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Deborah Richards
Nutrition Educator
LCHF/KETO Advocate 
Vancouver, B.C.

Your Migraine Brain

An estimated 1 billion people suffer migraines worldwide and the number continues to grow.
Medications are making the issue worse. Why?​

Anyone who suffers a migraine will attempt to figure out what triggered it in the hopes to never go through the same hell again. Yet it's a blurry combination of so many possible factors that we are usually unsuccessful in targeting any one thing. It's often a sum of triggers that excite the brain's neurons, that when combined create the Perfect Storm.

 

As I tried to figure out what was causing my migraines, I began to liken it to an overflowing cup. Migraine triggers act as the liquid, filling up the cup. The size of the cup is the brain's ability to tolerate triggers. As liquid fills the cup, the brain's neurons become excited and don't shut off.

Once the fluid reaches the top of the cup and begins to overflow, a migraine ensues. In other words, when my triggers add up, my brain would reach it's threshold. Boom! Pain, nausea and a host of other miserable, side effects would follow.

GABA and Your Brain on Ketones

WHAT'S ALL THE EXCITEMENT?

How can a low-carb diet help migraines? What does it mean to have a excitable brain? Let's look at neurotransmitters and brain energy more closely. Specifically, glutamate and GABA. 

 

Glutamate is the neurotransmitter in the brain that can either become excitatory (when converted to aspartate), or GABA, which has the opposite effect, calming the brain.

 

We need both of these, but the migraine sufferer gets into trouble when too much glutamate is converted to its excitatory form (aspartate). Once ‘triggered’, the brain becomes overly excited. Too much excitement/stimulation in the brain leads to neurotoxicity, and in extreme cases, seizures. Migraines have been linked to neurotoxicity.

 

Quite simply, adapting to a ketogenic diet reduces the excitability of neurons in your brain. It seems that ketogenic diets seem to favor glutamate becoming GABA rather than the excitatory neurotransmitter ‘aspartate’. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17444813

As ketones increase, GABA reduces and so does the excitability of neurons in your brain. This is why the ketogenic diet is so helpful for migraineurs: it reduces the hyper excitability of our brains. This makes the ketogenic diet PREVENTATIVE.

 

As you reduce the senstitivity of your brain, try to avoid the additives in foods that are high in glutamate. Listed here. As well as tracking and avoiding common migraine triggers:

Common migraine triggers:
  • Environmental: weather changes, heat, allergies, pollution, perfumes, noise, bright lights 

  • Lifestyle: Dehydration, missed meals, irregular sleep, physical exertion, crying

  • Food and drink: MSG, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, food dye, nitrates, dairy, gluten, histamine intolerance

  • Health: Hormones, blood sugar fluctuations, blood pressure fluctuations, medication overuse/rebound

Now before my 30's I never had migraines. At 24, I remember flying home on a red-eye from Europe, hungover from my last night in Portugal. I hadn't eaten properly, was dehydrated and dealing with the pressure changes of flying. My caffeine band-aid had long been ripped off and I was tasked to be sitting beside a wailing infant. From a migraineur's perspective this is the perfect storm, yet I didn't get a migraine. Cut to ten years later, my 'cup size' of tolerance had gone from a Venti to an Espresso shot and any sudden shift in the barometer was enough to overflow my cup. What had changed? 

Why is a migraineur's brain so intolerant to normal day to day life? In my case, it was partially due to: impaired glucose metabolism.

 

Most approaches aim to help migraine sufferers reduce triggers, not address the root of the problem. Up until recently, most migraine research aims to identify and eliminate triggers. In other words: how can you pour less liquid into a shrinking cup? This simply results in limiting our experience of life. What I begged to ask was: How do I get a bigger damn cup?

 

My plan to reduce or end migraines:
  • learn everything I could about LCHF and Ketosis

  • tell my doctor I wanted to eliminate medications, eventually for good, by...  

  • transitioning over to a LCHF/Ketogenic diet, while....

  • balancing hydration and electrolytes, and.... 

  • increasing my insulin sensitivity through lifestyle: exercise, proper sleep and more. 

  • All while being gentle and patient with myself while I traversed this new, rocky terrain. 

The moment I cut out sugar, grains and excess carbs from my diet, my migraines improved dramatically that same week. 
So What Size is Your Cup Right Now?

 

My migraine tolerance has increased from the tiny 'espresso-sized' shot, back to a respectable 'Grande'. I eat cheese, and dark chocolate. I stay up late if I want to. I can walk down the cleaning aisle at the grocery store, striding past all those nasty chemical odours without that all too-familiar feeling that I'm going to be knocked on my butt in a few hours. I also notice that as each low-carb month passes, I become more resilient over time. The healing happens. Give it a chance. 

Next let's pinpoint the tools you'll need to get you moving towards a migraine free day. To Do.