also because they may increase glutamate and lower serotonin levels. Folic acid and folate supplementation also lower riboflavin levels – not good for those with migraine. Consider this:

The potential limitations of administering a restricted range of B vitamins are illustrated by evidence showing that approximately a third of supplementation studies to date have involved the administration of folic acid alone. . . . [F]olate and vitamin B12 are intimately interlinked within the folate/methionine cycles, and increasing the level of folate can mask the accrual of permanent neurological damage associated with a specific vitamin B12 deficiency. A striking illustration of this was provided by an epidemiological study by Morris et al. who reported that high folate status was associated with protected cognitive function, but only in those with normal vitamin B12 status, with this relationship reversed in participants with low vitamin B12 status. For this group, high folate status exacerbated the detrimental effect of vitamin B12 deficiency, increasing the risk of cognitive impairment and anaemia by a factor of five, compared to those with normal vitamin status. A further study also demonstrated that low vitamin B12 status was associated with a significantly increased decline in cognitive performance over the subsequent eight years, with this effect exacerbated in those having high levels of folate, or those taking folic acid supplements. Alongside these observations it is interesting to note that in one study supplementation with folic acid also significantly increased the proportion of participants with riboflavin deficiency. (Source)

Why not just try to get all of your b vitamins through food?  Because b vitamins from food have always been a supplemental source to begin with – adding to the b vitamins that our gut flora would normally produce for us.  That is precisely the problem: evolutionarily, we have never relied on food alone for our b vitamins.

While supplementation with methylfolate may initially give some positive results, it can also quickly backfire, especially for those with migraine.  Luckily, there are alternative ways to methylate – through the use of choline or thrimethylglycine for example.

Methylation is an extremely complex topic (one that I certainly don’t have a full grasp on) – and around which there is much confusion and many diverse perspectives even among experts. Below are a few perspectives worth considering from some of the experts on the benefit of being cautious when it comes to supplementing with methylfolate:

Chris Masterjohn:

This is not – NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT all about getting methylfolate. . . . You can’t restore the normal flux of methylfolate no matter how much you eat. The RDA for folate is 400 mcg depending on your sex and life stage, and that assumes you’re going to absorb 200mcg of folate. Each molecule of folate you consume is recycled 18,00 times per day. If you consume a molecule of methylfolate the methyl group on that folate is available once, and then it has to be recycled 17,999 times. Where does that recycling come from? The carbons come from serine or glycine, but the part that MTHFR is catalyzing, the part that’s defective in someone with an MTHFR mutation, they’re coming from glucose. . . One glucose molecule, if you’re burning it for energy, supplies enough NADPH to recycle one molecule of folate one time. You’re going to need 3,00 to 6,000 molecules of glucose for every molecule of folate to get your daily methyl flux out of it. . . . But if you wanted to make up for that process by adding individual methyl groups . . . . from methylfolate that you got out of a capsule, in order to make up for that process you would have to consume an incomprehensible amount of folate: 4.5 grams of folate. You would have to consume 18,000 times the RDA of folate. I have no idea what happens to folate when you consume 18,000 times the RDA for it, I just don’t know. My guess is a lot of it winds up in your poop. But I do know that I would never advise anyone to eat 4.5 grams of folate. And that if anyone thinks that by eating super high doses of folate like several milligrams that they’re getting anywhere near inching their way towards making up for the normal flux of methyl groups through that pathway, that’s delusional. (Source).

Dr. Ben Lynch

If you know or suspect that you may be deficient in various minerals or vitamins, then it is important that you replenish many of them prior to supporting with methylfolate or methylcobalamin. Why? Because if you support with these two powerful methyl donor nutrients, it can cause a ‘clog’ in your biochemistry. This ‘clog’ may occur in how your brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) get formed and/or eliminated. Obviously, this can cause some significant issues. (Source)
Dr. Carolyn Ledowsky

A lot of information available from a variety of sources says that for those patients who have MTHFR mutations (especially the C677T MTHFR mutation) methylfolate is critical to take. And yes, for some patients, gentle supplementation via methylfolate may be all that is needed if they are otherwise healthy and have few health conditions they need to address. However for anyone dealing with allergies, inflammation, poor detoxification, hormonal imbalances or mood/ neurotransmitter imbalances – methyfolate could amplify these issues if they have not been addressed prior to engaging the methylation cycle once more. (Source)

Dr. Albert Mensah

Much discussion surrounding methylated folate comes from genetic testing and the MTHFR paradigm, which is neither an accurate assessment nor an appropriate guide for true methylation disorders. MTHFR testing is very significant in the realm of autism and in multiple sclerosis, however, in the area of mental health it is strikingly inconsistent and dubious at best.  The proof is in the pudding. People who are truly undermethylated do not do well on methylated folate after two to three months. In fact, on quite the contrary, many people report worsening of symptoms. (Source)

Marlene Merritt, LAc, DOM, MS Nutrition

Methyl groups have effects on many, many different areas of the body, INCLUDING TURNING ON AND TURNING OFF GENES and this includes tumor suppressor genes. To prevent abnormal methylation, there are seven checkpoints to prevent hypermethylation, since hypermethylation often causes cancer. So this is another reason that you not want to take large amounts folate (or any other methyl donor (ex: methyl-B12, SAMe), because you also do not want too much methylation to occur.

So then why in the world would you want to take a nutraceutical like methylfolate/5-MTHF? . . .

[L]ong term supplementation of methylfolate causes a list of side effects that rival a pharmaceutical drug: anxiety, irritability, insomnia (from changes in neurotransmitters), sore muscles and achy joints (from reduction in glutathione production), headaches and migraines (from increased nitric oxide production), nausea, palpitations, rashes and suicide, in addition to exacerbating B6 and B12 deficiencies, along with magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and other mineral deficiencies. . . .

In preparing this article, I interviewed five biochemistry and nutrition PhD’s, all of whom categorically said that they would not take methyl folate as a supplement and considered the amounts typically prescribed as unsafe. (Source)

Blind Spot #4: Excessive Vitamin D Supplementation

Another pet peeve of mine: excessive vitamin D supplementation.  Don’t get me wrong – it appears that vitamin D3 supplementation is pretty valuable (though this may need to be reconsidered – see below).  Most people, whether they have migraine or not, are low in vitamin D.  But taking huge amounts of vitamin D is also dangerous – especially to migraineurs, since vitamin D requires magnesium for absorption.

Dr. Carolyn Dean explains:

Here’s what happens. You feel great on your magnesium and then you begin to have more magnesium deficiency symptoms after adding a high-dose Vitamin D supplement. Magnesium is required to transform Vitamin D from its storage form to its active form and for many other aspects of Vitamin D metabolism. That means if you take the extremely high doses that allopathic doctors are now recommending you can plummet into magnesium deficiency and not know what the heck is happening. In general, I don’t recommend more than 1,000-2,000 IU of Vitamin D daily for this reason. And never take Vitamin D without magnesium. (Source)

Excessive vitamin D can also deplete vitamin K stores, which are essential for helping calcium build bone.  With vitamin D excess and K depletion, calcium ends up in the wrong places. Sufficient vitamin A is also crucial if you are supplementing with vitamin D.  According to Nora Gedgaudas in her book “Primal Body, Primal Mind”, insufficient Vitamin A can lead to vitamin D toxicity.

Chris Masterjohn explains his hypothesis:

[V]itamin D increases the expression of proteins whose activation depends on vitamin K-mediated carboxylation; as the demand for carboxylation increases, the pool of vitamin K is depleted. Since vitamin K is essential to the nervous system and plays important roles in protecting against bone loss and calcification of the peripheral soft tissues, its deficiency results in the symptoms associated with hypervitaminosis D. This hypothesis is circumstantially supported by the observation that animals deficient in vitamin K or vitamin K-dependent proteins exhibit remarkable similarities to animals fed toxic doses of vitamin D, and the observation that vitamin D and the vitamin K-inhibitor Warfarin have similar toxicity profiles and exert toxicity synergistically when combined. The hypothesis further proposes that vitamin A protects against the toxicity of vitamin D by decreasing the expression of vitamin K-dependent proteins and thereby exerting a vitamin K-sparing effect. If animal experiments can confirm this hypothesis, the models by which the maximum safe dose is determined would need to be revised. Physicians and other health care practitioners would be able to treat patients with doses of vitamin D that possess greater therapeutic value than those currently being used while avoiding the risk of adverse effects by administering vitamin D together with vitamins A and K. (Source)

It’s well established that overly-high vitamin D levels are associated with frequent urination, constipation or diarrhea, hypercalcemia, headaches, increased risk of heart attack or stroke, kidney failure, and tiredness, among other things – and it is recommended that those with headaches and thyroid disorders (ie, migraineurs) supplement with vitamin D cautiously (Source).  Levels as high as 100 are above the suggested 50-80ng/ml range, and levels of 150 ng/ml and above are considered toxic.

It appears that what is often not realized by many health care practitioners is that elevated levels of vitamin D have ALSO been associated with headache and migraines.  Dr. Stasha Gominak, a neurologist specializing in alleviating migraine, improving gut health, and re-establishing sleep hygiene, believes that vitamin D supplementation contributes to B5 deficiency (and we need it for enzymatic function!).  She has put forth the hypothesis that our gut flora do not produce sufficient B vitamins in the presence of vitamin D depletion. She suggests that vitamin D should be in the range of 60-80ng/ml.

Other experts differ in their view, including Chris Kesser and Chris Masterjohn, and Amy Proal. Chris Kesser summarizes the evidence as follows:

The U.S. laboratory reference range for adequate 25(OH)D is 30 to 74 ng/mL, while the Vitamin D Council suggests a higher range of 40 to 80 ng/mL, with a target of 50 ng/mL (17).

But a large body of evidence in the medical literature strongly suggests that optimal vitamin D levels might be lower than these figures. There is little to no evidence showing benefit to 25(OH)D levels above 50 ng/mL, and increasing evidence to suggest that levels of this magnitude may cause harm. . .  Based on an exhaustive review of over 1,000 studies in 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommends a much more conservative range of 20 to 50 ng/mL. . . .

What about optimal vitamin D range from an evolutionary perspective? A study on traditionally living hunter–gatherer populations in East Africa found that the Masai and Hadzabe tribes had average 25(OH)D concentrations of 48 ng/mL and 44 ng/mL, respectively (35). These indigenous populations get a great deal of sun exposure but also have very high intakes of vitamins A and K, suggesting that these levels are probably towards the higher end of the optimal range for most people in the modern world.(Source).

And here is another very important consideration from Amy Proal explaining the cause of low vitamin D levels:

Vitamin D supplementation is routinely justified based on a plethora of studies that report low concentrations of 25-D in the blood of patients with a wide variety of inflammatory conditions. Thus far, the consensus on these findings has been to assume that the low concentrations of 25-D are driving or contributing to the pathogenesis of these diseases. However, the low concentrations of 25-D often detected in patients with inflammatory conditions may be a result of the inflammatory disease process rather than the cause of the inflammation. . . Indeed, our data suggest that under conditions of microbiome and interactome dysregulation, the body uses multiple mechanisms to naturally downregulate intracellular production of 25-D. (Source)

You can read more about alternative viewpoints and potential problems with vitamin D supplementation in the following articles: “Vitamin D: More is Not Better”, “The Evolution of Diverse D Requirements”, and “The Concept of Vitamin D Deficiency is Flawed”, “Harm from Vitamin D is Supported by High Quality Studies”, and “Vitamin D Supplements are Immunosuppressive”.

After considering these views, I no longer supplement with vitamin D.  I am currently looking into purchasing a vitamin D lamp, since I live in the Pacific Northwest. I make sure to get plenty of vitamin A from butter and beef liver pate. Getting just 15 minutes of sunlight a day should be sufficient for most people.  Sunlight is converted into vitamin D by the presence of cholesterol in skin and vitamin E.  As it turns out, vitamin E is best absorbed topically, so I like to use a sesame oil for my skin with some essential oils added as one way to boost my vitamin D production when I go out into the sun

Blind Spot #5: Insufficient or Wrong Kind of Magnesium

Magnesium is nature’s natural calcium channel blocker.  When magnesium levels are low, the voltage gated calcium channels that allow nutrients and oxygen into the cell don’t work properly.  Due to the imbalances in the ratios of our most important electryolytes – calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium, these channels may not be able to open and close in a balanced way.  When these channels are open, calcium floods into the cell, causing cell death (important side note: EMF – electromagnetic frequencies also cause damage by the exact same mechanism).  In order to maintain the integrity of the cell, we need the proper ratios of magnesium to calcium, potassium, and sodium.  As I pointed out above, less magnesium will be available for cellular health if it is being used up by excessive vitamin D supplementation.

One thing that I see consistently with clients is that some of them give up on magnesium if it doesn’t provide immediate or obvious benefit in alleviating their migraines.  I did this myself early on, and actually noticed a more positive immediate benefit from potassium.  Potassium deficiency, however, is usually tied to an underlying magnesium deficiency.

Magnesium supplementation can actually cause initial cleansing reactions and headaches.  A blood test for magnesium is not reflective of actual tissue concentrations of magnesium.  Therefore it is important to supplement with sufficient quantities of magnesium for the long-term.  It takes up to 4-6 months of continual supplementation to reach the right tissue concentration levels.

It is important to not only get enough magnesium (your body requires 300 mg just to maintain daily functions even without a deficiency), but to get the right kind.  Just the other day I discovered that one of my clients had been taking magnesium aspartate.  While some early studies did show magnesium aspartate to be beneficial for those with fibromyalgia, and aspartate is part of the citric acid or Krebs cycle, nevertheless it is also a neurotoxin at certain levels and when the person taking it doesn’t have the proper enzymes to convert it to a form the body can handle.  The same goes for magnesium glutamate.

Both magnesium aspartate and magnesium glutamate are often hidden in products labeled “magnesium chelate.” Dr. Russel Blaylock, a neuroscientist, explains this at length in his book Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.  Because those with migraines already have very high levels of inflammatory neurotoxins including glutamate and CGRP, and are already sensitive to glutamate-containing foods and supplements, it’s crucial to avoid magnesium glutamate, as well as aspartate, for optimal brain health.

Those who are constipated or who have oxalate sensitivity issues may benefit from magnesium citrate, as this form helps to flush out oxalates from the body (and may cause some cleansing reactions).  Magnesium citrate also supports the citric acid or Krebs cycle, which brings oxygen into the cell to create ATP, or cellular energy.  Magnesium malate is also supportive of the citric acid cycle and generally doesn’t cause loose stools as the citrate form does.

Those who already have loose stool should avoid the citrate form.  The glycinate form is great because not only is it well tolerated, but it also lends a glyceine amino acid, the smallest and most versatile amino acid.  (The receptor sites on cells often get blocked for this amino acid, incidentally, by the presence of glyphosate, or roundup contamination in food – which seriously messes up enzymatic function).

Magnesium chloride can be easily absorbed as bath salts or through the skin, though magnesium oil is sometimes very itchy.  This form of magnesium is mined in ancient deposits, so sourcing is important.  The benefit of magnesium chloride is that the chloride portion of this molecule can be used by the body to produce stomach acid for those low in stomach acid.  Chloride is also important for the cellular receptor sites for diamine oxidase (DAO), meaning that it helps to metabolize histamine.

I always take a minimum of 800 mg total of magnesium daily. I like to use a combination of magnesium chloride (the kind sold as “magnesium oil” in my water, along with other minerals I add to my filtered water), and a magnesium glycinate as well as magnesium malate supplement.

Blind Spot #6: Ingestion of Cinnamon

Cinnamon is without a doubt an incredible healing plant ally.  It is warming, pungent, and therefore dispersing of stagnation, which is one reason why cinnamon may be suggested by holistic health care practitioners to improve circulation.  Cinnamon especially is also a powerful antiviral and antibiotic as well as a mast cell stabilizer.

It is not totally clear why cinnamon triggers migraine, but it has been observed repeatedly that it does in those with histamine overload.  Cinnamon does contain histamine, but most likely, histamine triggers caused by cinnamon are due to the fact that sodium benzoate (NaB) produced by cinnamon is a DAO inhibitor and will therefore impair histamine degradation. 

It must also be noted that there are different kinds of cinnamon, and the coumarin in cinnamon may be the culprit, as it is hard for the liver to process (and could therefore trigger migraine in someone who already had compromised liver detoxification).

There are big differences between the main forms of cinnamon, cassia, and Ceylon. If you ingest cinnamon as a spice or take it in supplement form, you want to make sure that it is produced from Ceylon cinnamon. Both forms of cinnamon contain coumarin, which is a natural blood-thinning agent but is hepatotoxic. Ceylon cinnamon contains minute amounts of coumarin compared to cassia cinnamon. Coumarin detoxification requires proper liver function and activation of the cytochrome P450 gene CYP2A6. If you have a polymorphism in CYP2A6, you need to avoid cassia cinnamon if all possible. Proper detoxification of coumarin will be lessened, and increased risk of liver damage may occur. (Source)”

Side note: I’ve made an analgesic salve available in my shop that does contain cinnamon along with cayenne for rubbing on the temples and intranasally to dissolve migraine – but, as explained above, topical application has very different effects than ingesting it does!

Blind Spot #7: Ingestion of Cayenne or Chili

As for chili, it can definitely add to your overall histamine load.  Cayenne as well as most spicy chilis, especially their seeds, contain a powerful compound called capsaicin.

How capsaicin is administered makes a difference in its therapeutic effects (or lack thereof).  Because cayenne (and capsaicin) thins mucous, consumption of cayenne may be more applicable for those with sinus headaches than with migraines caused by digestive upset and histamine overload. This mechanism makes sense when you consider that those who experience relief from capsaicin get it when they take capsaicin in a drink (where it gets exposed to the nasal sinus) but don’t when they take it in capsule form.

Capsaicin has been shown to inhibit CGRP (Calcitonin Gene Related Peptide), a potent vasodilator implicated in migraine. However, again, in this study the capsaicin was administered through the nose (Source). Intranasal exposure to capsaisin numbs and desensitizes the cranial nerves. Note that Lundberg and coworkers found that CGRP was inhibited (in guinea pig lung) only when small concentrations of capsaicin were used, but not when high concentrations were (Source). Capsaicin seem to contribute to migraine by way of neurogenic inflammation on a cellular level caused by a sudden influx of calcium into the cell followed by cell death (Source).

For those with histamine intolerance, ingesting cayenne must be avoided, because capsaicin not only contains histamine but also is a potent vasodilator itself (source).  It is a very potent trigger. If you’re going to take it, take it up the nose.  Otherwise – avoid!

Side note: I’ve made an analgesic salve available in my shop that does contain capsaisin in cayenne for rubbing on the temples and intranasally to dissolve migraine – but, as explained above, topical application has very different effects than ingesting it does!

A Final Note About “Triggers”

I just want to briefly point out that when we speak about histamine intolerance and its associated food “triggers”, that it is the amount of pre-existing histamine in the body that determines whether a food with more histamine will act as a trigger or not.  This makes it a little tricky because it means that depending on the person’s histamine level at the time, they will get different responses from the same kind of food and may therefore think that something like chili, sauerkraut, or chocolate isn’t an issue because it doesn’t cause a migraine every time it is consumed.  Again, histamine intolerance is an issue of histamine overload, not an immediate, anaphylactic allergic response.  So the word trigger may be misleading.  What we are talking about here is problematic foods that increase histamine and add to the overall load, which will sometime mean that that food acts as the trigger because the histamine bucket “tipped over” into migraine.




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.

Migraine Hackers

Below are a few of the testimonials I’ve received from those who have tried my protocol:

I wanted to thank you again for the migraine work you have done and the protocol!! It’s really brilliant and more importantly, has reduced my migraines immensely. In prior postpartum periods, the residual inflammation has left me so miserable with headaches, sometimes daily. This information is cutting edge, super accessible, and pretty easy to try. I highly recommend it and have tried nearly every alternative therapy to help with migraines over the years. This has helped the most.  I feel so grateful because I am actually able to do stuff, and overall love that the actual issue is being addressed!” ~ Maryn Green, Indie Birth, Arizona

“I feel like a new person. I have more energy and I no longer feel like migraines run my life. The other day as an experiment I drank a beer (alcohol is a guaranteed migraine trigger for me), and I did not get a migraine. Of course, I have no intentions of pushing that but it was a great confirmation that true healing is occurring.” ~ T. Ranes, Lakewood, Colorado USA

“Day 31- Today had been the best day ever… Do I dare say I feel normal? What does normal actually feel like, I’m sure I’ve forgotten, lol! After six years of autoimmune disease and the migraines this is quite frankly amazing. Good to be alive. So this is what it feels like after one month on the protocol, worth all the effort!!!” ~ K. Griffin, Prince Edward Island, Canada

“Marya I had such a good coaching by you. I haven’t felt hopefull in so long regarding migraines, and was in the mindset where I thought I knew it all. You are so plugged in when it comes to the energy body and the importance of plants. I can recommend everyone with a (dis)ease to get a coaching with you. Im starting the “program” today. Thank you.” ~ G. Koldtoft, Denmark

“I just wanted to share my experience: I don’t get headaches often, but every once in awhile a powerful one creeps in. Last Friday night a big one came on, the kind that wakes you in your sleep. When I woke up Saturday morning it was still hanging on strong, so I thought of Marya’s work. I drink fresh pressed juice nearly every morning, so I grabbed a potato and added it to my juice. Within an hour of drinking my juice the headache was gone. Amazing! Thanks Marya.” ~ M. Sperry, Portland, OR USA

“My headaches have disappeared almost entirely and almost immediately after starting to eat the recommended foods. . . It feels like a small miracle. I no longer dread waking up in the morning because I wake up with no headache. You understand what a taxing effect that can have on your emotions and ability to be present.  My 18 month old daughter juices with me and loves it! And I have my husband and dad drinking juice every day, too, not because of headaches.” ~ A. Tyus, Nebraska, USA

“Day 62. Still no migraines, I can hardly believe it. Things that used to give me migraines before, like for example having visitors for hours and getting exhausted from that, doesn’t anymore. I am so grateful, I can’t even find words to describe it. Even the severe pain from my fibro and rheumatism, gives me migraine anymore.” ~ S. Skov, Denmark

“The prebiotic powders have allowed me to have normal bowel movements. In an earlier email to you I had written that I haven’t been regular in ‘years’ but when I really thought about it, I don’t think I have ever had normal bowel movements (regular =once a day) in my life (I was constipated as a baby even, so I am told) so this is really a huge thing for me. I take about 3 Tablespoons of the prebiotic and about 2 T of the potato starch each day. Love this! Thank you! Your emails and knowledge have given me much to look forward to! There’s a light at the end of this migraine/headache/GERD tunnel! No doctor, chiropractor, dietician, symptometrist, neurologist, has even come close to providing that.” ~ M.G., Phoenix, Arizona