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Natural Earth: The English Standard Reference on Herbal Healing
Volume 1: The Herbal Center of Healing

Migraine Headaches

by Gary Lockhart Reprinted from The Herbal Center of Healing

"The general sight did not appear affected; but when I looked at any particular object it seemed as if something brown, and more or less opaque, was interposed between my eyes and it, so that I saw it indistinctly, or sometimes not at all. Most generally it seemed to be exactly in the middle of the object, while my sight, comprehending all around it, was as distinct and clear as usual; in consequence of which, if I wished to see anything, I was obliged to look on one side. After it had continued a few moments, the upper or lower edge appeared bounded by an edging of light of a zigzag shape."

Caleb Parry,1825

The word migraine, comes from the Greek words 'hemi-crania,' meaning 'half-head.' Through the centuries the word was chopped down to micrania, and it finally became 'migraine.' It refers to the fact that the headaches only occur on one side of the head.

The beginnings of a migraine headache are marked with 'fortification spectra.' These are visual signs, which include showers of sparks, balls of fire, and zigzag lines. Colors may include flashes of purple, black or mixtures of color like a rainbow. The zigzag nature of certain paintings makes the artwork seem alive with motion, and it resembles a migraine. Artists like William Blake, and Saint Hildegard seem to have included migraine figures in their artwork.

The earliest descriptions of migraines appear on the clay tablets of the ancient East. A Sumerian poem reads: "The sick-eyed says not 'I am sick-eyed.' The sick-headed says not 'I am sick headed.'" Another cuneiform tablet reads: "The head throbs, when pain smites the eyes and vision is dimmed."

Many times the person gets premonitory symptoms of migraines in his or her dreams. One person had dreams of storms, volcanic eruptions and fires before his attacks. Another person dreamed of a white figure with great beauty that appeared from the right and then disappeared. The next day his migraine headache would start.

Mental states seem to be able to kick off an attack of migraine. Sir John Herschel found that he could get a migraine attack, by picturing in his mind the visual phenomena of the disorder. Another person could get migraines just by looking at zigzag wallpaper.

The English novelist George Eliot had migraines. And she would feel 'dangerously well' before her attacks. Stress often acts as a trigger, and the person begins to see sparkles of snow or rings of flashing silver. The ache begins to grow around your eyes, and you seek darkness. Loud noises are as disruptive as gun shots at close range. Waves of nausea and vomiting come over the sufferer, and the attack lasts from three to twenty-four hours, but the person can remain sick for several days. Studies show that about 15% of all men and 25% of women suffer from migraine headaches at one time or another.

The Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus suffered from migraines, and prior to an attack, he would notice someone walking alongside of him. Once he entered a lecture room to teach a class, but he saw someone standing at the lectern. Thinking that he arrived too early, he left, only to realize that he was looking at a spectral illusion of himself. This is a common manifestation of migraines in Scandinavian countries, and it is called 'nautoscopic hallucinations.' People also call them 'doppelgangers' and they are responsible for a whole class of ghost stories.

Migraines have been the domain of the famous, for Alfred Nobel, Alexander Graham Bell, George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson suffered from them. Sigmund Freud had migraine attacks, and he did not find an answer through psychoanalysis. It might have been a response to stress, for although he was famous, he wasn't well liked by professionals, and he was never given a full professorship in Vienna. Charles Darwin often suffered from migraines. When his father died, he was so ill, that he was unable to attend the funeral. Migraines must have been hereditary in his family, for three of his children suffered from them.

During the early part of the nineteenth century the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius laid the groundwork for modern chemistry. He devised Latin symbols for the elements and combined the atomic weights with a chart of electrical charges. His book Larebok I Keon [Foundation of Chemistry] was translated into all European languages, and was largely responsible for the spread of basic chemical knowledge. From the age of 23, he was tortured by migraine headaches, which he believed followed the cycles of the moon. In earlier life, they were irregular, but now they came twice a month, on the days of the new and full moon. During these days he accepted no social invitations, but stayed home in a darkened room.

He was able to cure his migraines by going to the mineral springs at Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia for treatment. When the migraines returned, he made artificial Carlsbad mineral water, and by drinking it he remained free of migraines. Could migraines be due to a mineral imbalance in the body?

Carlsbad has 17 mineral springs, and they may not all be identical. An analysis done by the German Apothecary Society in 1879 is probably close to the formula used by Berzelius. The springs contain traces of lithium, manganese and iodine. The prominent salts are 0.24% Na2SO4; 0.13% of Na2CO3; 0.10% of NaCl; 0.03% of CaCO3 and 0.02% of MgCO3 .

In 1887 a German doctor reported that he had a cure. When he felt the migraine coming on, he put a half or whole teaspoonful of salt in a glass of water and drank it. If done at the very beginning, this completely stopped it. If done when the migraine started, the attack would stop in about half an hour.

In 1923 a London doctor had migraine patients take a soluble form of calcium as soon as they felt a migraine headache coming on. He found that 18 of 20 patients had their migraines stopped by taking calcium tablets. The trick is to chew the tablets to get the calcium into the blood stream at once. A friend of mine tried taking a gram of calcium gluconate immediately before her migraines. She told me that the tablets turned what would have been a severe migraine, which would have disabled her for a day, into an ordinary headache, which left in a few hours.

A Washington woman wrote in 1925, "Calcium lactate works wonders with me; without it, I always counted on a full day of severe headache, following the appearance of the typical visual hallucinations. Now a dose of calcium lactate gives relief from practically all the nerve-racking pain and difficulties I used to have to expect as the usual things. On several occasions I have made long drives in the car shortly after the beginning of the scintillations. Before the use of calcium, I would not have dared to have attempted this. I experience a double relief - that of the physical agony and that of the mental worry and dread incident of the attack. I carry it with me at all times; I never want to be without it."

In 1888 a French doctor reversed an astigmatic lens on his own glasses, and got a migraine headache. He found that many cases of migraines could be cured, by getting the proper glasses. Seeing an eye doctor is a good step in helping yourself.

A woman was unable to find relief from her migraine headaches. Then she developed ulcerative collitis, and her doctor gave her supplements of Lactobacillus acidophilus hoping to alter the bacterial flora of her intestinal tract, and cure the collitis. It did improve the collitis, and unexpectedly her migraines disappeared. The doctor tried giving the friendly bacteria to ten persons with migraines, who weren't helped by other means. There was marked improvement in eight persons when capsules were taken three times a day. Migraines are also triggered by foods. The complex phenols that make up the coloring of red wine trigger migraines, but other forms of alcohol do not trigger migraines. Some foods known to produce the headaches are cow's milk, eggs, chocolate, oranges, and wheat. The foods that migraine sufferers must avoid are cheese, chocolate, and red wine.

There is an old theory that migraines are due to a poorly functioning liver, which doesn't break down impurities in the blood. A test was made of the liver function theory by giving twelve men with migraines a gram of the amino acid methionine and multiple B vitamins. The average number of migraines went from 4.3 per month to 1.5. In one instance a 59 year old man went from ten migraines a month to only one. Only one person in the study wasn't helped.

Henry Leclerc was a well-known French doctor who did numerous studies on medicinal herbs. He began to treat migraines and trigeminal neuralgia with a strong tea or tablets of powdered chamomile Matricaria recutita. A cup of strong tea or tablets of 3-5 grams of chamomile are taken at meals. There is normally a marked reduction in pain by the end of the day, and in a few days the problem is essentially cured. It is said to be a long term preventive, but no studies have been done.

A young woman suffering from migraines was an astrologer. She reasoned that Jupiter was the ruler of the liver, and on the dates she suffered from migraines, her natal Jupiter was affecting her. She looked up the 'Jupiter herbs' in an astrology herb book and took a tincture of the fringe tree Chionanthus virginicus. This cured her migraines and those of her mother. When she published a letter in a popular health magazine, another reader wrote to say that the herb eliminated her headaches. The root bark of the tree has long been used as a liver stimulant.

Father Sebastian Knapp became famous for his book My Water Cure. He treated all illnesses with special baths and herbs. His ideas evolved into modern naturopathic medicine. He had migraine sufferers chew 6-8 juniper berries Juniperus communis per day and take baths.

In the Ayurvedic medicine of India and the Unnani Tibb medicine of the Arabs, ginger is used for migraines and cluster headaches. At the very beginning, about 500 mgs. of powdered ginger Zingiber officinale mixed with water and drunk. It begins to be effective in about 30 minutes, and it is taken as often as needed. One woman found that this worked fairly well, so she included fresh ginger in her diet daily. The intensity and frequency of migraines decreased. In India ginger was mixed with equal parts of Withania somnifera. Sixty grams taken daily for three weeks were said to be a cure.

Many doctors still use ergot alkaloids to constrict the blood vessels in migraines. It constricts blood vessels all over the body, with considerable side effects. It was first used by doctors for migraines in 1925.

Two centuries ago John Hill wrote in his herb book: "The mother of the late Sir William Bowyer told me that during the first half of her life, she suffered from terrible and constant headaches fixed in one small part of the cranium, raging to distraction." Then the woman discovered that a tea made of two handfuls of feverfew Tanacetum parthenium with boiling water was able to cure her migraines. Richard Brook noted in his herbal in 1772: "In the worst headache, this herb exceeds whatever else is known."

The old remedy was basically forgotten until a miner who had been a long-time sufferer cured himself by chewing several leaves of feverfew daily. He told his success to the wife of the chief medical officer of Britain's National Coal Board. She tried the treatment and in two weeks she was free from migraines. Her husband told this to Dr. Steward Johnson of the London Migraine Clinic. He began by giving ten patients feverfew leaves. Three were cured, and seven had less frequent migraines.

Feverfew has recently become well known in England for helping migraine headaches. A survey of 300 users showed that 72% had fewer headaches. When the remedy was compared to a placebo, there were five cases of vomiting and 34 cases of nausea in the feverfew group. In the placebo group there were 21 cases of vomiting and 95 cases of nausea. It is now known that the parthenolide in the herb provides the cure. Some varieties of the herb don't have this, and they don't work. The amounts of freeze dried leaves taken vary from 50 milligrams to 2 grams a day.

Tablets of Pueraria tuberosa proved to be an effective migraine treatment in China. Volunteers took 500 mg. tablets, three times daily. The herb has cerebral vasodilator effects, which help to normalize circulation in the head. Within two weeks, 83% reported that they were markedly improved, or had no more migraines.

One of the most interesting migraine remedies began on the island of Lomaloma, in the South Pacific. A Hungarian traveler married a native woman and settled on the island. He suffered constantly from migraines, and his wife insisted that the islanders had remedies, which would cure him. During a period of two years, Mr. Vessey took 55 different native remedies, but only four of them gave him temporary relief. He suspected that the natives were trying to poison him, so he had them take everything first, and he took careful notes on all the plants. At long last, four cups of a tea made from a mixture of Premna taitensis and Epipremnum pinnatum = E. vitiensis permanently cured his migraines.

His wife named the medicine "Tonga" and bundles of the barks were sent to England in 1882. There was a great deal of interest in learning the identity of the medicine, and botanists figured out the plants. Sufferers used a ball of chopped bark with netting around it. This was soaked in water and drank as a pleasant tasting tea before meals. One ball of the bark would generally provide a cure. In its first medical test, six of a group of eight migraine sufferers were permanently cured. The remedy was sold in Holland until about 1960, but it seems to have been forgotten in recent times. Some doctors used it in the United States until 1925, but it finally vanished from the medical scene.

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