Twenty-five million Americans suffer from migraines. Statistically, more women experience migraines than men, especially in the twenty-to-fifty-year-old age group. The following biochemical events involving low magnesium have been identified in migraine sufferers and may set the stage for a migraine attack.
- In women who have not yet reached menopause, estrogen rises before the period, causing a shift of blood magnesium into bone and muscle. As a result, magnesium levels in the brain are lowered.
- When magnesium is low, it is unable to do its job to counteract the clotting action of calcium on the blood. Tiny blood clots are said to clog up brain blood vessels, leading to migraines. Several other substances that help create blood clots are increased when magnesium is too low.
- Similarly, magnesium inhibits excess platelet aggregation, preventing the formation of tiny clots that can block blood vessels and cause pain.
- Low brain magnesium promotes neurotransmitter hyperactivity and nerve excitation that can lead to headaches.
- Several conditions that trigger migraines are also associated with magnesium deficiency, including pregnancy, alcohol intake, diuretic drugs, stress, and menstruation.
- Magnesium relaxes blood vessels and allows them to dilate, reducing the spasms and constrictions that can cause migraines.
- Magnesium regulates the action of brain neurotransmitters and inflammatory substances, which may play a role in migraines when unbalanced.
- Magnesium relaxes muscles and prevents the buildup of lactic acid, which, along with muscle tension, can worsen head pain.
Additionally, the brain becomes extremely vulnerable to excitotoxins during episodes of low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. The brain uses more sugar (in the form of glucose) than any other part of the body. Low blood sugar occurs when you are malnourished or even when you skip meals. It also occurs in individuals whose adrenal glands are depleted and can’t mount the necessary adrenaline response to raise blood sugar from glycogen stored in the liver.
Magnesium is responsible for balancing blood sugar. With sufficient magnesium and balanced mealtimes, you can protect yourself from headaches caused by low blood sugar.
Magnesium helps prevent the chain of events that causes cell death due to low blood sugar and exposure to a variety of toxins including excitotoxins such as aspartame and MSG which have also been known to cause headaches. Magnesium is one of the most important neuroprotectants. It helps defend our cells against potential environmental neurotoxins such as pesticides, herbicides, food additives, solvents, and cleaning products.
Food allergies may be another trigger for headaches. You can do your own experiment to identify food allergies that may trigger migraines by following an elimination diet for three weeks and then testing foods individually, such as gluten, dairy, sugar, yeast, corn, citrus, and eggs.
A group of 3,000 patients given a low dose of 200 mg of magnesium daily had an 80 percent reduction in their migraine symptoms. This 2001 study did not have a control group, so the results could be questioned, but it aroused a great deal of excitement and triggered a flurry of research on magnesium and migraines. Much of that research was done by Dr. Alexander Mauskop, director of the New York Headache Center, working with Drs. Bella and Burton Altura, who have been studying migraines and migraine treatments for many years. This research team consistently found that magnesium is deficient in people with migraine and many other types of headache and, even more important, that supplementing with magnesium alleviated headaches.
Dr. Mauskop with the Alturas undertook many research studies using sensitive magnesium ion electrodes. During one of their first studies they found a deficiency in ionized magnesium but not serum magnesium in migraine patients.
This discrepancy highlighted the lack of correlation between magnesium-deficient states and serum magnesium. This is because only 1 percent of the magnesium in the body is found in the blood. A measurement of magnesium ions, the active form of magnesium, is much closer to the total amount of magnesium in the body and indicative of magnesium-deficiency disease.
When migraine sufferers with low magnesium ion levels were given intravenous magnesium, they experienced complete alleviation of their symptoms, including sensitivity to light and sound. Subsequent studies of migraine patients established a common pattern and confirmed the role of magnesium deficiency in the development of headaches. Researchers found that an infusion of magnesium resulted in rapid and sustained relief of acute migraine headaches. Because of an excellent safety profile and low cost, they recommend oral magnesium supplementation for migraine sufferers at a level of 6 mg/kg/day.
In my clinical experience, migraine sufferers usually require double that amount. For a 150-pound patient, 6 mg/ kg is only 400 mg. The reason most doctors will not go much above the RDA is in order to avoid the laxative effect common to most magnesium products. However, if magnesium doses are spread out throughout the day, in many cases the laxative affect can be avoided.
Another research team, using 300 mg of magnesium twice a day, treated eighty-one patients who suffered ongoing migraine headaches. The frequency of migraines was reduced by 41.6 percent in the magnesium group but by only 15.8 percent in a control group that received a placebo. The number of migraine days and drug consumption for pain also decreased significantly in the magnesium group. The researchers concluded that high-dose oral magnesium appears to be effective in migraine treatment and prevention.
By 2012, Dr. Mauskop had sufficient clinical success and had published enough about treating migraine with magnesium to title his paper “Why All Migraine Patients Should Be Treated with Magnesium.”
Dr. Mauskop enthused that “all migraine sufferers should receive a therapeutic trial of magnesium supplementation.” As he explains, “A multitude of studies have proven the presence of magnesium deficiency in migraine patients.” Double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have produced mixed results, but, as Dr. Mauskop writes, this is “most likely because both magnesium deficient and non-deficient patients were included in these trials.” Clearly, if researchers wish to show that magnesium deficiency is a cause of migraine, it’s important to test for magnesium deficiency using the ionized magnesium test beforehand; otherwise, the results will be seriously flawed.
Further studies up to the present have confirmed the use of magnesium as an effective headache pain management modality:
Emerg (Tehran). 2017;5(1) :e2. “Ketorolac versus Magnesium Sulfate in Migraine Headache Pain Management; a Preliminary Study.” Delavar Kasmaei H, Amiri M, Negida A, Hajimollarabi S, Mahdavi N. “It seems that both ketorolac and magnesium sulfate are significantly effective in pain control of patients with migraine headache presenting to the emergency department. Magnesium sulfate was superior to ketorolac both one and two hours after drug administration.”
Curr Treat Options Neurol. 2016 Nov;18(11):48. “Diagnosis and Treatment of Childhood Migraine.” Merison K, Jacobs H. “Almost all patients in our practice are advised to take magnesium supplementation. Magnesium is a supplement with relatively few adverse effects and good evidence for improvement of migraine symptoms.”
3 Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 2016 Sep;31(5):287-92. doi: 10.1097/YIC.0000000000000130. “Serum concentration of magnesium as an independent risk factor in migraine attacks: a matched case-control study and review of the literature.” Assarzadegan F, Asgarzadeh S, Hatamabadi HR, Shahrami A, Tabatabaey A, Asgarzadeh M. “The serum level of magnesium is an independent factor for migraine headaches and patients with migraine have lower serum levels of magnesium during the migraine attacks and between the attacks compared with healthy individuals.”
- Magnesium prevents platelet aggregation and the thickened blood and tiny clots that can cause blood vessel spasms and the pain of a migraine.
- Magnesium relaxes the head and neck muscle tension that makes migraines worse.
- Magnesium and vitamins B2, B6, and folate are important nutrients that treat and prevent migraine headaches.
[Editor’s Note: Natural Calm from Natural Vitality is our favorite magnesium supplement. Just add this Anti-Stress Drink Mix to water warm or cold and enjoy. Based on the evidence and personal experience, we think you will experience relief.]
Author: Carolyn Dean is a medical doctor and naturopath. She has authored and co-authored over 35 books including The Magnesium Miracle which is being rereleased in August 2017.