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Splitting: A Neuroscientist Shares the Inside Scoop

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Splitting headache? One myth busted: That chocolate you ate is not the cause. We get the inside scoop on headaches from neuroscientist Amanda Ellison.

Did you know that orgasms can stave off a headache? Or that you should not wear stripes if your spouse suffers from migraines? These are just some of the tidbits you will unearth on those mysterious headaches in the just-released Splitting: The Inside Story on Headaches by Amanda Ellison. From those nagging tension headaches to the pressure-filled sinus headaches to the agonizing migraines, Ellison debunks myths and lays down the facts so that you can make lifestyle choices to attain that headache-free life.

S&H: Splitting offers a wealth of information on the physiology of headaches, as well as their causes and treatments. What is the single most effective way to combat a headache?

Amanda Ellison: Prevention is always better than cure, but, of course, no matter what we do, headaches will still happen occasionally, as not everything is under our control (for example, menstrual migraines).

Most people will reach for an anti-inflammatory drug such as acetaminophen, but there are extra actions you can take depending on what type of headache you are having. Since there isn’t a single most effective way to combat all headaches, what I suggest is a more personalized approach. It’s about helping all of the people all of the time, instead of some of the people some of the time. None of these are magic fixes forever; you still need to address the underlying cause if you can or the headache will keep coming back.

If it is sinus-related, then decongestants will be more effective than acetaminophen alone. If it is a tension headache, you might also check your posture and try to relax your body (muscle relaxants may help with this). If it is a migraine, taking sumatriptan (which works to rebalance your serotonin levels) helps many people get to a point where they can still function.

It is important, however, to be kind to yourself. Lower your expectations of what you will achieve during a headache. Doing so will reduce your stress and lessen the pressure on your brain, allowing it to recover. Drink plenty of water, and take breaks when you can—just close your eyes in fresh air for 10 minutes to reduce the sensory onslaught of the world. Your brain will thank you.

Is there any data that shows how widespread headaches are in the U.S. compared to other developed nations?

Data suggests that serious headaches afflict 15.3 percent of the U.S. population. This is roughly comparable with other developed nations such as the U.K., with a little variability due to diagnosis rates. The World Health Organization warns that, worldwide, a minority of people are appropriately diagnosed by a healthcare provider, which may be because headache is not actually on the curriculum of many medical schools.

Headache has been routinely underestimated, under-recognized, and undertreated around the world. It is a huge societal and personal burden. This was a big driver for me to write this book. By helping individuals understand where their headaches come from in an accessible way and what they can do through their behaviors to combat them, they should feel more control over their head health. Nobody knows you better than you. Using this knowledge to help yourself could change your life.

You write in Splitting that we can’t think of the brain as being separate from the body, especially when it comes to understanding headaches. Why was this separation believed for so long?

It’s a kind of received wisdom from ancient times. Early philosophers thought about the mind and brain being separate. Aristotle (384 B.C.) had quite cogent arguments as to why the heart was the seat of the mind—as opposed to the brain.

We know better now, but this way of thinking has nevertheless wormed its way into each of our lives in modern times. Let’s take emotion as an example. You only have to walk into a store in late January and early February to see the number of anatomically incorrect hearts dotted around the place in preparation for Valentine’s Day love. But love does not come from your heart. It comes from your brain—your limbic system to be exact. However, you don’t see pictures of that on the Internet and in storefronts and on Valentine’s cards—beautiful though it is. (This annoys me intensely every February.)

We thump our chests when we express how somebody has hurt us, but, again, that negative feeling comes from the brain. The heart beats faster just the same from emotional passion and emotional pain. It’s the brain that knows the difference between the two—and works out what to do about either accordingly.

Our use of the heart as a metaphor for how the brain makes us feel is a hangover from only knowing about the symptom of emotion (such as the heart beating faster or slower) and not knowing how these emotions are generated. We know a lot more now, of course, yet filtering that down to rebut millennia of bunkum is difficult. Only by linking the brain with the body and understanding the cause and effect of our behavior between the two can we really take control of what is happening to make us feel good—and bad.

You write about training the body by pulling on an earlobe when you’re happy so that when you feel a headache coming on, you can pull the earlobe and release serotonin. What are some other fun and unique ways to train the body?

We all have a different sensory experience of the world so we should play to our particular strengths. Some will have an excellent sense of smell, and so for them conjuring the memory of the scent of a loved one or a place in which they felt safe and loved would work just as well. Or you could bring to mind your favorite holiday vista or the taste of something you love to eat.

Recalling a sensory memory that already has an attached visceral happiness will boost your serotonin. But relying on memory can be hard to do when you are stressed and feeling under pressure. This is why training yourself to link a physical movement to a happy feeling circumvents your capacity to generate serotonin by memory, when the mental resources to bring a memory to mind might be at a premium.

What’s the single best thing one can do for one’s puppet master (aka the hypothalamus)?

The hypothalamus is my favorite part of the brain—I find it endlessly fascinating, and I treat it like a friend. It’s the kind of friend that is incredibly important in my life and helps me in so many unseen ways. So, what would you do for your friend? The best thing is: Don’t ignore them!

Your hypothalamus keeps all of your internal mechanisms in check, and if it needs something, it will tell you. Perhaps your hypothalamus has detected a dip in blood sugar. You will sense this as feeling hungry. Until you eat something, it will have to work extra hard and in more complex ways to keep you going. You might think that means you don’t have free will because it is your hypothalamus that’s yanking your chain to make you do something. But, actually, you have the power to decide how best to satisfy that hunger. Whether you choose to eat a double bacon cheeseburger or a pasta salad, or, indeed, ignore it altogether, is your free will in action. But your hypothalamus likes balance—so treat it well, and it will do the same for you.

You note in the book that an interdisciplinary approach between molecular scientists, physiologists, flow dynamists, computer scientists, statisticians, clinicians, neuroscientists, psychologists, physiotherapists, and patients is essential for the next stage of inquiry. Do you see this approach starting to happen?

Absolutely. I am the director of an interdisciplinary research institute for health and wellbeing at Durham University (the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing), and our main aim is to make this approach much more mainstream. It’s not easy, of course; everybody speaks a different language, and that can be daunting for people who have worked only inside their field for years upon years. Suddenly, they find themselves in a room where they are not the expert and need to ask questions they feel others might think are stupid.

But there are no stupid questions, and once everybody checks their ego at the door, real progress is made. We can’t fix a problem until we understand all aspects of it. Working together is the only way we can get there faster—and we will.

Do you have a meditation practice? If so, would you mind sharing a little bit about it?

I have two. I hold a lot of tension in my body, so I use a breathing method called the Alexander Technique to unlock that.

I also took up transcendental meditation in my late teens. It’s a mantra-based technique, which is good for calming my mind. As a thinker, this was a revelation. It gave me a bit of cognitive space and let me look at the world in a more lateral way. My thought behavior changed from jumping into a kind of impetuous panic mode when problems arose to thinking things through before I acted.

Given that the thinking and reasoning parts of our brains don’t form completely until we are 23 years old or so—and are sensitive to our experiences—I was unwittingly changing how my maturing brain was wiring up. That’s why the benefits have stayed with me, even if I don’t practice meditation as much as I should nowadays.

Want more? Find out what your heartache is trying to tell you.


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