Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Electrolytes and Migraine? An Accidental Discovery



I sometimes jokingly say that cycling has cured me of a lot of ailments. But of course that's a nice bit of magical thinking. The logical part of me has always known there was probably a complex chain of cause and effect at play, as well as some spurious correlations going on. But honestly I didn't care what was causing it exactly. It was just really, really nice to be healthy and free from chronic pains for a change. And all I knew was, this unusual state of affairs coincided with cycling entering my life. One thing that cycling has "cured" me of in this manner, has been migraines.

Like many, I began having migraines when I hit puberty. By the time I reached 20, they were debilitating - puking, seeing shapes, ringing in the ears, the whole lot. The pain was largely non-responsive to over-the-counter medication. When attempts at prescription meds ended with adverse reactions, the doctors basically shrugged. "Yup, migraines suck. Unfortunately, some of us just have to live with them. Lie in a dark and quiet room till they go away." So that was what I did for the next decade. And really, I got used to it. So much so, that it took me some time to notice when suddenly, in my early 30s, I was having fewer and fewer of them. The only thing that changed about my lifestyle was that I had started doing some road cycling. Most likely, I thought, the hormonal changes brought about by this high intensity physical activity had something to do with it.

While they are nowhere near as frequent as they used to be, I still get migraines now and again. And one evening, two weeks ago - after three days of being off the bike - I got what felt like the beginning of one. I drank a bottle of water and went to bed in hopes of "sleeping it off." But when I woke - at 5:00am, from the pain! - it was worse than ever, with no signs of subsiding. With one eye half-open and feeling quite Quasimodo-ish, I stumbled into the kitchen and rummaged through our medical kit. Amazingly, we hadn't even ordinary painkillers or headache tablets in the house; it had been a while since anyone's needed them.

In desperation, my hands felt around the countertop for anything that had even the slightest chance of bringing relief. When I came across the jar of electrolyte capsules I normally use on the bike, I thought "might as well" and took 2 with a small glass of water. Within 20 minutes I was feeling great.

Over the past two weeks, this scenario repeated itself a few times. Headache, with all the symptoms of migraine. Two electrolyte tablets with a glass of water. Gone.

It seemed too ridiculously good to be true. But I've since done a bit of research, and there is literature about some strains of migraine being a result of a mineral deficiency, in which case electrolytes can indeed be used as a simple and effective treatment. In hindsight it seems almost too obvious. Nevertheless, in over two decades of popping pills and suffering, no medical professional had ever mentioned it to me as a possibility.

Like most cyclists, I consume electrolyte drinks as part of keeping myself hydrated. In the past these have been in the form of flavoured powders or tablets that dissolve in water. Loathing the taste of those drinks, I eventually switched to plain electrolyte capsules (they are completely unflavoured; just a pinch of salts and minerals in a gelatin shell). But in one form or another, I've been taking electrolyte supplements the entire time I have been road cycling, and apparently for my specific breed of migraine that seems to be an effective remedy. Cycling did not cure my migraines, but it did lead me to this accidental discovery.

Needless to say, this post is not intended as medical advice - I am just sharing a personal experience specific to my condition and circumstance. From previous discussions I know that quite a few readers here suffer from headaches and migraines, and so I thought it worthwhile to share this.

In other news, after what felt like an eternity, I am back on the bike. Wishing for happy and pain-free cycling to all!



37 comments:

  1. Please, what brand? Or have you had success with other brands, and what are they? We are desperate. I know everyone's migraines are different, and you are not endorsing anything, but different brands may have different formulations, and it may not even be the electrolytes, but some other ingredient. Please...

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    1. No problem. Just note this is not a review. I take Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes ("made with natural ingredients") and have not tried other brands to compare.

      The active ingredients in 2 capsules are:
      sodium (as sodium chloride) 80mg
      chloride (as sodium chloride) 120mg
      calcium (as chelate) 100g
      magnesium (as chelate) 50mg
      potassium (as chelate) 50mg
      manganese (as chelate) 500mcg

      other ingredients: stabilised rice bran, ginger root, vegetable capsules

      Made in the USA.

      Hope this is useful.

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  2. As a fellow migraineur, you have my deepest sympathy! The attacks tend to hit during the day, occasionally during a ride(!)Dehydration is the major trigger. Another trigger for me seems to be Gatorade, which after two incidents on rides has become anathema. i don't know what's in the stuff, but i avoid it like the plague. i don't get the same problem from other electrolyte mixes, however i do find the flavour of most electrolyte tabs and drinks to be just this side of disgusting, but the plain capsules are tolerable and very helpful, especially when taken with a litre or two of plain water. This seems to keep the migraine at bay.

    Glad to hear you're back on the bike!

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    1. Odd about the Gatorade. When I played tennis in high school, the coach once handed me a bottle of it during a game. Upon downing it in one go, I felt as if someone slipped me an anaesthetic and immediately fainted. The memory of this incident and similar kept me terrified of electrolyte drinks for some time when I first began cycling. But I've since realised there is something bout this beverage in particular that has that effect on some people. Perhaps the specific mix of sweeteners and artificial flavours they use.

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  3. Not a migraine sufferer, but I too hate the taste of electrolyte drinks. My LBS had no advice for me when I mentioned this. Each time I was forced to buy another pack of disgusting citrus raspberry powder! I had no idea about these unflavored capsules. Thanks for the tip!

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    1. For me the distaste grew the more I drank the stuff, until, no matter what brand and flavour I tried, I couldn't stomach it anymore. The plain capsules have no flavor, no scent. I fill my bottles with tap water and swallow 2 caps per every hour of cycling. Works the same as electrolyte drinks but without the sickly sweetness.

      Be aware though that doing this will not replace energy drinks, if you are currently consuming those on the bike (as opposed to electrolyte-only drinks). The capsules are zero calorie.

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    2. Why do you need to take these capsules while cycling - 2 capsules every hour? I have seen these electrolyte drinks and special concoctions in my local bikes shop but just assumed they are for those taking part in extreme cycling endeavours - not for recreational/commuter cyclists. I have never taken anything but water with me, but if out riding my bike all day I will stop somewhere and have coffee and cake, at least once.

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    3. Hi, kind of a late reply. I used to suffer from calf cramps on all long rides, even when my conditioning was good. Endurolyte capsules totally changed that...I can go all day now with no or little cramping. Unless I forget the capsules....

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  4. I'm not a migraine sufferer, but this checks out. Years of acne were cured in days by going off milk. Sure, these changes don't work for all, but it'd be nice if medicine tried experimenting before doping. They'd had me on Tetracycline instead!

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    1. Alternative remedies suggested anecdotally will certainly not work for everyone. But when it comes to something as comparatively benign as a low dose of electrolyte tablets, I figured it was worthwhile to share my experience. Especially since so many people with migraines do not respond to either OTC or prescription meds.

      Milk though! Oh no. Glad going off it helped you, but not sure I could have coped going without! I love the stuff.

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    2. Fair enough. Few adults properly metabolize it. No surprise, it's for baby cows. Much fewer outside northern Europeans. Almost everyone can digest hard cheeses. The further along the transformation of milk products the more who can handle it. I went off all of it for a decade, but turns out I can deal with anything but milk itself.

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  5. I've been adding Nuun tablets to my water while on my century rides and multi-day tours for years now after hearing about stuff like this.

    Much stranger is how my days without that sort of riding have become as of late. I've been waking up craving what I thought was water, and would end up with very dilute urine rather quickly. While I'd solved my chronic headache problems with naproxen (Alieve) only a couple months before this came about, I'd noticed a very strong fatigue toward the end of the work day. After getting some blood tests done, I learned that my sodium and chloride levels were below the healthy range much of the time, and my urine was almost purely water. Oddly, my potassium and calcium levels were right in the middle of their respective ranges.

    After I've started adding Lyte (a concentrate of several electrolytes) to my 'rest day' water, the problem largely went away. No more fatigue, and I don't have to use naproxen anywhere nearly as much. Chronic depression—which had plagued me for the past four or so years—also significantly lessened, and I stopped feeling mildly terrified and very stressed out all the time.

    While I've always felt more thirsty after drinking water—even as a child—I never expected things were this weird for me. My relatively healthy diet (unchanged for the past six years) combined with some sort of quirk with how my body handles sodium must've brought this about. It'd be nice figuring out a real diagnosis, but doing overtime on salt pills and electrolyte solutions works for me for now.

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  6. I don't suffer from migraines (or headaches at all really), but word from people I know who do suffer from them is that magnesium (& manganese) were like a magic bullet. I see your tablets contain those so your are covered, but maybe you might want to try getting tablets of one or both of those and maybe you can isolate whether one of those minerals is all that is needed? - Mas

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    1. There might be something to the magnesium solution. I used to suffer from crippling pre- menstrual migraines every month, but rarely get them now that I take magnesium supplements. It is worth a try!

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  7. Incidentally, yes, I do find that riding a lot does improve physical ailments (and rather quickly), especially when done consistently. I have not really found this to be true with any other form of exercise I've tried. Yoga and Water aerobics, might, but the results are slower coming. I recently was forced to commute for 3 1/2 weeks and after about 10-12 days I really noted how much better I felt! Now to just keep it going . . .
    -Mas

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  8. Very interesting! I have several thoughts...

    First - Fellow migraine sufferer here. I haven't noticed my electrolyte tablets helping migraines, but the ones I take (Thermotabs) only have sodium (sodium chloride) and potassium (potassium chloride). I'm wondering if the effect you're seeing is from the magnesium. There is documented evidence that a large percentage of migraine sufferers are magnesium deficient. Magnesium has a muscle relaxing effect, and in addition to taking it regularly, I have successfully used it to abort migraines.

    Second - in terms of the drinks... I make my own. I make an electrolyte powder by mixing equal parts sea salt (contains trace minerals in addition to salt), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and Morton Lite Salt (which contains salt, potassium chloride, calcium silicate, magnesium carbonate, dextrose and potassium iodide). I then add about 1/8 teaspoon of the mixture per water bottle. I can't stomach the stuff without some flavoring, plus I need sugar on a long ride. So I generally mix it with homemade lemonade or watered down juice. Tastes much better than the powdered mixes.

    Finally - in terms of the powdered mixes, I have found the offensive ingredient to be the artificial sweeteners. If you get the kind made with real sugar, there's no horrible taste.

    That's my two cents! Or maybe it was three... :-)

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    1. I am one of those people who doesn't crave flavour in their drinks. In fact, the hotter it is and the more thirsty I am, the more I just want my water to taste like plain water! So being able to finally drink WATER while still getting my electrolyte fix on the bike, has been fantastic.

      As somebody else has mentioned in one of the comments, it seems that many LBSs are not aware that plain electrolyte tablets exist (or else don't sell them, and therefore deliberately do not inform their customers - but I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt!). As a result, many cyclists believe that flavored drinks are their only option, even though it's not.

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    2. EcoCatLady….Thanks for the recipe!

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    3. Well, my point was not that I crave flavoring, it's that if you put the salt mixture into plain water it tastes... well, it tastes a bit like salty water, which I can't stomach.

      So do you carry some other sort of sugar or carb on a long ride, or are you one of these lucky people who doesn't start to fade after a few hours without a boost of carbs?

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    4. I was just looking at the marketing blurb for some of these products and several refer to being "naturally flavoured".

      Is "natural flavour" the same as "no flavour" in marketing speak?

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    5. Ha! I doubt it! Probably means plant derived rather than chemical derived. Just a guess though.

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  9. Another anecdotal solution that won't work unilaterally: menopause. No more migraines, mood swings, or what my mother euphemistically called "the mess." My migraines (and my periods) were never of the curl-up-and-hope-to-die variety — more wonky vision than blinding pain, especially after 40 — but still, nice to be free of them.

    Sadly, life w/out estrogen has other consequences as well, and not all of them are pleasant or even benign, so I can't recommend ditching your ovaries just to stop the headaches. On the other hand, it might be worth tracking the migraines for a bit to see if there is a hormonal trigger, no? In addition to the usual dietary suspects, chocolate, oranges, red wine, whatever.

    I have long resisted the idea of special drinks etc, especially as the few sips I have had of things my husband and sons drink have bordered on the revolting. But I have noticed this summer, as I am increasing my daily commute to about double the distance I used to do, and it is hot, hot, hot! outside, that I am craving salty things (and not just sea salt caramel chocolates). Had to buy a little bag of potato chips/ crisps the other day. Might have to look at these flavourless tablets.

    As always, thanks for an interesting post.

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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    1. I've tracked mine (but only fairly recently) and they are definitely hormonally triggered. In fact, once I did this charting I was kind of stunned to notice how much my physical and mental state was captive to The Cycle. Looking forward to my 50s!

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    2. So... one more thought on the migraines. Mine, too are VERY connected to the dreaded monthly cycle. Apparently what causes this is that your estrogen levels plummet during your cycle. Anyhow, I've had great luck supplementing with evening primrose oil (which contains natural plant estrogens) during the dreaded week. It makes a HUGE difference for me!

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    3. If hormonal triggers are implicated, pregnancy might do the trick, too :-)

      Again, not a solution for everyone, but if you time it right, you can get up to a two-year break from The Cycle. Not sure how long a break from the bicycle this would require, though?

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    4. Ha! Well pregnancy is an interesting solution - but then, of course, you'd have a kid to deal with, and that's pretty much guaranteed to give you headaches! :-)

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    5. {imagines hordes of women running out to get pregnant after learning it relieves migraines}

      I dunno... Quite a few mommies I know might disagree with you there.

      Also, you have to be careful about the assumption of taking a break from the cycle post-birthing. I know several gals whose kids were born <12 months apart because the docs ASSURED them their cycle would not return for as long as they were breastfeeding.

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  10. I learned about this years ago through a chiropractic physician colleague. I like to use Elete Electrolyte and always add it to my reverse-osmosis filtered water. It helps tremendously. It's not flavored, and just gives the water a more alkaline taste (probably due to the magnesium, which most people in the US are deficient in.) I used to use Nuun, which I liked, but I prefer the flavorless liquid instead. I add quite a bit, and hate the taste of water without it.

    I think it works in part by increasing blood volume. Migraines are vascular headaches.

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  11. Nicely done! Is there anyway you could reproduce the effect through eating foods?

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    1. The ingredients suggest that yes, and fairly easily.

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    2. Banana seems to have the potassium, manganese and magnesium covered. I bet also they deliver the elements slow release!

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    3. The strange thing is, I already eat foods that contain these ingredients. Especially foods rich in potassium and magnesium. So either (a) I need more of that stuff than the average person (in which case, eating more food is not a good solution, unless I want to gain weight), or (b) it does not get absorbed probably in whatever manner or combination I normally consume it in. It's complicated, all this stuff.

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  12. I see you have the branded Ibuprofen Nurofen there, the generic packs of Ibuprofen are the same for about 10% of the cost, if that's helpful. (less the gloss packaging and pink coloured tabs of course!)

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  13. http://www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=254434587

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  14. Glad to hear you're back on your bike.

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  15. Very interesting. I thought I had simply "outgrown" my migraines. I stopped getting my prescription filled about a year after I took up cycling. I never thought about a correlation. I was aware that my chronic back pain was vastly improved by cycling; I went from ibuprofen nearly daily to once or twice a month. I recently damaged my MCL and cycling is the only thing that makes it better. Of course, the biggest difference is the mental one. I just feel better when I ride and even one day off (or the thought of missing a day) disrupts my mood. Whatever endorophins/hormones are affected by cycling, it makes a huge difference. Best pain control ever.

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  16. I also suffered from migraines for most of my life. Never of the curl up and die kind, just the pain in my eyeball making me want t0 not do anything kind, whch used to sort of mess up my life when they came.
    A year or so back the doctor prescribed Sumatriptans (one of the 'triptans') and they have changed my life, i.e. they totally work when I feel a migraine coming on. I would suggest asking your doctor about them and trying them.
    That said, I remarked to my partner recently that since I started cycling more seriously I have noticed I hardly ever use the triptans as I hardly ever feel the start of a migraine.
    I've always been aware that my migraines are closely connected to stress and felt that cycling took a lot of that stress away.
    Anyway, whatever the reason, cycling seems to be a good prophylactic against migraine.

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