Life Extension Magazine January 2014
Control Underlying Factors Behind Migraines
By Stephen Grant
Migraines are more than just headaches. They are serious disorders that can cause lasting neurological damage and increase the risk of stroke as well as dementia.1-5
Large-scale epidemiological studies reveal that in the US, around 16-22% of adults reported migraine or severe headache symptoms.6 Migraines and severe head pain are significant public health concerns with head pain representing the fifth leading cause of emergency room visits each year.6
As scientists delve into the biochemistry of the human brain, they are discovering that migraines can cause lasting damage that is similar to the changes seen in seizures, strokes, and dementia.1,2,7 Physicians are finding that a patient’s history of migraines can be a risk factor for some of the most-feared chronic brain disorders.1-5,7
Current migraine treatments include drugs originally developed for treating epilepsy.8-10 In the short-term, these drugs are effective because they help reduce the over-excitation in the brain that produces a seizure or a migraine.9 But as with most pharmaceutical drugs, they are fraught with side effects and fail to address the underlying cause.8,10
As scientists searched for treatment alternatives to anti-epileptic drugs, they uncovered two compounds that provide a therapeutic dual action against the changes in the brain that lead to migraines.
Both of these substances, gastrodin and magnesium, are thought to modulate the sudden changes in neurotransmitters that can set off a crippling migraine as well as support healthy blood flow to the brain. Gastrodin and magnesium work to calm and balance the storm of neurotransmitters that can lead to a migraine while nourishing the brain with improved blood flow.11-14
This article explains how gastrodin and magnesium provide relief and protection for sufferers of migraine headaches.
The Inner Workings Of A Migraine
While we still have much to learn, scientists are discovering that migraines share several basic features with other brain disorders.
Before and during a migraine attack, blood flow in specific brain regions begins to drop, causing disturbances in the brain’s balance and affecting neurological function.15-17 A reduction in brain blood flow also occurs during a stroke, and more gradually in the condition known as vascular dementia, which reduces your ability to reason and maintain memories.1,18 In all three cases, the result is increased vulnerability of brain cells to dysfunction, degeneration, and eventually death.1
Brain scans show that people with migraines have visible abnormalities that are similar to those seen in stroke victims and in people with dementia.19,20 And some studies suggest that people with chronic migraines are at an increased risk for strokes and dementia.3-5
In addition to problems with blood flow to the brain, people with migraines show a harmful imbalance in the brain’s excitatory and inhibitory activity.2,21,22
Normally, the brain maintains a healthy balance between excitatory and inhibitory activity by modulating the relative amounts of neurotransmitters that brain cells use to communicate across their connections, or synapses.
Sudden and excessive excitation of brain cells, combined with insufficient amounts of input from the calming GABA neurotransmitter, produces the electrical “storm” we see as an epileptic seizure.6 It’s now thought that a milder version of this process occurs during a migraine.7,23 The longer-term effects of this imbalance result in a condition called excitotoxicity, which also occurs in strokes and in the neurodegenerative disorders that produce dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.1
Because the imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters is common to both migraines and to seizures, neurologists have begun exploring anti-epileptic drugs in the treatment of migraines. Such drugs generally elevate the GABA-related activity in the brain in an attempt to move the brain’s balance back to normal.9,10
But seizure drugs are extremely powerful medicines with plenty of adverse effects, and physicians and patients alike are understandably reluctant to use them continuously to prevent migraine attacks.8,10
Gastrodin: A Powerful, Multi-Targeted Brain Shield
The extract of the root of the orchid Gastrodia elata has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine formulas, especially for disorders involving the central nervous system.24
Studies show that gastrodin-based formulations improve brain blood flow, which is commonly reduced during migraines.13,15,24 This benefit of gastrodin has been used successfully in China to treat stroke victims, whose decrease in brain blood flow is potentially life-threatening.25-27
Gastrodin’s most exciting mechanism of action stems from its ability to modulate both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, which makes it particularly beneficial to migraine patients.12,27-30
Laboratory studies demonstrate that gastrodin inhibits the enzymes that break down the calming GABA neurotransmitter. By blocking these enzymes, gastrodin helps raise GABA levels back to normal.12,28
While increasing the calming GABA, gastrodin also decreases levels of excitatory neurotransmitters in a brain stressed by reduced blood flow.27,29,30
Restoring this balance has been shown to be neuro-protective, even against the massive decrease in brain blood flow seen in strokes.27,29
The cumulative impact of gastrodin’s increase in blood flow and reduction in the excitatory/inhibitory ratio may be behind its impressive success in clinical trials for migraine relief.31
In a study of 90 migraine patients, the subjects were given either gastrodin (50 mg three times daily) or the prescription drug flunarizine (a calcium channel blocker that may enhance blood flow) over a 6-week period.31 Both treatments were equally effective at reducing both the duration and total number of migraine attacks. However, gastrodin was more effective than the drug overall, with a higher proportion of people achieving a benefit of 91% compared with just 76% in the drug-treated group.31
In other studies gastrodin showed a higher overall therapeutic effective rate vs. flunarizine.32-34
Clearly, gastrodin’s ability to boost brain blood flow, shield brain cells from excitotoxicity, and restore the calming inhibitory effects of GABA is effective in migraine headaches as well as in the more immediately-threatening disorders like strokes.27,29,31 Now let’s look at the element magnesium to see how it augments gastrodin for comprehensive migraine prevention.
Magnesium Complements Gastrodin For Migraines
Magnesium is essential in controlling brain electrical activity, especially with regard to brain blood flow and modulating the excitatory-to-inhibitory actions of brain cells.35 Studies show that up to 50% of migraine patients are deficient in the amounts of magnesium in their blood during an attack, and that they can have a high ratio of calcium to magnesium.36-38 This imbalance sets the stage for the contraction of brain blood vessels resulting in a reduction of blood flow. Because of this benefit, magnesium is increasingly indicated for migraine prevention.14,36-38
Treatment with magnesium does increase both brain blood flow and its velocity, as shown by researchers using high-tech Doppler ultrasound to look through the skull and measure blood flow velocity in a major brain artery.39,40
Like gastrodin, magnesium also has beneficial effects on the balance of excitatory to inhibitory neurotransmitter signaling in the brain. Magnesium is a natural blocker of an excitatory receptor on brain cells, so when ample magnesium is available, those receptors don’t trigger the excitatory electrical impulse.41-43 This allows the brain to move into its more balanced, calm mode. In addition to blocking excitatory receptors, magnesium also supports brain GABA activity, helping to induce a calming environment and further reduce the excessive brain electrical activity associated with migraines and seizures.44
And magnesium supplementation has now been proven to be effective at preventing migraine headaches.40,45-49
One early study evaluated women with migraine during their menstrual cycles, a common time for attacks to increase.45 Using 360 mg of magnesium daily vs. placebo, researchers showed that the number of days with headache was reduced only in the magnesium group. Magnesium also improved premenstrual complaints.
A broader study of migraine patients demonstrated a significant reduction in the incidence of migraine headaches using a dose of 600 mg/day of trimagnesium dicitrate.46 Another, similar study showed that irritation of facial and neck muscles, common in migraines, was also reduced by magnesium supplementation.47 The frequency of migraine attacks was reduced by nearly 42% in a group treated with trimagnesium dicitrate 600 mg/day, compared with around 15% of placebo-treated subjects.48
Several dramatic studies have now appeared in which complete elimination of migraine pain was accomplished using intravenous magnesium citrate. One study revealed an 80% rate of pain resolution within 15 minutes of the injection, along with complete elimination of hypersensitivity to light or sound, common migraine features.50 Another study found response to treatment in 100% of those given the IV magnesium (7% in placebo), with complete disappearance of pain in 87% (0% of placebo); all patients receiving IV magnesium had resolution of accompanying symptoms.51
In total, at least half a dozen good clinical trials have now demonstrated the utility of oral magnesium in the form of magnesium oxide and trimagnesium dicitrate for preventing migraines and reducing their severity.40,45-48,52,53 Intravenous magnesium sulfate has proven its effectiveness in hospitals, including emergency room departments, to treat an existing migraine headache.49-51,54