The other day I wrote about how I’m a bit of a skeptic about the exploding field of alternative health. It is so hard to separate the noise of the snake oil salesmen from the soft-spoken voices of reason. But here’s another example of how advances in modern healthcare don’t always happen in the laboratory.
One night I was at a choral rehearsal and overheard one woman asking another for advice about her, ahem, female troubles. I didn’t catch what her symptoms were, but the woman she was asking is knowledgeable about dietary health and answered that she should try supplementing with magnesium.
My daughter is now 10. When she was born, I remember to the day how old she was the first time I got one of those headaches. She was six months old, and a few days before my cycle began again after childbirth, I was hit with an amazing headache. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I was unable to get out of bed (something extremely unusual for me), and soon began to feel nauseated as well.
Stuck in bed, what did I do? I asked my husband to bring me my laptop, of course. In short order, I figured out that I was having a migraine, the first of my life. Then I found out that some women have this problem associated with their menstrual cycle. The recommendations? Over-the-counter pain medications, and when that doesn’t work, Imitrex.
I dosed myself with enormous amounts of Aleve, and was eventually able to get back out of bed. But from that month onwards, I got my monthly headache.
Some women would have left it at that, I suppose. But I’m not willing to be sent to bed once a month for three days without a fight! So I asked my doctor, and she recommended, not surprisingly, Imitrex. I tried it, and sure enough, it worked. And sure enough, just like the package warned, the other side effects made it so that I was still incapacitated, though my headache was gone.
Step two was my doctor’s recommendation to try Zoloft. Regularly prescribed as an antidepressant, Zoloft is used off-label to cure all manner of hormone-related maladies, I learned. So I tried it. Once again, it got rid of the headaches. Once again, I wasn’t really willing to deal with the side-effects. In this case, I went from my usual highs and lows to some weird, gray version of my life. I was neither sad nor happy, and didn’t much care about what was going on around me. Again, the headaches were cured, but the side effects were not to my liking.
Against my doctor’s recommendations, I gave up taking the Zoloft every day and just dosed myself when I felt a headache coming on. It worked, but I worried about the possible side effects of playing with my hormones that way.
So back to that choral rehearsal. I thought, Hm, magnesium, what harm could it do to take the RDA and see if it helps? Amazingly, it didn’t just help. It wiped out the headaches. Years later, there is still a direct correlation: If I take magnesium, no headache. If I slack off, the headaches return.
There is a scientific basis for this. According to the National Institutes of Heath:
Magnesium deficiency is related to factors that promote headaches, including neurotransmitter release and vasoconstriction . People who experience migraine headaches have lower levels of serum and tissue magnesium than those who do not.
However, research on the use of magnesium supplements to prevent or reduce symptoms of migraine headaches is limited. Three of four small, short-term, placebo-controlled trials found modest reductions in the frequency of migraines in patients given up to 600 mg/day magnesium . The authors of a review on migraine prophylaxis suggested that taking 300 mg magnesium twice a day, either alone or in combination with medication, can prevent migraines .
So, you may be asking the same question that I ask every time I find out about these associations: Why didn’t my very capable physician have me try magnesium, an element necessary for human health and very difficult to overdose on, rather than two drugs with bad side effects and the potential to damage my health further?
The easy answer is just that she doesn’t know. I am placing great hope in the advent of connected computerized health to fix this problem. No single doctor can know everything about modern medicine at this point, so we need computer systems to help them out. My doctor’s office is equipped with a wonderful computer system, which could be enhanced to offer her suggestions. (She can already look things up, but I don’t remember if she bothered to look up migraines when I came in to see her.) A well-made computer system, when a doctor types in “migraine,” will pop up information that the doctor may not know, such as the relationship between magnesium intake and migraines.
The more complex answer is one of the reasons that so many people are turning away from science and toward the snake oil salesmen: our medical system is too much in the grips of large pharmaceutical companies who inundate our doctors with gifts and freebies. Want Zoloft? Your doctor probably has free samples lying around. Wonder what Imitrex is? Your doctor is much more likely to know the name of this brand name drug than the uses of a good old, homely element like magnesium.
Of course, as consumers flock to alternative medicine, large companies are taking over alternative medicine and steering patients to make just as irrational, and sometimes life-threatening, decisions as the patients of doctors who steer them to name-brand drugs.
But here is what I feel to be a wonderful coda to this story: Last year, a friend was having unusual and severe symptoms having to do with her menstrual cycle. Her symptoms had nothing to do with migraines and in fact were not located in her head. However, after she told me her tale of woe involving multiple tests and different drugs, I suggested that she try magnesium. Couldn’t hurt, right?
Recently, I asked her. It turns out that magnesium has completely solved the symptoms that modern drugs made no dent in. And besides that, she noticed that a co-worker posted that she was out sick because of similar problems, and she suggested magnesium which solved her co-worker’s problems as well.
One day, our doctors’ computers will tell us which dietary modifications to make before the doctors suggest treatment with drugs.
Until then, I guess it’s got to be women helping women, one headache at a time.