I know too many people who suffer from migraines. And, while I’ve learned that you need to be careful of certain triggers (caffeine, stress, dehydration, lack of sleep), it’s sometimes not enough to stop a whopper from coming on. Most people carry around with them a supply of ‘just in case’ painkillers, however, new research points to a very different type of “pill” that could provide some welcome relief – Probiotics.
A study presented at the International Headache Conference in Vancouver, found that when sufferers of chronic migraines took a multi-strain probiotic twice a day, the frequency of their attacks reduced by a huge 40 to 45 per cent. Their severity was also found to be significantly less too. Clearly, there is a connection between our gut health and migraines. Our guts are a habitat for a huge number of microorganisms called microflora.The exact make-up of the organisms varies from person to person. Scientists discovered how the gut-brain connection and the make-up of our microflora influences diseases like depression, autism, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), allergies, and even migraines. Many of you know that migraines influence digestion: nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea. It is suspected that the link between the gut and migraines is due to what is known as ‘leaky gut’, where toxins from the gut, derived from bad bacteria, leak from the intestines into the bloodstream, triggering inflammation. This can ultimately trigger a migraine by stimulating pain receptors on a major cranial nerve called the trigeminal nerve. This also explains why those who suffer from migraines are also more susceptible to developing gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), irritable bowel disease (IBD) and coeliac disease.
When the gut is permeable for potentially harmful substances this leads to inflammatory responses and an up-regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which have an influence on the brain. It has been known for many years that migraine patients’ blood samples show heightened inflammation levels compared to healthy subjects. The microbiome is a good starting point when one intends to regulate the inflammatory processes in the gut and to strengthen the intestinal barrier. Thus, one could also prevent the passing over of toxins, which cause inflammation.
Probiotics can help eliminate and ease migraines in numerous ways. Firstly, probiotics can improve and maintain the intestinal barrier, therefore preventing the occurrence of a leaky gut. They’re also said to stimulate the release of the ‘happy’ hormone, serotonin, which works on the nervous system to relieve and prevent migraines too. Probiotic bacteria secrete chemicals called bacteriocins which help remove harmful gut bacteria, as well as reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (ideal if stress is your migraine trigger). Lastly, they can also alter the activity of pain processing centres in the brain too.
A sufferer of migraines experienced everything from toothache to vomiting, to insomnia. Her first port of call was painkillers to prevent a headache from developing into something more. She’d tried everything over the years in her attempts to find a long-term solution, including giving up gluten after an allergy test revealed that she was intolerant to it and it could be a trigger. This did help, but she was still suffering from nightly headaches. After attending a gut health talk, she bought a three-month course of probiotics to see if it could make a difference – and it did. Not only have her attacks reduced in number, but she now eats a little gluten here and there without fear of getting a migraine afterwards.
The research as it stands offers up a valuable insight into one of the potential causes of this debilitating condition. An improvement in gut microbiota and reduction of inflammation can have positive effects on strengthening gut and brain function. Moreover, it can be inferred that probiotics may have a beneficial effect on the frequency and severity of migraine attacks without undesirable side-effects that are accompanied with painkillers. It shows just how far-reaching the gut-mind connection really is. No wonder the gut is called ‘the second brain’.