The Migraine-Magnesium Connection

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Filed Under: General Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

The Migraine-Magnesium Connection

The best way to treat migraines is with this simple mineral

If you suffer from migraines, I don’t need to tell you how these intense headaches can leave you essentially incapacitated and cowering in a dark, quiet room for the duration of the episode. In addition to misery-inducing pain and sensitivity to light and sound, migraines can also cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, facial pallor, and cold hands and feet.

I wish I could tell you that there’s an ultimate cure, the one technique or tool that would end all migraines. Unfortunately these headaches can result from numerous causes, and I don’t think there will ever be a single solution. As with many health concerns, the solution will depend on the underlying factor actually causing the problem. Migraines are one problem where some detective work and the guidance of an open-minded doctor can be of great benefit.

It’s generally accepted that migraines are a result of changes in blood flow to the brain. The difficulty in eliminating migraine headaches stems from the fact that there are dozens of different “triggers” that can cause these blood flow alterations. These can include stress, skipping meals, lack of sleep, hormone imbalance, temperature or barometric pressure changes, bright lights, loud noise, strong odors, exertion, mineral and/or vitamin deficiencies, and many others.

The Missing Mineral

Another of the most commonly overlooked migraine triggers is a magnesium deficiency. The precise role of this mineral in the development of migraines is still being unraveled, but we do know that magnesium deficiencies allow serotonin levels to flow unchecked. A serotonin increase causes vascular spasms, which then reduces blood flow and oxygen to the brain. It also brings about the release of other pain-producing chemicals—such as certain prostaglandins and the neuropeptide known as substance P.

Studies have repeatedly shown that up to 50 percent of migraine patients have lowered levels of magnesium during an attack, and an infusion of the mineral can provide rapid and sustained relief. Additionally, routine oral use of magnesium can reduce both the frequency and severity of such attacks.

Magnesium deficiencies are far more common than most people realize. Studies have shown that only 25 percent of people in this country receive even the RDI of magnesium (420 mg) in their diet, and 39 percent get less than 70 percent of the RDI. Magnesium intake at the turn of the 20th century was between 475 and 500 mg a day, but our intake of this mineral has dropped over the last 100 years.

Keep Migraines at Bay With Magnesium-Rich Foods

Foods that help you obtain the recommended intake of magnesium include nuts, whole grains, unpolished rice, legumes, and chlorophyll-rich green vegetables such as spinach. Due to all the processed foods being consumed today, these are exactly the kinds of foods left out of most people’s diet.

In addition to inadequate amounts of magnesium in the diet, a long list of factors tend to deplete whatever magnesium stores you might have. For example, the caffeine found in everything from coffee to colas to asthma medications removes magnesium from your system. Diuretics (“water pills”) and many heart and blood pressure medications further decrease magnesium levels. Soft drinks contain phosphates that bind with magnesium and prevent its absorption, and the sweetener aspartame has the same effect. Alcohol and nicotine disrupt magnesium levels; so do many of the current steroid and antibiotic medications, as well as those used to treat asthma, epilepsy, and diabetes. Additionally, diabetics excrete more magnesium than normal—as do people who suffer from chronic diarrhea.

Consider a Supplement to Fix the Deficiency

Magnesium deficiencies are largely being ignored—in part because only 10 to 20 percent of those with deficiencies will have low serum magnesium levels (which is the only test most doctors perform). More sophisticated testing checks for intracellular magnesium content or magnesium wasting (excretion through the urine).

Unfortunately, these more-accurate tests are not being used. Keep in mind, however, that if you suffer from migraine headaches there’s a 50 to 75 percent chance that you have a magnesium deficiency and that supplementing with the mineral could help solve your problem (and many others associated with the deficiency).

There are a lot of different magnesium products on the market, and this variety probably explains why many people have failed to experience migraine relief when using magnesium. Many of the products are poorly absorbed, and the actual magnesium content is questionable in some of them.

Since healthy kidneys tend to flush out any excess, taking magnesium orally is safe as long as the kidneys are functioning properly. (If you have a kidney problem it would be wise to work with your doctor before adding additional magnesium to your diet.) Additionally, the blood vessels in the intestines help control the amount of magnesium that gets absorbed—with too much magnesium often resulting in diarrhea or loose stools. (“Milk of Magnesia” is a form of magnesium commonly utilized as a laxative.) Monitoring your stools is actually one of the easiest methods to help regulate your dosage of magnesium.

The trick is to take enough magnesium without causing diarrhea. The best indicator that you’re getting enough oral magnesium to restore body levels and help migraines is the presence of soft, semi-formed bowel movements. The stool may fall apart in toilet water but the water should remain clear and colorless. If the toilet water turns cloudy or colored, then you’re having diarrhea and you’ll need to reduce your daily dose of magnesium by 10 to 20 percent. If, on the other hand, you remain constipated, then you are most likely still deficient in magnesium and will need to gradually increase your dosage 10 to 20 percent daily until the stool becomes soft and semi-formed. You can also expect to have two to three bowel movements a day, which is perfectly normal.

For migraine relief, the magnesium supplement I recommend is a sustained-release product called Mag-Tab SR. It’s available directly from the manufacturer, Niche Pharmaceuticals.

Mag-Tab has the advantage of releasing magnesium over a longer period of time—which avoids the laxative effect. Each tablet contains 84 mg of sustained-release magnesium lactate. It’s generally recommended to start by taking two tablets a day and then increase by one tablet a day until the stools are soft. (You may prefer to spread the dosage out at different times during the day with meals.) When the stool becomes loose (diarrhea as described above) back off one tablet and stay at that dosage.

I know migraines can be frustrating and mysterious to treat, but it’s worth trying to boost your magnesium intake to see if that won’t help the problem. It just might make those miserable hours or days of hiding under the covers in your dark bedroom a thing of the past.

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