Why Are Neurotransmitters Important to my Migraine Brain?
Our brains are the control center for our bodies. They are made up of billions of nerve cells, constantly firing with electrical impulses. More than electricity is flowing between your brain’s cells though… Neurotransmitters play a vital part in how our brains function.
Our nerve cells (called neurons) do not actually touch each other. There is a tiny gap between each cell called a synapse. Part of the synapse is called the Synaptic Cleft. Special chemicals called neurotransmitters (neuro = relating to the nervous system transmitter = carrier) relay messages between the neurons. The neuron uses amino acids, vitamins and co-factors to create the chemical/neurotransmitter in the cell, then passes it to the next neuron.
There are many different types of neurotransmitters and each has a specific message. The second neuron accepts the neurotransmitter at a special receptor, much like fitting a key in a lock. Each different neurotransmitter has a different shaped key that fits into a specific lock at the neuron. When it fits into the receptor/lock, it “turns the key” and delivers its message. The neuron then produces a neurotransmitter of its own and passes it on to the next nerve cell.
Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain. Other common neurotransmitters include Dopamine, Acetylcholine, Histamine, Norepinepherine, GABA, Epinepherine, and Endorphine. There are however, many, many others.
When neurotransmitters (key) fit into a receptor (lock), they profoundly affect metabolism and mood and how the brain and the person is able to function.
There are neurotransmitters that excite our nervous system called excitatory neurotransmitters, and there are neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system down called inhibitory neurotransmitters. The body craves balance. The brain’s activity stays healthy by carefully balancing these neurotransmitters… so long as it is able.
It is estimated that a majority of people suffer some kind of neurotransmitter deficiency or imbalance however. Some of the reasons a person may have a neurotransmitter imbalance include:
- Prolonged stress (physical, mental, emotional) — ‘wears out’ the body’s ability to maintain the increased production of certain neurotransmitters and their building blocks which are needed during stressful times. Stress includes illness and pain, poor sleep habits, distress, trauma.
- Dietary problems — imbalanced or poor diet, malabsorption, protein deficiency can result in fewer of the building blocks needed to create neurotransmitters… or too many.
- Genetics — may predispose us to neurotransmitter imbalances directly or indirectly.
- Medications — may artificially create dietary or metabolic deficiencies or otherwise affect the specific balance of neurotransmitters needed for health.
Some of the ways to balance neurotransmitters include:
- Optimization of diet through testing, management and supplementation
- Optimization of metabolism (management through supplementation or medication, and exercise are some examples)
- Minimizing stressors by optimizing physical health, mental and emotional wellness
- Medications and herbal supplements (which act as medications in our bodies)
So, what does this mean to me — a Migraineur?
Some doctors think that many Migraineurs may have problems with specific neurotransmitters. Our inhibitory neurotransmitters are not balanced with our excitatory neurotransmitters. This is not the whole story, but when this imbalance occurs, our entire central nervous system can become ‘hyperactive’ and ‘hypersensitive’. This is the perfect situation for something to trigger a Migraine attack. In fact, the imbalance itself is thought to be a Migraine trigger. Moreover, until our brains become more balanced with inhibitory neurotransmitters, an attack may continue for a very long time, or worse - our condition may become chronic.
Neurotransmitters are present in our brains, but they are also present in the rest of our bodies. One of the most important systems in our bodies when we talk about Migraine, is the digestive system. It is often called the *second brain*. It originated from the same tissue as your brain when you were an embryo, is still connected directly to your brain, and has many of the same abilities and functions of your brain… including making and utilizing neurotransmitters. 95% of the body’s serotonin (an inhibitory neurotransmitter implicated in Migraine) is found in the enteric system (gut). Interestingly, 90% of the communication utilizing serotonin happens in one surprising direction - from the gut to the brain. When neurotransmitters become unbalanced in the enteric system we often suffer symptoms such as abdominal Migraine or cyclic vomiting syndrome and irritable bowel symptoms. Many Migraineurs even find that they suffer digestive problems as an early sign or prodrome that a Migraine is going to occur.
Doctors may try to help us by prescribing medicines that manipulate our neurotransmitter levels. Often these medicines were not designed for Migraine prevention, but may help prevent the attacks when used “off label” for that purpose. Some of these medicines include those used for seizures and depression. When your doctor gives you a prescription for one of these medications, he/she doesn’t think you’re an epileptic, manic-depressive or psychotic, they are just trying to use a tool to help manage your brain’s neurotransmitters. Sometimes a hammer is used to drive or pull a nail — a purpose for which it was created - but it can also be used to break stones, or create works of art in copper which is a use it was not originally intended for.
Because we now know that neurotransmitters can affect a Migraineurs brain so profoundly, we can begin to look at ways to optimize the balance of them in our bodies, and how certain triggers can affect our Migraine brain.
Can you tell when a migraine attack is coming?