Are Digestion Problems Causing Your Migraines?

Are digestion problems another cause of your migraine headaches? This is not a widely advertised problem connected to migraines. However, I have been exploring this angle for a number of years now and I get a resounding YES!

So let me tell you a little bit about what I have discovered on this part of the migraine journey.

I started taking digestive enzymes a few years ago.

I recently started taking a double and then triple dose of digestive enzymes and additional Betaine HCL and Pepsin.

My migraines reduced in frequency.

This is good news for me.

I was under the instructions of my nutrition doctor, so please don't just start taking lots of supplements at home without professional advice and monitoring. Taking enzymes to aid digestion is common now a days, but this is just one thing to try for digestion problems.

I am going to give you a lot of details below, because there are so many products on the market, its important to get the one that we need. I always urge you to seek professional advice first, so your health care provider can take everything into consideration.

My Advice - Chew Your Food Well

Always chew your food, even if it is soup or stew. I have introduced a new idea of blending our food into a puree for a day or so after a long migraine in our migraine diet article. This replaces the mechanical digestion process which takes place by chewing. Its like being pre-chewed! However, we still need to chew our pureed food to start the chemical digestive process and allow the digestive enzymes in our saliva to mix with our food.

Chewing activates the necessary enzymes to begin breaking down the food in our mouths. By mimicking the natural process of chewing, our food will digest much more easily resulting in better assimilation all of the vitamins and nutrients.

By feeding yourself food that your body can utilize easily you consequently give it optimum nutrition to recover faster and help out those digestion problems at the same time.

Are Digestion Problems One of the Causes of Migraine Headaches?

Causes of Migraines Poor Digestion

Yes. Poor digestion or digestion problems, according to the Nutritional Almanac (1998), is one of the causes of migraine headache.

They also list: ”diseases of the eye, nose, or throat, trauma to the head, air pollution, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, fever, generalized body infections, disturbances of the digestive tract, and circulatory system, brain disorders, incorrect eye wear or eye strain, anemia, low blood sugar, niacin or pantothenic acid deficiency, and overdose of vitamin A, mould allergy, allergies, salt, excessive carbohydrates, allergenic foods (from MSG, wheat, citric acid, marinated foods, and fermented foods), oral contraceptives or other sources of estrogen's, constipation or bowel problems, grinding teeth (bruxism), improper bite, the chewing of gum, food additives such as nitrites in meats, aspartame, stuffy rooms (caused by an electrical imbalance of the ion count of the air), and premenstruation (possibly a result of water retention in the brain tissues, which can be relieved by vitamin B6).”

This list covers several causes of migraine headache. The heading is headache and not migraine, so I always make that distinction between the two. As you already know, they are not the same to me. Anyway – back to digestion problems.

“The body uses protein to convert food into the storage forms of energy. The type of food consumed determines the quantity and quality of that energy” and as Dr. Gillian McKeith says “you are what you eat.”

I say we are what we digest!

“Carbohydrates, both simple and complex, are the chief food source and are essential to the body” and protein is needed to convert food to energy and it is used to fill in when other supplies of energy are required. We need to eat nuts and seeds, grains, etc and they are all digested at different rates.

Many people believe in food combining, especially if you have digestion problems. It has great success rates in reducing discomfort. I try to follow it by eating fruit away from other meals. But with all the migraine foods I avoid, I prefer to believe that I just need to eat everything else in moderation. Unless it causes obvious digestion problems for me like the ones listed below.

The Basics of Digestion

Digestion Problems in Migraine

Digestion is a very complex area, so I will just mention the process generally and as simply as I can.

Digestion actually begins in the mouth.

There are 2 digestive system function processes that take place in our body - mechanical digestion and chemical digestion. The mouth is where the mechanical digestion process starts.

Your saliva in your mouth provides ptyalin to soften the food and enzymes to break down the food as the teeth grind or ‘masticate’ the food. So the teeth break the food down into small pieces and this enables the chemicals required to start digestion. The tongue muscle then helps to form a ball and squeeze it down the throat.

So the ball of food goes down the esophagus and into the stomach – this is still part of the mechanical process. The stomach is where the food is broken down further with chemicals and enzymes enabling a separation between nutrients to be taken into the body and waste products to be eliminated.

Our digestion plays such an important role for our body’s well being and I feel it may be one of the causes of migraine headache for me. The nutrients that get to the blood in our body are directly determined by what we put in our mouths. Nutrient deficiency is already one of the known causes of migraine headache.

Digestion Problems Look Like ...

Ask yourself – how many of these digestion problems do I experience and hopefully this part of the page will answer if this might be one of the causes of migraine headache for you.

Common digestion problems are: bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, stomach pains and cramps.

I will not touch on other digestive disorders like: heartburn (GERD), hemorrhoids, lactose intolerance, and ulcers but I thought they were digestion problems worth mentioning too.

Digestion Problems Cause Constipation

Constipation is one of the most common symptoms that accompany migraines. Chronic constipation can become one of the causes of migraine headache. Many pain killers contain codeine phosphate or other chemicals that cause constipation.

It is a bit of a vicious cycle for us migraineurs who depend on codeine to reduce our pain.

The actual definition of constipation is when bowel movements are “less than 3 times per week". I’ve said before that staying hydrated is an important issue for us migraineurs, and now you know why. Most of us will struggle with this one.

Digestion problems can also cause diarrhea. Evacuating your bowels more than 3 times a day, in a watery form of diarrhea can lead to dehydration which can be a very dangerous condition. It is not considered one of the causes of migraine headache. But dehydration is, so please be aware.

Flatulence (Intestinal Gas)

Gas is another common digestive disturbance. Most people experience gas but if you have pain that accompanies it, it may mean something else is happening. I wish I could do a survey and see how many migraineurs have gas, and if they associate it as one of their causes of migraine headache.

Gas can be caused by swallowing too much air when you eat or eating too much. Eating too much can overwhelm the digestive enzymes and the undigested food becomes putrefied which forms bacteria and then results as smelly gas.

Effective digestion depends upon hydrochloric acid, bile, and other digestive secretions and enzymes (Nutrition Almanac, 1998, p.226).

For example, in order to utilize your own secretions in say fruit juice, you should hold it in your mouth and swirl it around for a little bit (pretend to chew) before swallowing it. This assists the digestion process.

My nutrition doctor recommends taking 2 digestive enzymes after every meal now for digestion problems, as all of my food is cooked and 2 meals are pureed. Having gas, even if it's extremely painful, is not considered to be one of the causes of migraine headache.

Raw food can cause problems with parasites, which is another thing to consider. Read about that on Causes of Migraine Headache: Parasites.

Use Digestive Enzymes

Using digestive enzymes supports poor digestion. Incomplete digestion, be it from too little Hydrochloric acid (HCL) in your stomach or other problems, can cause many problems like peptic ulcers as I mentioned above.

With centuries of cooking our food and with aging depleting our natural enzymes, it is possible to suffer from the improper digestion of our food, especially proteins and fats.

Low stomach acid disrupts the whole system. Consequences are poor mineral absorption, poor B12 absorption, and calcium remains insoluble and cannot be ionized – where it changes chemically to combine with other elements.

How you can tell – is to check your stools. Yup, I know, it sounds gross. But how else can you tell if you have undigested food. Just check what comes out and that will give you your answer.

I can recommend these brands from iherb: Thorne Bio-Gest and its Plantizyme vegetarian version, and Life Extension Enhanced Super Digestive Enzymes. Just click on the links for more details.

What to Look For

My doctor has me on Eagle brand Digestaid which is made in Australia. It's quite hard to get a hold of and all practitioner products here in Australia must have a script from a doctor, naturopath or professional nutritionist first.

Here are the ingredients for Digestaid:

Eagle Brand Digestaid

Active ingredients:

• Betaine hydrochloride - 300mg
• Pancreatin - 200mg
• Pepsin - 100mg
• Sodium tauroglycocholate - 50mg
• Papain - 30mg
• Bromelains - 20mg
• Gentiana lutea - 20mg
• Foeniculum vulgare powder - 2mg
• Maltase 700 - 80mg
• Potassium chloride - 25mg
• Chromium amino acid chelate - 10mg
• Peppermint oil - 1mg

Dosage:

Adults: Take 1 tablet, 3 times daily after food.

Precautions:

Vegan/Vegetarians – Please note that these digestive enzymes are bovine sourced. If you have stomach or duodenal ulcers, Digestaid can be quite stimulating, so please consider a course of Slippery Elm and Matrix Support with Cyto-bifidus prior to using Digestaid.

A Great Place to Get Enzymes

This is what I take now. It's been about 4 years and I am very happy with the results.

1 Bio-Gest with each meal, and 3 or 4 Betaine HCL & Pepsin. That might be way too much for you, so check with a naturopath or your nutritionist.

This is the most reliable place to buy reasonably priced vitamins if you feel poor digestion is a problem. Take advantage of their rewards program - use my code and get money off. 

$5 or $10 off your first order. My code is HAZ215

More Specifically - What Numbers to Look For

Without the HCL – and more enzyme like - Jon Barron so kindly tells us what to look for:

  • Protease: A minimum of 33,000 HUT should be adequate for most meals. (Remember, you can change your dose and take a second or third capsule when you eat a meal that requires it.)
  • Acid stable protease: 1,000 SAPU is most beneficial. You may find that many formulas have none of this at all, so you may have to search.
  • Lipase: 5,000 LU is adequate
  • Amylase: Look for 12,000 SKB
  • Lactase: 1,500 LACU 2,500 is best
  • Look for a variety of other enzymes such as: Malt diastase, Invertase, Glucoamylase, Cellulase, and Hemicellulase. You can also look for Alpha galactosidase if you experience problems with gas.


I hope you found this information useful to help determine if your digestion is one of the causes of migraine headaches for you.


Digestion Problems References:

1. Barron, Jon (2009) Digestive Enzymes - Raw Food Newsletter. [Online], Available at: http://www.jonbarron.org/enzymes/digestive-natural-health-newsletter-raw-food Accessed Feb. 24, 2012. Material originally published at www.jonbarron.org. Copyright © 1999-2011. Baseline of Health® Foundation. Used by permission of the Baseline of Health® Foundation. All rights reserved worldwide.
2. Barron, Jon (2003) Choosing Your Digestive Enzymes Newsletter. [Online], Available at: http://www.jonbarron.org/enzymes/natural-newsletter-digestive-health-part2 Accessed Feb. 24, 2012.
3. Kirschmann, G.J. and Kirschmann J.D. (1998) Nutrition Almanac (4th ed.) McGraw-Hill International Editions: Sydney. pp.224 - 238.
4. Pitchford, P. (2002) Healing with Whole Foods (3rd ed.). North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA. pp. 572 and 643.


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With this new information, what one thing can you do now to reduce your attacks?