Migraine: calm the nerve cells by feeding them a body’s own substance
We all have a friend of family member who regularly suffers from extreme headaches, sometimes even accompanied by nausea that could lead to vomiting. There are remedies against migraine but despite those there’s not much more a migraineur, as people suffering from migraines are called, can do than accept the suffering and hope it passed quickly.
It always passes, but not always as quickly as you’d like. It can take you out for days. For this reason, migraineurs are looking for solutions. As far as medicine is concerned there are only 2 solutions. Either you look for drugs to relieve the attack, like aspirin and more current triptans, or you take chronic measures to prevent the attacks. Unfortunately the ideal remedy has not yet been found.
The general assumption is that the cause of these severe pains lies in the nerve cells within the brain. It is believed these cells become overactive and give off pain signals for hours or days. This is partially correct, but not entirely, and that’s where an opportunity can be found to develop a new treatment.
It’s not the nerve cells that play the most important role, but a type of connective tissue cell that surrounds and feeds the nerve cell. These cells form a type of lining around the nerve cells. Together these cells form the glial tissue. And in that glia tissue lies a possible new solution for migraine treatment. In case of migraines, the glial tissue is in a constant state of stress and produces all sorts of substances that stimulate the nerves.
The question is how do we calm the glia tissue?
But before we have a closer look at the glia tissue, let’s go back to the brain and migraine.
Brain in stress
The brains of people with migraines are programmed differently than people without migraines and they burst into stress more easily. In technical terms this is called sensitization. Simple stimuli, that in normal circumstances are hardly noticeable, are amplified with central sensitization. A little bit of light turns in to painfully light, a soft sound turns into a very loud one and a gentle touch can create a severe response. People who experience migraines often prefer to stay alone in a dark place until it passes.
Silence, darkness, the least amount of stimuli possible. Because every stimulus is amplified by the stressed brain, even scents can be too much during an attack. The question is, what is hiding behind this stress? What mechanisms keep the brain in a constant state of amplified stimuli? And how can we bring the brain back in to a relaxed state?
Current insights into what hides behind the phenomenon of central sensitization, lead to an entirely new approach to migraines. In our practice we have seen some fine examples of this. There is no brake – the cells are on a rampage.
Small stimuli are experienced as strong and during an attack you want to crawl away in a small hole somewhere. Where is the brake? Through current research on brain function we know that this brake is situated somewhere in the brain stem, which is part of what we call the central grey. It is a part of the brain stem that is situated around a channel with cerebrospinal fluid called the aqueduct. Because there is gray matter surrounding the aqueduct we also refer to this part of the brain as the periaqueductal gray, PAG.
Situated in the PAG are the cells that inhibit regular incoming stimuli, so you don’t get stressed about everything. One of the consequences of when the stimuli do rampage freely in the brain is that the brain swells up a little bit. This swelling is another stimulus that gets amplified so you experience a throbbing headache.
The throbbing is present in everyone’s head, but normally we don’t feel it because the perception of the throbbing is inhibited by the cells in the PAG. The nerve cells become over stimulated and to inhibit that over stimulation substances like triptans were developed.
These substances inhibit a certain neurotransmitter system which is related to serotonin and that’s why the nerve cells calm down a bit and the migraine disappears. But if you think this through you’re only inhibiting the overactivity without normalizing the central brake in the PAG.
That brake is made up out of nerve cells that are in a state of central sensitization. To restore that brake we have to focus on calming the lining of the nerve cells – the glia cells.
On every nerve cell ten glia cells: the reason for excitement
Everyone used to think that if you really wanted to understand the working of the nervous system, you specifically have to look at the nerve cells. The other connective tissue cells around the nerve cells were only thought to be a kind of glue to keep the nerve cells in place. However, nothing is further from the truth.
These cells are called glia cells, glia meaning glue, but for several years now we have been learning that these cells are much more important than we thought. Only the fact that nerve cells are surrounded by 10 glia cells should make us think. And that finally happened. The entire case of central sensitization is maintained by a disturbed metabolism in the glia cells.
During chronic pain, these cells are so hyperactive that they will start to produce and secrete all sorts of substances that agitate the nerve cells. Growth factors is an example of this.
That sounds all right, but due to the work of the Italian professor and Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini we understand more about the growth factors. It’s this type of small protein molecule that, together with an army of other substances, is secreted by the glia cells during chronic pain. The nerve cells get aggravated as they are basically bathing in those substances when this happens. When the nerve cells are aggravated they will give off wrong or increased signals, which are pain signals.
This is how both glia cells and nerve cells shoot into overdrive. On top of that, because of all the growth factors from the glia tissue, the nerve cells will start to produce substances like neurotransmitters, which cause great stress in all the nearby cells. This is called winding up and forms the condition of central sensitization.
From a wound up state to a chilled out state: palmitoylethanolamide, the chill molecule
Professor Montalcini, who got to live to 102 years of age with a clear mind and still active in science, discovered that it’s possible to calm all the stress in the brain due to chronic pain with a natural pain reliever. A simple fatty molecule produced by every cell in our body. It’s a natural bodily substance.
On top of decreasing the pain, this molecule also works as an anti-inflammatory. This is a double benefit, because the molecules that are secreted by the glia cells and irritate the nerve cells are a kind of inflammatory factors, which in turn are inhibited by this substance too.
The substance has a difficult name: palmitoylethanolamide. We will continue to call it PEA. Our own nerve cells and surrounding cells produce this pain relieving and anti-inflammatory substance during chronic pain. It is our own natural painkiller and it works well with other endogenous substances such as anadamide. A small Italian scientific organization followed the directions of professor Montalcini and first developed a tablet containing PEA. Now a supplement is available in capsule form and also as a liposomal product, which is the most efficient one, that can be given to patients with severe pain in whose cases no other remedy seems to help.
PEA affects the receptors which regulate the operation of glia cells and bring them to peace.
PEA: who has been treated?
Since its discovery in the mid-20th century, thousands of patients have been treated with this substance and often with very impressive results. PEA showed to decrease pain after multiple sclerosis, severe back pains, hernia pain, shingles, pain from pinched nerves like the carpal tunnel syndrome and pain due to diabetes, just to name a few. For this reason we give PEA a green light for the treatment of pain. It looks like this substance can also offer relief for migraines.
Dosing and the use of PEA for migraines
If you’re taking PEA in capusles, start with at least 1200mg of PEA per day, divided over the morning and evening after meals. Also, for severe pains, you can go up to twice as much per day. PEA comes in 400mg capsules. If the pain decreases after 2 months you can change to one capsule twice a day. During a migraine attack, take an extra capsule by opening it and placing the powder under the tongue to let it melt.
If you are taking liposomal PEA, take up to 7.5 ml a day in one or two servings.
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