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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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • Jill Highbaugh Fremont
    7 years ago

    has anyone tried neurotransmitter repletion programs?

  • Samantha Price Fischer Kyle
    8 years ago

    I have been on Topamax for years and it has changed my life. Few side effects, and amazing prevention. I have tried Nardil, Tegretol, etc. You name it they have had me on it. Tegretol was very addicting in my experience. It took me a year to get off of it. Use Maxalt for any breakthrough Migraine and they seem to usually handle it. I have dealt with Migaine since I was 5 years old ( I am 40.) I also am really careful with my food and my rest. Topamax really helped my mood too!
    No I do not work for the drug company. It was just that effective, also it now has a generic.

  • Alice Anne McDuffee
    8 years ago

    Uugh….Maxalt

  • Alice Anne McDuffee
    8 years ago

    I suffer from migraines also….didn’t start getting them until right out of college…I have them sporadically, but the frustrating part is that once I get one it can take several days to go away….even with medication….of all the drugs you mentioned, Malt is the only one I have heard of….will research others….

  • Kittens Austin
    8 years ago

    Thank you for this article!

  • Krista Furgerson
    8 years ago

    great article. very helpful!

  • Krista Furgerson
    8 years ago

    I bet a unicorn could stop my migraines.

  • Pamela Young Boo
    8 years ago

    This pic is so small that I thought it was a unicorn (the horses ear looked like a horn)-LOL!

  • Lynette J. Plude
    8 years ago

    I know that this is a bit gross to discuss but years ago I noticed that just before a migraine I tend to get loose bowels….spoke to a Dr. that specialized in migraine treatment and asked if this was normal. I was honestly shocked when he said yes because I have been this way since I was a little girl with migraines. This article seems to reaffirm my suspicians as to what I was told many years ago. Just curious if anyone else has this issue when they get a migraine?

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    8 years ago

    I’m definitely with you Diana. In fact, I was nearly stranded trying to get home from Washington DC in June because of this very fact. Now I know to pre-treat BEFORE I fly… another important lesson…

  • Lynette J. Plude
    8 years ago

    I have been dealing with this all day today with horrible migraine that has had me ill all day. Thanks for the confirmation that I am not alone in this and sorry to anyone else that read it and found it to disgusting to comment on. I know it isn’t something we typically talk about online but felt after reading the artilcle that there must be others just like me somewhere and you both have shown me I was correct. Thanks!

  • Diana Lee
    8 years ago

    Yes, it is extremely common. Stomach issues are a big part of migraine disease for most of us. Sometimes that aspect is more incapacitating for me than the pain in that I don’t feel I can leave my house for fear of having an issue.

  • Lynette J. Plude
    8 years ago

    For me it is only one symptom but can be an annoying and embarrassing one. I went for years wondering until I finally decided to speak to a Dr. about it. We kind of all know about the typical ones but this one was a bit more difficult to associate at first.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    8 years ago

    This is a very common symptom. For some it may be as simple as loose stools. For others it can be totally incapacitating. Once again, Migraine shows that it is a spectrum in how it affects us as patients…

  • Lynette J. Plude
    8 years ago

    Got cut off….wondered if anyone else with migraines has had this issue.

  • Jessica Madore
    8 years ago

    I personally have been on almost every anti-epileptic drug and anti-depressant out there and they all caused me to become suicidal. IN fact I just had to stop taking Trileptal because I became so depressed that I wanted to actually cut myself last night and thought about cutting my wrists because I’m so tired of having pain everyday. Don’t worry I sought help immediately! Please be very aware that these meds can alter your moods dramatically. While my experiences may not be “normal” I do beg you to be cautious anytime your Dr prescribes these powerful drugs!

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    8 years ago

    Different drugs work by affecting different neurotransmitters and their receptors. Each is a little different. Doctors are trying to help by prescribing these as anti-depressants as well as for pain and for Migraine prevention. Because one causes a problem in a patient doesn’t necessarily mean another will, however it is more likely that a closely related drug will have similar affects. That said, doctors are also instructed to take extreme care in prescribing these drugs for the very reasons mentioned here. The fact that a doctor ignores the patient is reason enough to seek the help of another doctor IMHO. Here is Teri’s excellent post “Is it Time for a New Migraine Doctor?” http://bit.ly/fAr2dc

  • Marla PondEcho
    8 years ago

    Jessica, I have RSD, and like you have “tried” anything the drs asked me to. Until they asked me to “try” Cymbalta and I knew I was loosing my mind because I became so unstable in my thought processes. When I went back to the dr to discuss it, he asked if I was suicidal and I responded “No, I’m MURDEROUS, as in I want to reach across and strangle YOU right now because you are not listening to me.” He wanted to raise the dosage from 20mg day to EIGHTY. I not only left his care, I moved away from that state. Some people simply react poorly to “anti”-depression meds and once that happens, I believe, they should never “try” another one. Just wanted you to know, you are not alone. Marla PondEcho

  • Lynette J. Plude
    8 years ago

    I am so sorry Jessica that you are and have home thru such a tough time. I understand the medicine thing…side effects. I have had some issues with meds but my youngest son (33yrs) lives with us with extreme chronic pain (I will tell you about him in a private message) and he has had extreme reactions to meds where I was terrified for him. People just don’t realize the extreme effects that meds can have on us mentally…they tend to only acknowledge the physical side effects so there is a huge hole in understanding. Please know I am here if you just ever want to talk one on one at any time of day or night. I will send you my phone number in that message I promised. I have been on Tegretol for over 20yrs and fortunately no problems. I went to a pain clinic 30+yrs ago and they put me on Nardil (look up sometime it is a very nasty drug) & I first started with postural hypotension then it progressed to grand mal seizures and now I will be on tegretol or some anti seizure meds for life. Is Trileptal an anti epileptic drug? Sounds like you have a tough time with meds too. That is why my Dr. has been so good to me about the narcotics because I have less issues with them and he knows it. You will surely be in my thoughts and prayers and I feel blessed to have met you even if it only here on FB. Hang in and again never feel alone.

  • Melinda Boumans
    8 years ago

    Excellent article! I hope more research will be done on neurotransmitters, the enteric nervous system and migraine disease.

  • Cheryl L Yepez Hall
    8 years ago

    Absolutely true!

  • Robyn Bagwell Willis-Ferguson
    8 years ago

    yes, this is true!

  • Carla VanSteenburg Grant
    8 years ago

    That explains alot

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