Headache Reversal Diet
By Joel Fuhrman, M.D. www.drfuhrman.com
How My Patients Are Eliminating Their Debilitating Symptoms!
Over the last 15 years, I have treated hundreds of patients for migraine headaches and chronic headache syndrome. Typically, these suffering individuals have traveled from doctor to doctor seeking relief and often have tried multiple drugs prescribed by headache specialists. Most often, patients report that the drugs eventually stopped working or that the side effects were intolerable. In addition to physicians, these patients often have visited acupuncturists, herbalists, and other health professionals (including some who have suggested dietary modifications), but still have not been able to obtain lasting relief.
Before seeing me, some of my patients’ symptoms were so severe that their neurologists had them hospitalized at renowned medical institutions. There, they were given intravenous medications and experimental drugs, all in the hope of providing them with some relief.
As you can imagine, by the time these patients find their way to me (via word of mouth or physician referral), they have lost faith that a complete recovery is possible. However, head pain is so uncomfortable that they cannot afford to dismiss even a glimmer of hope that I might be able to help. Fortunately, even among these sickest and most severe headache patients, my success has been very impressive.
I estimate over ninety percent of my patients have achieved a complete recovery or recovered to the point that their headaches are very infrequent. Only a few cases have not responded. In one of those, I believe the patient did not stick with the program long enough. In another, the patient had permanent brain damage due to a severe allergic reaction to a drug in a hospital prior to seeing me.
In addition to the patients I have seen in my medical practice, there are many who have resolved their headaches by the dietary modifications they learned in my book, Eat To Live. This newsletter will give an overview of my approach to headaches and offer hope and a solution to people who suffer with headaches. I believe that it is almost always possible to find the cause of the problem and for people to get well. For most headache sufferers, this approach may be the solution they have been looking for.
Drugs Make Problem Worse
Headaches are one of the most common complaints seen by doctors and the most common complaint seen by neurologists in private practice. The conventional person takes medications to relieve pain when he has a headache, and he seeks medical care to get stronger medications if the problem intensifies.
When a patient comes to my office with a long-standing headache, I describe the concept that the headache is the body’s detoxification response to the stress placed on it. To get well enough that the headaches do not continue to return, we must allow the body to complete its task of mobilizing and removing the offending substances that are circulating and causing pain.
When people take medications to relieve headache symptoms, they unknowingly halt the detoxification process, which then sets up the scenario for the repeat of the headache at the body’s next opportunity. To make matters worse, the drugs used to relieve headaches add to the body’s toxic overload, which increases the probability that the headache problem will continue.
Take, for example, a person who drinks six cups of coffee each day. She has two cups in the morning, a cup midmorning and another cup with lunch. One day, she skips the midmorning cup, and what happens? She gets a vicious caffeine withdrawal headache before lunch.
To get temporary relief, she can have another cup of coffee, or she can pop a drug (such as Esgic, Ergostat, Bellergal, Cafergot, Excedrin, Fiorinal, Vanquish, or Wigaine) that contains either caffeine, barbiturates, or ergotamine. She can go to a physician for a prescription medication that contains caffeine and narcotics. She can drink a caffeinated soda. (She even could go to the local drug pusher on the street corner for a snort of cocaine.) Each of these approaches will stop the headaches temporarily. But “escaping” from pain—whether through the use of prescription drugs or street drugs—doesn’t eliminate the underlying toxicity problem that caused the headache in the first place. And by taking drugs (or more caffeine), people and their physicians inadvertently add to the problem—introducing more toxic substances into a system that is already overwhelmed. Even Tylenol (acetaminophen) and aspirin can cause rebound headaches.
Detoxification & Discomfort
Your body is like a factory that takes in raw materials, makes products, and produces waste. When this factory can’t remove the waste it produces, things can go bad, and diverse symptoms can erupt. When an organ or an organ system reacts against a toxic insult, symptoms result. These symptoms vary from one system to another.
When your digestive system reacts to a toxic insult, you might experience symptoms such as indigestion, cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea. Your skin can react to toxicity by producing a rash. But what about your brain? Your brain can’t vomit or create symptoms of indigestion; it can’t erupt in a rash. Headaches are the symptoms we feel when the brain reacts to mobilize toxins accumulated as a result of an earlier stress. This stress could have been a few hours ago or a few weeks ago, but your brain (as with all organs) reacts when it is ready. Sometimes it is ready to react only after a good rest, a solid night’s sleep, or a healthful meal.1
In general, chronic exposure to toxins can cause the body to build up tolerance to harmful substances and lessen the symptoms of detoxification. When a person smokes a cigarette for the first time, his throat and lungs may burn and feel irritated, and he might develop a headache. But after repeated exposure, his tissues will lose their sensitivity and become deadened to the noxious stimuli. As this toleration for toxicity increases, his cells will become further damaged and more cancer-prone, and more and more of them will die. While this degenerative process is going on, the smoker perceives that “smoking agrees with him,” and he is getting “used to it.” In actuality, he is getting addicted to it. Whereas initially he experienced uncomfortable symptoms when he smoked, now he experiences uncomfortable symptoms when he doesn’t smoke.
When you stop the process of self-poisoning, quit smoking, get more sleep, eat more healthfully, stop overeating, or curtail other poisonous habits, your body may develop detoxification symptoms in an attempt to purify itself. These symptoms typically arise at times when we are not eating or digesting food. It is during these times that we can most effectively mobilize and remove waste. The discomfort that begins when digestion ends (often mistakenly thought of as “hunger”) is one of the primary causes of overeating. Our nation is preoccupied with continual eating and drinking just to suppress discomfort. Overfed—but undernourished—people (as most Americans are) simply feel too uncomfortable if they don’t keep the digestive tract working all of the time. As soon as such a person is without her accustomed bad habit for a few moments, her body wants to use the rest period to begin detoxification, resulting in feelings of weakness, fatigue, spasm, abdominal pain, and headache.
Low-Nutrient Diets & Cellular Toxicosis
There are two types of waste products that can cause symptoms and disease. The first is exogenous wastes. Exogenous wastes are toxic substances from the external environment that come into your body because you (in most cases) ate or breathed them in. Exogenous wastes could be noxious fumes, food additives, natural toxins within food, or excessive nutrients (micronutrients or macronutrients).
Endogenous wastes are wastes produced by your body as by-products of cellular metabolism. Headaches are most often a reaction to a combination of exogenous and endogenous wastes.
The cells in your body attempt to survive and maintain their cleanliness and health. When your diet does not supply the needed amounts of micronutrients, including antioxidants and phytochemicals, your cells cannot properly maintain their internal cleanliness. Endogenous wastes such as free radicals and advanced glycation end products build up if the micronutrient to macronutrient ratio in your diet is too low. Eating low-nutrient food fuels cellular toxicity.
When cells in the body become toxic, they may die and be replaced by new cells. But cells in the brain (neurons) cannot replace themselves with new brain cells. When a brain cell is under too much stress, a portion of the neuron breaks open and releases toxins, which could be called a detoxification burst. These toxins may include excessive brain hormonal messengers (especially serotonin and norepinephrine) and cellular debris, as well as substances previously ingested in food or drugs, creating inflammation and vasodilatation in the tissues surrounding the brain.
Detoxification episodes (i.e., unpleasant symptoms) in response to exogenous stimulants (such as caffeine) commonly accompany decreased intake or abstinence, during which time the cells attempt to remove or lower levels of the retained wastes. These wastes may not be limited to exogenously stored substances but may also include endogenously produced neurotoxins that accumulate from the use of exogenous stimulants (including prescription and nonprescription headache remedies). It is ironic that the very substances that may be causing the headaches are utilized in their treatment.
Addiction & Detoxification
As mentioned above, detoxification often is unpleasant. That is one of the reasons why addicts crave stimulation— it inhibits the release of wastes (detoxification). The body cannot effectively remove waste while simultaneously reacting to new stimuli (stimulation).To make matters worse, the stimulation you use to suppress one symptom (headaches, for example) suppresses the detoxification of other organ systems as well.
The entire sympathetic nervous system can be excited by brain stimuli; therefore, the brain’s reactivity can trigger a simultaneous release of toxins that can effect many different organs, including the eyes, the skin, and the digestive tract. Migraine headaches can be accompanied by or preceded by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances, and restlessness.
When you use drugs to inhibit sympathetic nervous system activity in an attempt to suppress migraines, you interfere not only with the brain, but also with the ability of the rest of the body to carry out the ongoing processes of detoxification and elimination. As a result, more toxins accumulate throughout the body.
It follows that the buildup of endogenous toxins that results from low-nutrient eating that predisposes you to migraines also leads to tension headaches, depression, and fibromyalgia. Multiple studies have shown that a poor diet can lead to higher free radical formation and lipid peroxidation and that the measurable levels of these pro-inflammatory substances correlates with the presence of headaches, depression, and migraines. This means that the cellular fatty membranes develop a degree of rancidity measured by the presence of lipid peroxidase and thiobarbituric acid reactive substances.2 In my medical practice, I have observed that many headache patients suffer from body aches and pains, too, and they almost always score shockingly low in antioxidants when measured in the blood or by using a skin biophotonic scanner for carotenoids.
The secret to recovery is to build up the level of phytochemicals in the tissues via vegetable juices, blended salads, and high cruciferous soups. High intake of dark green leafy and cruciferous vegetables fuels detoxification pathways. Cruciferous vegetables contain secondary metabolites called glucosinolates that break down to products that upregulate hepatic detoxification enzymes. These substances work synergistically and are most effective when whole food sources are used rather than supplemental extracts from greens.3
Migraine Overuse Headache
It is well recognized and accepted within the medical profession that medications used to treat headaches worsen headaches in the long run and cause headaches to occur on a rebound basis. There is even a term used in the scientific literature called “migraine overuse headache” to refer to this phenomenon. Proper advice regarding medication tapering has been shown to be an effective intervention for patients with chronic headaches.4
What is not generally recognized is that other toxic substances besides medications, both endogenous and exogenous, play the same role and can cause headaches when their use is withdrawn. Conventional thinking does recognize migraine triggers, but nobody talks about improved health and improved diet as a trigger for a detoxification-triggered migraine.
I do not recommend natural herbal products as headache remedies. Feverfew and butterbur are the most common herbs used to treat headaches, and they are not that effective. Pooled results from multiple blinded trials did not support the effectiveness of feverfew. Butterbur has been shown in a few studies to reduce the frequency of headaches slightly compared with placebo.5 But because butterbur contains natural chemicals that are highly toxic alkaloids that can seriously damage the liver and possibly cause cancer, I do not recommend it. Remedies do not deal with the underlying cause(s) of the problem. A true recovery is only possible when you restore nutritional integrity and internal cleanliness.
Remember, only toxic substances can chemically relieve symptoms rapidly. Besides, feeling better quickly is not the goal. Odd as it may sound, feeling worse is sometimes the initial goal of therapy. Patients following my approach to migraine recovery sometimes feel worse at first, as medications are tapered and detoxification is allowed to unfold unimpeded by drugs. Only after detoxification occurs can the person eventually make a complete recovery. The reason my approach to the headache patient is so effective is not just because toxic triggers are removed. It also is because my patients adopt a program of superior nutrition, including micronutrient supplementation when appropriate, that maximizes cellular detoxification.
Food Toxins & Animal Products May Be Involved
The membranes surrounding the brain are more sensitive to irritants in those who suffer with headaches. Irritants in processed foods can pass the blood/brain barrier and trigger headaches. Most of the common triggers for headaches are either food additives or animal products. Alcohol, caffeine, nitrites and nitrates, artificial sweeteners and flavorings, and monosodium glutamate are all potential headache triggers with effects on blood vessels in the brain. Nitrates are preservatives found in most aged, cured, or prepared meats such as ham, bologna, pepperoni, salami, and bacon; smoked fish; meat tenderizers; and seasoning mixes. Cheese also can be a powerful migraine-promoting food, and it has been noted that these same precipitating foods cause all types of migraine headaches as well as tension headaches.6
Tyramine (an amino acid) has been identified as a potential common migraine trigger. It is formed by the amino acid, tyrosine, so it is advisable not to eat foods that are high in tyrosine. Aged meats and meat products, fish, cheese, and alcoholic beverages (wines, ale, and beer) are all high in tyrosine.
In general, diets high in animal protein increase blood levels of nitrogenous compounds that inflame neurological tissue. Uric acid rises in the bloodstream as a result of increasing animal protein intake, and it makes us more prone to inflammation. When a person is an alcoholic and his liver function is impaired, nitrogen compounds can rise to dangerously high levels because the liver cannot break down all of the nitrogenous wastes created from a diet so high in animal products. The fourteen other nitrogenous toxins that rise in the bloodstream in parallel with uric acid can pass through the blood/brain barrier and create headaches, confusion, and even psychosis, depending on the severity of the liver impairment.
When liver detoxification is inhibited by low vegetable intake and stressed by high meat intake,a person is more prone to headaches. This is why people are commonly told to eat high-protein meals. High-protein meals can make them feel better by stopping the detoxification “causing” their so-called “hypoglycemic” symptoms. In this way, animal products (which are a cause of the headaches) can be used like caffeine, to suppress the detoxification symptoms (the headaches).
Higher levels of free fatty acids in the blood increase platelet stickiness and clumping. Higher animal fat intake and obesity have been documented to increase the likelihood of headaches.7 When a diet lower in animal products is given to migraine sufferers (even if it is not ideal), we may see positive outcomes. In spite of the fact that diet is most often ignored by the medical profession in the treatment of migraines, the medical literature documents its effectiveness. Not only have dietary interventions— with less fat and fewer animal products— been shown to be effective, the intake of high-fat foods has been linked to higher levels of migraine.8 By adopting a program of superior nutrition, you also can reduce the wide swings in estrogen that make you more headache prone.
Here is a conclusion quote from a medical journal article:
“Biological states that may cause increases in free fatty acids and blood lipids include: high dietary fat intake, obesity, insulin resistance, vigorous exercise, hunger, consumption of alcohol, coffee, and other caffeinated beverages, oral contraceptives, smoking, and stress. Elevated blood lipids and free fatty acids are associated with increased platelet aggregability, decreased serotonin, and heightened prostaglandin levels. These changes lead to the vasodilatation that precedes migraine headache. We suggest that migraine headache should not be seen as an isolated symptom, but as a first signal of potential biochemical imbalances in the body, which can lead to development of chronic disease.”9
1. Spierings EL; Ranke AH; Honkoop PC. Precipitating and aggravating factors of migraine versus tension-type headache. Headache. 2001; 41(6):554-8. Martin PR; Seneviratne HM. Effects of food deprivation and a stressor on head pain. Health Psychol. 1997; 16(4):310-8.
2. Breslau N; Lipton RB; Stewart WF; et al. Lipid peroxidase in the brain, essential fatty acids, sunlight and detoxification. Comorbidity of migraine and depression: investigating potential etiology and prognosis. Neurology. 2003; 60(8):1308-12. Ciancarelli I; Tozzi-Ciancarelli MG; Di Massimo C; et al. Urinary nitric oxide metabolites and lipid peroxidation by-products in migraine. Cephalalgia. 2003; 23(1):39-42. Tsuboi H; Shimoi K; Kinae N; et al. Depressive symptoms are independently correlated with lipid peroxidation in a female population: comparison with vitamins and carotenoids. J Psychosom Res. 2004; 56(1):53-8.
3. Nho CW; Jeffery E. The synergistic upregulation of phase II detoxification enzymes by glucosinolate breakdown products in cruciferous vegetables. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2001; 174(2):146-52. 4. Rossi P; Di Lorenzo C; Faroni J; et al. Advice alone vs. structured detoxification programs for medication overuse headache: a prospective, randomized, open-label trial in transformed migraine patients with low medical needs. Cephalalgia. 2006; 26(9):1097-105.
5. Rios J; Passe MM. Evidenced-based use of botanicals, minerals, and vitamins in the prophylactic treatment of migraines. J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2004; 16(6):251-6. Pittler MH; Ernst E. Feverfew for preventing migraine. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004; (1):CD002286. Diener HC; Rahlfs VW; Danesch U. The first placebo-controlled trial of a special butterbur root extract for the prevention of migraine: reanalysis of efficacy criteria. Eur Neurol. 2004; 51(2):89-97. Pothmann R; Danesch U. Migraine prevention in children and adolescents: results of an open study with a special butterbur root extract. Headache. 2005; 45(3):196-203.
6. Savi L; Rainero I; Gentile S; et al. Food and headache attacks. A comparison of patients with migraine and tension-type headache. Panminerva Med. 2002; 44(1):27-31.
7. Bigal ME; Lipton RB. Obesity is a risk factor for transformed migraine but not chronic tension-type headache. Neurology. 2006; 67(2):252-7.
8. Bic Z; Blix GG; Hopp HP; et al. The influence of a low-fat diet on incidence and severity of migraine headaches. J Women’s Health Gend Based Med. 1999; 8(5):623-30. Millichap JG; Yee MM. The diet factor in pediatric and adolescent migraine. Pediatr Neurol. 2003; 28(1):9-15.
9. Bic Z; Blix GG; Hopp HP; Leslie FM. In search of the ideal treatment for migraine headache. Med Hypotheses. 1998; 50(1):1-7.