With the extreme pain and other disabling symptoms, migraines can seem like an utterly terrifying attack on your body and mind, designed to completely incapacitate you.
But now a neurologist has proposed that migraines are actually the opposite: a defense mechanism that’s supposed to help protect the brain against neurodegenerative diseases related to oxidative stress. And that understanding these mechanisms could help all of us avoid these diseases. Hopefully, though, we can apply those techniques without the pain!
Protecting the Brain from Oxidative Stress
So how could anyone think that migraines are designed to protect the brain? This theoretical article in the journal Headache describes migraines specifically as a “homeostatic, neuroprotective response to brain oxidative stress.” In more plain language, the brain responds to oxidative stress by partially shutting itself down to limit exposure.
This professor has previously theorized that all migraine triggers share one common factor: oxidative stress. Essentially, he looked at 22 common migraine triggers and found that nearly all of them could cause oxidative stress. The migraine triggers most strongly related to oxidative stress were alcohol, infection, aspartame, and psychological stress. However, there was only one trigger–pericranial pain–for which there was no evidence that it caused oxidative stress.
Why would the brain need to protect itself from oxidative stress? Oxidative stress occurs when highly reactive oxygen atoms are loose in the body. These oxygen atoms will attack any molecules they contact, including cell membranes and even DNA. As a result, oxidative stress has been tied to many neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.
So it makes sense that the brain would have a protective mechanism against these types of effects. The complexity of the response, he says, argues for the fact that a migraine is an intended effect and not a disease condition in the brain. And, it turns out, many of the things the brain is doing during a migraine can actually have the effect of reducing oxidative stress. Some molecules cut down on the production of oxidants. Other parts of the response, such as the release of growth factors in the brain, might be designed to repair damage.
The dysfunctional symptoms, then, can be read as being analogous to the body’s response to other dangerous stimuli: pain, light sensitivity, and nausea are not uncommon responses to injury or danger.
Prevention Is the Best
If a migraine really is a protective response, then we certainly wouldn’t want to treat it indiscriminately as if it were a disease. Instead, it’s important to understand what brings migraines on and try to head off these dangerous stimuli. You can track your personal migraine triggers and avoid them to keep migraines at bay.
In addition, TMJ treatment can head off migraines. It helps keep migraine triggers like pericranial pain under control so that they don’t develop into migraines. TMJ treatment also has the benefit of not involving drugs, so it doesn’t interfere with the mechanisms of migraine and therefore wouldn’t undermine their potential protective effects.