mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

pushing the limits of my body again with zone 2

on improving my mitochondrial health in hope of migraine reduction

Some time ago this or last year I stopped any form of intense exercise because I was getting migraines every time I exerted myself. I used to try to exercise even if I was having a migraine, especially if they were considered mild – I can’t move at all for the debilitating ones – till I learnt that migraines are most likely caused by excess oxidative stress. Since exercise actually contributes to oxidative stress, that made me want to exercise less. So I chose to walk instead.

In published medical research, no one knows what are the root causes of migraines. We know that hormonal fluctuations trigger migraines, but we don’t know exactly why. I came across the work of Angela Stanton whose hypothesis is that impaired glucose metabolism causing an electrolyte imbalance is the root cause of migraines. How does this tie in with the oxidative stress theory? Abnormal glucose and/or electrolyte levels and oxidative stress contribute to each other, a reinforcing feedback loop:

concept map: reinforcing loop of oxidative stress causing abnormal glucose causing electrolyte imbalance

Her way of healing from migraines is to go on a low carb diet and be hyper cautious about electrolyte balance, so one has to log their food and make sure their potassium and sodium ratio for every single meal is balanced. I discovered her work quite some time ago, but was only driven out of desperation to try her protocol perhaps last year? I do love my carbs and I had found food logging tedious, but eventually I tried it because everything else had failed. But I tried and gave up multiple times, until this year I had to start cooking because my partner developed histamine issues.

I was nowhere as meticulous as the fellow migraineurs in her group. I just made sure I ate below 50g of carbs, focused on potassium and salt in my diet, but their ratio was balanced daily instead of every single meal.

Doing this reduced the severity and frequency of my symptoms by at least 50%. It could probably be 90% if I was as meticulous as she required. But I wasn’t sure if I could be this rigid for the rest of my life.

Concurrently through Stanton’s work I learnt more about mitochondria and how basically without them we would be dead because they produce ATP (energy) in our body. They directly impact the metabolism and oxidative stress of our body. Too much stress kills them. So we have a reinforcing negative feedback loop: stress causes mitochondrial death which causes impaired metabolism and decreased stress tolerance, in turn causing more oxidative stress which causes more mitochondria to die:

 On the other hand, when the antioxidant defenses are overwhelmed, there is an overproduction of ROS which then leads to oxidative damage to the proteins, DNA, and lipids in mitochondria. This impaired the enzyme functions in the respiratory chain and ultimately leading to mitochondrial dysfunction, reduced mitochondrial biogenesis and a broad range of pathologic conditions such as aging, various metabolic diseases and neurodegenerative disorders.

Mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress in metabolic disorders
concept map: stress kills mitochondria causing impaired metabolism

In order to develop more tolerance towards oxidative stress, we have to grow more mitochondria. How to grow them? I guess this post is a very long winded way of explaining why I’m increasing the frequency of zone 2 exercise .

Zone 2 is the zone that increases aerobic capacity: growing mitochondria and improving fatty acid oxidation. It is true that we burn more calories doing higher intensity exercise, but sometimes burning the most calories and working the hardest isn’t compatible with certain health goals. High intensity exercise (zone 4-5) increases the stress hormone cortisol, so for someone like me whose stress capacity is already impaired, I would have to be very careful with higher intensity exercise. Technically I should be able to do a lot of zone 2 without burning myself out.

I am not there yet. Even zone 2 is triggering migraines for me. I believe it is because my metabolism is still impaired, so exercise causes an energetic imbalance that sends my body into a stress crisis. The instinctive thing to do is to keep on avoiding anything that taxes my body.

But I don’t want to keep on living with this fear. I have to try to keep on pushing the limits of my body, and along the process I know I will trigger more migraines. Yet my hypothesis is that if I can keep calm and carry on slowly, my mitochondrial health will improve. That will in turn improve my glucose metabolism, increase my capacity for stress, which will hopefully reduce the frequency and severity of my migraines.

concept map: hypothesis of how zone 2 exercise reduces migraines

For Stanton having a migraine brain is genetic. I don’t disagree with that, but I do believe that we are able to improve our baselines. By how much I do not know, but I do know that the frequency of my migraines increased after I hit 35, around the age where our hormones and metabolism may start going haywire due to peri-menopause and the natural consequences of ageing.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, after many months of being on a strict-ish low carb diet, I do notice my metabolism improving based on finger pricks daily. The severity of my migraines have gone from an 8 or 9 out of 10 to maybe 1-3 for now. I’m now trying to see if I can improve it further with more zone 2, with the addition of strength training to increase lean mass, which will also improve my glucose metabolism.

When I started running I didn’t know how to run, so I thought the best way was to run as quickly as possible. Being unfit I was running myself to the ground at 180+bpm, and after every bout I was overly-exhausted and my muscles were very sore. When I became fitter through bad running I was still running at 130-160bpm+ – I often wondered why running felt so torturous and I couldn’t sustain long distances.

Now I’ve learnt that the trick to run longer is simply to run a lot slower, at a pace which we are be able to carry a conversation. I don’t have anyone to talk to while running, so I simply go by data – the heart rate monitor on my watch.

I started running 20 minutes, and I slowly increased it to 30, 40, and yesterday I completed my first 60 minute run in a very long while. This time around I am not running everyday. I am supplementing running with cycling, and I only do either if my Oura and hrv4training scores are good enough.

Based on my Oura score yesterday I decided to attempt a 60 minute run:

screenshot of oura showing high enough score for exercise

Today’s score. Body temperature is showing slight signs of stress, but overall I seemed to have recovered well enough:

screenshot of oura showing adequate recovery

Just for comparison I’m showing a screenshot of a bad Oura day – I was having some unknown illness, my RHR was through the roof for me:

screenshot of bad oura day

I am not sure where this will go. I have a history of burning out when I attempt exercise experiments like this. This time around I am also supplementing with traditional chinese medicine (TCM) which are full of adaptogens – to help bring the body back into balance. Previously I was adamant on trying to improve my health without “external help”, but I decided there was nothing wrong with trying to make my body constitution stronger while I am undergoing deliberate increased stress. Sometimes I can be very rigid in my thinking, and I am trying to break out of it.

I did feel a little off in my head today after yesterday’s 60 minute run, so I have to be extra cautious. But based on my biometric trends I am hopeful. My resting heart rate used to increase from the 40s to the 50s every time I exert myself, but this time around it has barely moved. I am sure the TCM is also helping, but hopefully while it helps to prop me up my actual fitness baseline is still improving nonetheless.

I am glad to be running again. May my body sustain.

note: after publishing I realised I spelled “mitochondria” wrong in all my concept maps, but it is too much work to replace them so I’m leaving it as it is. 😛

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