Got a headache?

Ever get a headache?  I would say that most people I talk to have experienced a headache in the last couple of weeks. Indeed, a 2014 telephone survey found that headaches were one of the top five symptoms reported on a weekly basis, with over one-third of those questioned experiencing an episode. Increasingly, it is more than an infrequent occurrence that can be put down to an occasional late night (lack of sleep), being dehydrated or too much alcohol the night before. In fact, I think that headaches have come to the point where we’ve normalised them so much we barely see any reason to pay them much credence. Everyone gets a headache – what’s the point in worrying about it? Nothing ibuprofen can’t fix.

In my opinion, this normalisation of pain is how we’ve addressed (or not) the chronic stress, tiredness, bloating, inability to wake up properly or the slight malaise we might feel on a day to day basis. For a lot of people what I’ve described is just ‘life’. There’s no point complaining because this is what everyone is experiencing so we may as well buck up and get on with it. Like all of the conditions I’ve mentioned above, frequent and recurring headaches impact massively on quality of life. While obviously migraines are a type of pain that would cause more disruption to everyday life, a headache shouldn’t just be dismissed either. It’s a sign that something is out of balance in your life that you should probably address. That said, a closer look at your diet might reveal elements which could be changed or optimised to reduce the likelihood ot these occurring, Specifically, there are nutrients which have been found (in addition to an awesome diet) to be useful for reducing severity and frequency of headaches or migraines occurring. While the jury is out on both omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin D (with some research suggesting that too much vitamin D may have the opposite effect), there is fairly good evidence to suggest that these may be useful:

Magnesium: in powder form, along with a citric acid or as an amino chelate – up to 600mg per day over three months (this might equate to 2.5g – 5g of powder from a brand such as Bioceuticals Ultraeaze). Studies have shown that many experience a reduction of attacks by up to 41%. Now that is significant.

CoQ 10: not just as part of face cream, in doses of up to 300mg/day (which is fairly substantial) has been found to reduce frequency of attacks and also symptoms of nausea associated with headaches.

Riboflavin: this amino acid in doses of 400mg/day over four months have also been found to reduce severity and frequency of attacks – people of European background are more likely to respond than others due to genetic differences.

A well balanced whole food/paleo diet contain substantial amounts of these nutrients. Magnesium is abundant in vegetables, animal products and fruit; CoQ 10 present in salmon, sardines, red meat, nuts such as almonds, and seeds such as sesame   seeds; and riboflavin is found in substantial amounts in cheese, beef, pork, eggs and oily fish. However if you are consuming such a diet and not experiencing relief, it might be worth considering supplementing in addition to this.

Now people who experience migraines are likely to know which foods trigger an attack. A well studied group of amino acids have been found to trigger headaches and migraines in susceptible people: tyramines, histidines and arginine.

  1. Tyramines: are found in fermented foods (such as sauerkraut, kimchi), blue cheese, broad beans, beer and sulphate-containing wine, dried fruit, grapes, cured meat and fish (not a complete list). Some people lack the enzymes to inactivate these and it can lead to a build up in the blood, causing temporary nausea, increase in blood pressure, sweating and migraine headaches. Tyramines are found in fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurts), blue cheese, broad beans, in beer, wine that contains sulphates, other sulphur-based dried fruits, grapes, cured meat and fish.
  2. Histamines: are a result of the conversion of an amino acid histidine by two enzymes diamine oxidase and histamine N-methltransferase. People who have low levels of these enzymes have a build up of histamine in the body as they are unable to metabolise it. Histamines, like Tyramines are found in fermented based foods, along with all alcohol and vinegars. Other sources are fruits such as strawberries, avocado, and bananas, vegetables (tomatoes, spinach, eggplant) and nuts including walnuts, peanuts and cashews.
  3. Arginine: is an amino acid that causes vasodilation of the blood vessels by increasing the amount of nitric oxide in the blood. Great if you’re an athlete wanting to go at higher intensities, not so great if it causes pain through vasodilation and expansion of the cranial blood vessels. Avoiding these foods can minimise this, and nuts and chocolate have the highest amount of arginine in them. (As a side note, people who might experience break outs in the herpes virus have been recommended minimising these foods in their diet).

Not all of these groups of food are going to affect everyone, and not all foods within the different groups are going to trigger a migraine or tension headache, but it’s a process of figuring out which ones do by eliminating them from the diet for one to three months to see if there is respite from frequent migraine headaches, then reintroducing them (as you would any food).

There are many things which affect frequency and severity of headaches and migraines. Like other stressors, the effects of these (or anything) that might trigger an attack can be made worse depending on overall stress load. If you are lacking in sleep, relying on sugar or coffee for energy, have a lot on your plate at work, drinking too much alcohol (etc) then you may well experience more of an effect compared to other times where you feel a little more on top of things. So while you can remove certain foods from your diet and optimise others to minimise attacks in the short term, looking at the root cause of what is causing the headaches is clearly the best option long term.

Building beautiful from the inside out

On Wednesday night I’ll be talking with over 100 beautiful women at the Women’s pamper evening in Newmarket that is being hosted by Auckland’s original Paleo café, Wilder and Hunt. I’ll be sharing what I know are the building blocks of beauty from a nutrition perspective.

What makes a woman beautiful? Print and digital media influence what we perceive as beautiful in a woman and objectively speaking, we aren’t all going to agree – beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. If you look through the last 50 years of beauty as defined by the media there is a definite change in the physical features of woman – from Marilyn Monroe with a softer, curvier shape, to Twiggy, whose name aptly describes her physical features, to Elle Macpherson (The Body who, in my opinion, is more gorgeous now than the early 90s and her supermodel days) to Kate Moss. The focus on a women’s shape has largely been the determining factor, and the changing shape of a beautiful woman is telling of society’s acceptance of messages that are portrayed around beauty. While once we were bombarded with the ‘thin is in’ message, this has largely been replaced by images of a muscular yet equally lean woman with ‘strong is the new skinny’ as the tag line. Both, for the majority of woman, are unattainable and – if achieved – unsustainable in the long term. This definition of ‘the body beautiful’ is largely created from the narrow perspective of industry, media and the thousands of available diet and beauty products that try and sell you a magic bullet to solve your perceived beauty woes.

Body shapes aside, there are far more salient features that (to my mind) determine what makes a woman beautiful. We all know what makes a woman beautiful – even if you don’t think you ‘know’ or haven’t quite put your finger on why someone who might not be fit this narrow definition of beautiful but you find them attractive all the same.  It’s not their body size, their haircut, their muscle tone or the make up they are wearing. It’s the sparkle in their eyes, it’s the smile on their face, and it’s a sense of calm and confidence. It’s the glow of their skin and the condition of their hair. We know that beauty comes from within and this emanates health. How often have you met someone who you initially evaluate as attractive (because, let’s face it, we all make a judgment on someone upon meeting them). Then as you get talking to them this can change by (occasionally) what they say, but more by their body language, their facial expression, the lack of warmth. What makes a person, anyone, attractive, is the type of person they are – not what they look like. And what you eat plays a large part in that.

Beauty product manufacturers know that beauty comes from the inside out -however they deal in the superficial. They spend years and have big budgets to research ingredients for their top line products to ensure they help nurture good skin health. Beauty isn’t just about our skin, but one of the first places that reflect good health is certainly our skin. The skin is the body’s largest organ, is made up predominantly of collagen and reflects the health of our cells. The time it takes for our cells to turn over and regenerate increases with age, and goes from a few weeks to a few months. It’s not just chronological age though. If we don’t have the available nutrients to nurture good health from the inside out, then no amount of expensive skin cream is going to cover up the signs of a poor diet. The older we get, the slower our cells regenerate and turn over. At any age, however, this process can slow down if you don’t have a diet that supports healthy cell metabolism. You can encourage cell turnover through beauty routines that include exofoliation or microdermabrasion, however your best line of defence has to be your diet.

How can you easily find out which nutrients are important in cell health – take a look at the active ingredients in many skin care products. Vitamins A, C, E, along with omega 3 fatty acids have been found to be protective against inflammation in the skin and these may protect the whole body from sun damage – rather than the topical protection that sunscreen provides  These nutrients also play a valuable role in gut health, reducing oxidative stress in the body and (omega 3’s in particular) help with the elasticity of our arteries and cell walls – protecting against arterial stiffness and subsequent narrowing of the arteries. In addition, vitamin A works much better in the presence of vitamin K2 for encouraging cell renewal, and the antioxidant activity of both C and E is enhanced when they are delivered together

Likewise zinc, a mineral found in animal protein (the most available form in the diet) is essential for wound healing, cell regeneration and synthesis, and again plays a role in gut health.  A healthy gut is important for the absorption of all of the nutrients to ensure they are available to be utilized in the body. Co-enzyme q 10 is often touted as an essential ingredient in skin care and that is well warranted – research points to deficiencies in this leading to increased levels of reactive oxidative species (or oxidative stress) in the body due to it’s role as an antioxidant. And another important cofactor in skin (and overall health) is collagen – you could take Imedeen capsules – the original expensive skin care pill – or eat slow cooked meat or bone broth where the collagen has broken down and glycine is released – yet another important co-factor in our digestive health.

You know what? There are many different antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals that are responsible for cell health and regeneration in the body. I’ve scratched the surface here. But the main reason for writing this is to point out that the main building blocks for beauty aren’t purchased in a cream or a pill, nor are they necessarily sourced as an addition to an otherwise awesome diet. The co-factors responsible for building you beautiful are found in your everyday food choices: your fresh, seasonal vegetables, fruit, grass fed meat, free range eggs, full fat dairy and nuts and seeds. For otherwise healthy people, the benefit of whole food will shine through the skin, the eyes and the hair. In addition to that, the benefits of this for balancing stress and sex hormones, helping both energy levels and mood, the enigmatic aura that makes someone beautiful will shine through. And that’s the real benefit – how you feel. You can’t buy that in a bottle.