By Sandra Chaloux & Dr. Martha Calihan | 06/26/2017

Lose Your Headache or Migraine using Functional Medicine –Getting to the Root Cause

Lose Your Headache or Migraine using Functional Medicine –Getting to the Root Cause

If you suffer from headaches or migraines, you are not alone. 1 in 7 Americans (38 million Americans suffer from migraines) affecting 3x as many women as men. In this post, we explore how Functional Medicine helps get to the root cause with Dr. Martha Calihan of Five Stones Wellness Center during our recent Facebook Live interview.

SC (Sandra): June is National Headache and Migraine Awareness month, fun fact for you. Today I’m here with Dr. Martha Calihan of Five Stones Wellness Center in Leesburg, VA.

Today we’re going to talk about functional medicine and explore and how it can be used to address headaches and migraines. Dr. Calihan, can you give us a little overview of functional medicine and how you use it help patients who are suffering from headaches?

MC (Dr. Calihan): Functional medicine is a really good approach to something like migraines because functional medicine is all about the root cause. We try to find the root cause of an issue and really try to understand the background story and factors that set up a person to have whatever condition or symptom they’re dealing with. So, I like to think of functional medicine almost as an operating system. Sort of a paradigm of how we are trained to think about something.

In this practice, in this center, it’s a functional medicine based practice, then we use integrative medicine modalities, which means that we use things other than just the conventional western medicine approach. So along with prescription medicines, we use a lot of nutraceutical supplements, we use some massage therapy, we have personal training, we focus a great deal on nutrition, we use some other modalities – acupuncture, hypnosis, energy medicine. I’m sure I’m forgetting something we use! But we can avail ourselves of any of those modalities to help a certain patient with a condition.

When we are thinking of something like headaches, when we use a functional medicine approach, we are trying to get to the root cause of that issue.

SC: So what would you say are some of the most common root causes that you run across?

MC: You always have to think of the big things that you want to exclude – something structural or dangerous, or worrisome. Once you kind of gets that out of the way, whether that’s through testing or whatever, then you’re left with people having headaches from less obvious causes. That’s usually what most people have – migraine or just regular headache. And the most common cause there would be things like musculoskeletal strain, a lot of headache is really from muscular stress. It can be from nutrient insufficiency. It can be from trouble with the detoxification processes in the body. People can have headaches from things they are ingesting that are not good for them, whether they be foods or additives, or even sometimes medications can cause headaches as a side effect.

SC: I think you started out by saying serious causes that you rule out – what would those be?

MC: You know aneurysms, brain tumors, the big worrisome things that you have to think through every time you’re practicing medicine. Get rid of the scary things, then you’re left trying to figure out the other causes.

SC: What are the signs that people experience that you would advise them to dial 911?

MC: That’s a good question! Really severe pain, the worst headache of your life, and a headache that would be accompanied by neurologic symptoms – weakness, numbness, slurring of your speech, vision, any of the worrisome stroke symptoms.

SC: Can you give me a description of what the Five Stones mean?

MC: Sure! So, the Five Stones is the name that we’ve given our center. And the five stones represent my philosophy for health and wellbeing. And I believe that true health comes from being in balance in body, mind, and spirit. So we use our five stones as symbols of that. It is healthy nutrition, it’s balanced movement, it’s a functional, integrative approach to healthcare, it’s mindful stress management, and it’s interconnected living.

I’ll just tell you a funny story. We’ve had a lot of internal discussions about which stone is which of those. Which stone is the most important stone? Is it the one on the bottom? How do you balance these? What we’ve come to realize is it really doesn’t matter. You could be, if you were really healthy, you could balance on the little stone and go up. Just an internal story that we play with! But those are the five components that we focus on.

SC: Now with functional medicine, how would you say it’s different and what are the actual functions of the body? (Detox, those functions that you look at).

MC: We use something that is called a functional medicine matrix, which is just how we look at things. Whether it’s the immune system or communication system (which we would think about as hormones), detoxification, structural issues, assimilation, those types of things.

So if someone comes in with a migraine or even just a regular headache, we would look at many of those issues. Is it a structural issue? Is it a muscular issue? Is there something out of alignment? Is it muscle stress from stress in life (which is a huge factor in headaches for a lot of people)? Is it a toxin issue? Is it a detoxification inability? Are they eating a food to which they are intolerant? We do a lot of food intolerance testing and when people identify the foods that are causing a reaction in them and come off of that particular food or foods, there can be wonderful relief of symptoms, including migraines.

SC: Are there any big offenders that you’re seeing repeatedly, in terms of foods that tend to cause people problems?

MC: The most inflammatory foods would be the place that I would start. And that’s wheat, dairy, corn, soy. Those are probably the top 4. But it’s individualized – everybody is different.

There can also be significant nutrient deficiencies. The vast majority of people in this country are magnesium deficient. Replacing with magnesium goes along with helping headaches. And other vitamins as well – B Vitamins.

SC: And increasing relaxation for people who tend to have a lot of anxiety.

MC: Absolutely! If there’s muscle spasm going on, magnesium is a great anecdote for that.

SC: I’d like to ask you about some of the different types of testing you offer that conventional medicine practitioners don’t offer. I think a lot of people don’t know about that- I know we talked a little bit about the food sensitivity testing and that’s done by a blood draw right?

MC: That is done by a blood draw, yes.

SC: Then how about some of the other tests that are looking at maybe digestion and detoxification?

MC: We’re taught that all health and all disease start in the gut, so we often start in the gut when we’re assessing a patient. We do a lot of stool testing in this practice, which gives us a sense of what’s going on in the gut – inflammation, the balance of bacteria, other markers that are important to asses digestion. That’s a frequent test that we do, but it is different than what would be done in conventional medical practice.

SC: What about toxins? Heavy metals and that kind of thing. People probably don’t know that they can get tested for heavy metals and we’re exposed to so many.

MC: We live in a really, really toxic world and I personally think that’s the cause of a lot of people’s symptoms these days. When you hear the word toxin, you tend to think of something like a poison – and it might be, that’s a subject for another day – but we have so many additives and exposures in our food, just in our lives, our products that we use, and that’s all cumulative. There comes a point that that becomes a burden for the body to try and deal with. So we do the test and assess detoxification. Everything from genetic testing through to heavy metal testing. And just really deep dive at how the body is functioning biochemically.

SC: Now you want me to dive into, just for a second, the genetic testing because that’s something that I haven’t personally tried yet, but some of my friends are delving into that a little bit. Can you just briefly tell us how that’s done and what information you get from that and how you can use it to improve your health?

MC: Sure. It’s a big topic, but! So, we can look at genetics for a number of different things. Obviously, you can do the whole 23andMe, which gives you a great deal of information. But if you’re focusing on specific things in terms of people’s health and commonly used, you can do a number of genetic tests that look at markers, specific things as to you detoxify – that’s useful clinically. How women handle their estrogen can be very important – in how they detoxify their estrogen and process it through the body.

Some of the other mutations we can look at, things like the MTHFR enzyme has a number of effects in the body. Those are the types of things that we look at – detoxification genetics and some of the genetics that affects how we process our neurotransmitters.

SC: What are the most common signs that people feel when a migraine is coming on and what should they do?

MC: People with migraines often get what we call the “aura” which is that sense that precedes a headache – it’s either a discomfort, sometimes it’s visual – they might see lights, they might have other symptoms. Kind of a warning that it’s coming. Severe fatigue can be very common and some people experience mood changes, yes.

A lot of women get migraines hormonally related too.

SC: What can they do when they’re on their way to a migraine or they have a migraine, what can they do to alleviate?

MC: There are a number of things. Everything from their prescription medicine, if they’re using that, to doing other techniques. Everything from bodywork – sometimes massage helps. Making sure that people stay really well hydrated. I mentioned magnesium deficiency, I think most of us are chronically dehydrated as well. Making sure that their nutrient status is good.

SC: So the nutrient testing, I don’t think we really went into that, is also a blood draw, right?

MC: Right! We do a very comprehensive nutrient analysis through blood and urine.

SC: And it tells you where you’re sufficient, where you’re in a yield zone, a caution zone.

MC: Red, yellow, green!

SC: Even for someone like myself who takes more supplements than I probably like to admit. I found myself deficient in magnesium and vitamin C, which was surprising to me. And B6.

MC: We cannot make Vitamin C. Humans cannot. So you have to get it from your food or supplements. The vast majority of Americans are deficient in several nutrients. It’s staggering when you look at the statistics.

SC: I want to ask about the mind-body and meditation work that you do?

MC: So as I mentioned earlier, balance in mind, body, and spirit is one of the fundamental tenants of this practice and we tend to use a lot of mind-body medicine to get there. We teach a lot of mindfulness, meditation, and the head and body are connected. One affects the other and it goes both ways. You can’t treat one without the other.

SC: You’re teaching classes here in the evenings periodically, for anyone who’s a beginner and wants a guided meditation.

MC: Regular meditation classes here. Mindfulness meditation workshops. A lot of mindfulness-based work through this practice.

SC: Is there anything else that we want to go over about headaches or migraines?

MC: My closing thought would be, there are so many things to look at as underlying issues for someone who’s suffering from headaches. And so many times they can feel so much better and don’t need to use the prescription medicines to mask the symptoms.

SC: There are some natural ways to do it.

MC: There are! Lots of different techniques can be utilized.

SC: I feel like we must take a second to talk about hydration, now that we’re experiencing this really hot weather. What is the rule of thumb about how much water people should be drinking?

MC: What you hear is 8, 8oz glasses of water. The other way to look at it is, take your body in pounds, cut that in half, and that’s the number of ounces. So if you’re a 120 lb person, that’s at least 60 ounces of water per day. And that’s water – that’s not coffee!

SC: That was going to be my last thing! I do want to talk about caffeine for a second because I personally have tried some of these detoxes where you’re off caffeine for a while and for 3 straight days, I had headaches. And I really don’t have headaches that much, so I didn’t go back to regular coffee, but I was just wondering, what your thoughts are about coffee, because I know it’s controversial for many people?

MC: It is controversial. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it. I think people tend to get in the habit of using it more and more. It is dehydrating, it is stimulating, and again through your personal detoxification genetics, some people handle it well, some people don’t handle it well.

It also has a profound effect on headaches. There is a subset of people for whom caffeine helps relieve the symptoms of headaches –, particularly migraines.

SC: Really? Interesting!

MC: Those over the counter medicines often have caffeine in them.

SC: So there you have it!

I’d like to thank Dr. Calihan for joining us today for our Facebook Live. You can follow us on social media – #loseyourheadache as we keep going through the series.

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