It is rare that we view salt – once a harbinger of doom for those with high blood pressure, or those at risk for heart disease or stroke – as a remedy for anything. Emerging research, however, suggests that episodic use of salt could alleviate the symptoms of migraine headaches.
Anyone who has a history of migraines, or knows someone who suffers from migraines, knows that a migraine does not begin and end with a simple headache. More commonly, the headache is preceded or accompanied by nausea, vomiting, changes in vision, or paresthesias (numbness or tingling, usually felt in the hands and feet, arms and legs). During a migraine, some people may experience sensitivity to light, sound, or other sensory stimulation, irritability, a change in appetite and other potentially debilitating symptoms. The migraine experience can last from just a few hours hours to several days.
Different things trigger migraines in different people. Common triggers include:
- Poor sleep habits (sleeping too much or not enough)
- Certain foods
- Red wine
- Hormonal fluctuations
- Salty foods
- Strong sunlight
- Food additives like MSG
- Weather changes/changes in barometric pressure
- Electrolyte imbalance
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Electrolytes maintain the proper balance of fluids between the intracellular (inside of the cell) and extracellular (outside of the cell) environments and regulate cell function. Sodium and potassium are the most significant electrolytes in the body. Sodium is the primary extracellular ion and potassium is the primary intracellular ion. Sodium and potassium together create action potentials (electrical signals) which prompt the cells to do their jobs.
Too little or too much sodium can interfere with the performance of the action potential, interfering with cellular function. Hyponatremia, an abnormally low level of sodium, can cause headaches, fatigue, hallucinations, and muscle spasms. Hypernatremia, an abnormally high level of sodium, can cause weakness, seizures, coma and death. Hypernatremia most often results from severe dehydration. Under normal circumstances, our bodies regulate sodium levels within a small range so as to avoid either hypo- or hypernatremia.
Salt is essential for healthy body function. As our bodies cannot make salt, we must obtain it from the foods we eat. The current recommendation for salt intake for adults is no more than 2300mg per day. On average, adults eat much more salt than that – upwards of 3400mg per day. Most of the salt we eat does not come from the shaker at the dinner table, but from processed foods, and foods from restaurants.
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Migraines and Salt
We know very little about the relationship between diet and migraine headaches, except that there are some foods which trigger certain types of migraines. Interestingly, some common migraine food triggers are high in sodium themselves.
As long ago as the early 1950’s, the connection between fluid and electrolyte balance and migraine headaches was first made. By measuring the blood and urine sodium levels of people with and without histories of migraines, researchers were able to document that those with histories of migraines excreted more sodium in their urine.
Researchers also learned that sodium levels vary predictably during the course of a migraine. It is unclear if the changes in sodium levels cause the migraine, or if it is the migraine syndrome (the prodrome, migraine “attack” and postdrome) itself which causes sodium levels to fluctuate. Our sodium levels change according to our diets, activity level, the hormonal changes in our bodies, and in response to dehydration – all common triggers for migraines. This may help to explain the link between sodium and migraines.
More recently, researchers looked at the 24 hour diet recall and reported headache symptoms of nearly 9000 individuals. This review revealed that those with lower dietary salt (sodium) intake experienced more migraine headaches. While there seems to be a link between sodium intake and migraines, the exact nature of that link is uncertain. More research needs to be done to determine how salt might best be used to treat migraines.
If you’re interested in trying a salt remedy when your next migraine hits, try this recipe at the first inkling of on on-coming migraine.
Salt and Lemon Juice
Mix the juice if one lemon with 1-2 teaspoons of salt in a glass of water.
But is it Worth the Risk?
For many years, we have believed high salt intake to be associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, especially for people over 50 years old, or for people with existing hypertension. The recommendation to restrict salt intake was generalized to the entire population, without regard to age, race, sex, or health status. Restricted salt intake seems to be beneficial for higher risk individuals. However, there is more and more questioning into whether or not restricted salt intake has any significant benefits for those who are at low risk for hypertension, heart disease or stroke. There is even some evidence suggesting that a restricted salt intake may actually increase the risk of heart disease in an otherwise health population.
Migraine prevention remains the best cure. To prevent migraines:
- Avoid your triggers.
- Stay well-hydrated.
- Unless you have high-blood pressure or certain kidney disorders, salt your food to taste.
- Get regular, adequate sleep.
- Eat well.
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco use.
- Exercise regularly.
Each migraine is as different as the person who is experiencing it. As more and more is learned about migraines (especially the genetic factors associated with migraines) we may learn that there are actually various different types of migraine headaches. Until then, we need to do the best with the information and resources that we have. If salt works for you, this could be an easy, accessible and inexpensive “cure” for you and millions of migraine sufferers.
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