In Functional Medicine we tend to look at migraines/headaches as one of the earliest signs of a condition called mitochondrial dysfunction. This may sound complicated and scary, but it’s actually quite simple.

Inside each cell of your body are these tiny batteries called mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell). These mitochondria are in charge of creating energy measured as Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The body needs ATP to function and work properly just like your normal household TV remote or cell phone. It’s important to note too that your body has organs that need more energy as compared to others. In this hierarchy, your brain sits at the top needing the most. That means that when you have lower ATP production from reasons I’ll mention below, your cells don’t function the right way and this is why when a person with a headache or migraine comes into my care the very first question would be: is this person’s brain get enough energy?

If you have migraines, you may want to look into these factors:

I) Nutrition and blood sugar:

Just like your car having enough gas, cells need stable supply blood sugar to produce energy. Unstable blood sugar may be due to the following reasons:

A) Insufficient nutrition during meals:

Do you drink only coffee for breakfast? How about eating only a salad for lunch but no protein or healthy fats? Are you eating mostly packaged or processed foods for meals or snacks?

B) Erratic meal times:

Do you skip meals because you’re too busy? Do you binge eat and binge fast with no consistency?

C) Lack of nutrients supporting energy production:

We need healthy fats, protein and a wide variety of colored fruits and vegetables to power our mitochondria. Are you getting all these proteins and fruits/vegetables in the correct quantities per meal?

D) Food triggers/ sensitivities:

Some of us have an inherent sensitivity to certain food items. Do you have any food sensitivities that trigger internal inflammation? This sensitivity creates an inflammatory response that creates the migraine.

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, then it’s a possibility that migraines are a usual occurrence for you. Here are a few tips to prevent them:

1) Always have protein

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Eating protein is an important factor in powering your body (piece of animal protein, eggs, nuts etc.). The best way to guarantee protein intake is to try to eat a protein containing meal or snack every 3-4 hours.

What to eat:

  1. Piece of animal protein/ plant based protein
  2. Nuts and seeds

What not to eat on its own:

  1. Simple carbohydrates (bread, cakes, crackers, white rice, candy, chips)

2) Consume oils that are not rancid

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Look into oil smoke points and stick with coconut oil for high heat cooking and olive oil for light stir-fry and salads. Stay away from hydrogenated oils (even when they are coconut or olive) because these oils are modified to have higher shelf-lives making it difficult for the body to break down. More on oils in a separate post.

3) Look for a wide variety of colors in your plant food daily

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Eat something red, orange, yellow, green, blue/black/purple, white/tan/brown. Each color has a different nutrient profile that supports energy production and we need a consistent supply if we want to continue making energy in the brain.

4) Mini-elimination diet: do a trial of 3 weeks without gluten, dairy, sugar, processed food and another food item that you consistently have on a daily basis (ex. coffee/tea). See how you feel after this short-term modified elimination.

5) Oxygen

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Oxygen is a main ingredient in cellular energy production. This means we need to provide ourselves with quality diaphragmatic (belly) breathing. This helps us expand our lungs to provide our cells with oxygen. This goes without saying that air pollution, smoking and environmental/physical issues that hamper breathing will reduce energy production.

Dr. E’s tips: Be there and Breathe Square

Practice 4-square breathing where you inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds and you hold for another 4 seconds before initiating another inhale. Perform 4-7 cycles and allow your belly to expand everytime you breathe in. This helps regulate the oxygen balance and is suggested to be done 2-3 times a day.

6) Stimulation

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The neurologic system needs stimulation through exercise, movement or brain training to improve its energy creating function. Having regular exercise totaling 150 minutes of cardiovascular per week as advised by the American College of Sports Medicine allows for proper neurologic wiring that helps energy production in the cellular level. As a bonus, it also supports healthy breathing patterns.

Dr. E’s tips: Step by Step

Look into what you like doing and adapt to what’s available. If you have an office job, 7 sessions of 20 minute brisk walks a week will get you to the recommended level. You can do this during office breaks, lunch breaks or before/after work segments of your day.

I had a patient who once promised me she would go up and down 5 flights of stairs 4 times a day (twice in the morning and in the afternoon). It did wonders for her constant headache and constipation. Remember: every little bit counts and consistent little steps go a long way.

7) Reducing chronic inflammation and toxin exposure

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inflammation and toxins are known to reduce the production of energy in our cells. There are a variety of ways to help reduce chronic inflammation and I find that the easiest and simplest is to check-in on your fundamentals.

Dr. E’s Tips: Foundational Fundamentals

Are you giving yourself proper nutrition?

Are you giving enough time for sleep?

Are you giving enough time for movement/ exercise?

Are you managing your stress properly? Or do you have activities to help you reduce and get through stress?

Do you have supportive ties/ relationships that support you?

If you feel you aren't giving yourself enough time and effort to support your health, start with just one thing this week and continue through to the next week.

If your migraine persists, send us a message and we can dive further into looking at the gut, toxins and other possible triggers for migraines. We can feature you on our monthly ‘Ask Dr. E’ segment where we address more specific and complex issues.

Your partner in health, Dr. E