If you suffer from migraine headaches, you know just how debilitating they can be. Affecting 1 in 4 US households, the primary feature of a migraine is intense throbbing or pulsing pain in one or both sides of the head that can endure for anywhere between four hours and three days.
What is a Migraine Headache?
While everyone experiences headaches from time to time, migraines are much more severe and may be accompanied by symptoms such as extreme sensitivity to light, sound, smells, and head movement, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, visual disturbances, and numbness or tingling in the face, hands, or feet. More than 90% of migraine sufferers are unable to function during an attack, which inevitably interferes with work, education, social activities, and everyday life.
Although the underlying mechanisms are still poorly understood, migraine headaches are considered a neurological disease. There is evidence that migraines may be caused by abnormal activity in the brainstem and changes in how the trigeminal nerve – a major pain pathway – interacts with multiple brain systems. An imbalance of chemicals in the brain has also been implicated, with low serotonin levels being associated with the onset of a migraine attack.
Migraines can affect anyone at any age, but it is typically experienced by people between the ages of 15 to 55. It is far more common in women (about 75% of migraine sufferers are women) and it affects 5% to 10% of all children. There is certainly a genetic component to migraines, with a 40% chance a child will suffer from migraines if one parent does, and a 90% risk when both parents experience migraines.
Most migraine sufferers don’t seek medical treatment and nearly half never receive a diagnosis. If you have migraines, it’s important to see your doctor to first rule out other possible causes for your pain.
Lifestyle Changes for Migraine Prevention
Environmental triggers play a key role in episodic and chronic migraines as well. Sensory stimuli like bright and flickering lights, loud noises, and strong odors like perfume and paint thinner, abrupt changes in weather and barometric pressure, emotional stress, and hormone fluctuations are all common migraine triggers. But not everyone has the same triggers and triggers can vary from episode to episode. Identifying your personal triggers, and avoiding or minimizing them whenever possible, can go a long way toward reducing the severity of your migraine headaches.
1. Begin Tracking Your Triggers
The seeming randomness of migraine headaches can leave you feeling like you have no control over your illness. A proactive way to manage your migraines is to start tracking them in a journal to identify patterns, frequency, duration, and severity over time. When a migraine strikes, be sure to record the time of day, what you ate, the hours of sleep you received the night before, and whether there were any prodromal symptoms – such as seeing an aura. You can use this printable chart as a guide or the Migraine Buddy app to log your experiences.
2. Scrutinize Your Diet
Many ingredients in food and drink have the potential to cause migraines. Foods containing tyramine, MSG, tannins, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, choline, casein, yeast, nitrates, preservatives, histamine, capsaicin, or processed foods could be triggering your migraines:
- Aged Cheeses
- Alcohol especially red wine, beer, and dark liquors
- Processed Meats like hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats
- Pickled Vegetables and Meats
- Chili Peppers
- Olives, Bananas, Avocado, Red Plums, Citrus Fruits, Onions, Figs, Papaya, Raisins
- Dried Fruit
- Yeast Breads
- Soy Products
- Whole Milk, Sour Cream, Ice Cream
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Diet Soda
- Fermented Foods
By keeping a food diary, you may begin to see a connection between the foods you eat and your migraine attacks. The situation might not be so dire that you need to cut out all of the offending foods entirely, but just consume them in smaller quantities. If it’s not worth the risk, be sure to check out this list of migraine-safe foods.
3. Don’t Skip Meals
Fasting, strict dieting, and skipping meals could also be triggering your migraines. Avoiding an attack could be as simple as eating three squares a day (or several smaller meals) and staying well hydrated.
4. Maintain Healthy Sleep Habits
Sleeping too much or too little is a well-known migraine trigger, and maintaining good sleeping habits has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches.
Fortunately, there are a great many things you can do to improve your quality of sleep. Nutrient deficiencies, lack of exercise, and dehydration are among the reasons you might feel persistent, unexplained fatigue. You may have also picked up some bad habits before bedtime that are wreaking havoc on your ability to get a good night’s rest. You can improve sleep quality by trying some of these natural sleep remedies, adding a few sleep-promoting plants to your bedroom, diffusing essential oils, or mixing up herbal tinctures.
5. Don’t be Afraid of Exercise
For some migraine sufferers, intense physical exertion can bring about an attack. But because exercise is so good for us on so many different levels, it would be a shame to avoid exercising entirely to ward off migraines. In fact, being overweight has been shown to increase the frequency and severity of migraine attacks.
There’s some evidence that regular physical exercise may actually help prevent migraines. In a study performed in Sweden, 26 migraine patients engaged in an indoor cycling program three times per week for three months. Although one participant experienced a migraine during one training session, the rest enjoyed less frequent attacks and a reduction in migraine intensity.
Another study found that exercise may be a viable alternative to medication in preventing migraines. Split into three groups, volunteers were assigned to either 40 minutes of exercise three times a week, prescribed topiramate (a migraine prevention drug), or regular relaxation exercises. For all groups, the results were the same: a 95% reduction in migraine attacks.
It may be that the byproducts of exercise – and not the physical activity itself – are to blame for causing exertion migraines. Dehydration, becoming overly heated, and not easing into and out of the workout routine might be the true culprits. Try a low-impact exercise – like walking – to stay active while enjoying many physical and mental health benefits.
6. Be Mindful of Your Hormones
Linked to the hormones estrogen and progesterone, headaches and migraines are often influenced by hormonal changes – which helps to explain why women suffer so disproportionately from migraines than men.
Some women experience migraines during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause, when estrogen levels drop. Medications that affect hormones, such as oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapies, can make the migraines worse. However, some women find hormonal medications may help reduce migraine attacks.
7. Manage Your Stress
Hands down, emotional stress is the most common migraine trigger. During times of stress, anxiety, depression, but also excitement, the brain reacts by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that can activate vascular changes which may initiate and worsen a migraine.
And because migraine headaches can be so crippling and disruptive to one’s quality of life, it’s no wonder that people who experience migraines are twice as likely to suffer from depression.
While it is, quite frankly, impossible to remove all sources of stress from your life, you can learn some tools to help you cope. Practice these relaxation techniques to break the vicious cycle of stress-related migraines.
Proven Home Remedies for Migraine Management
In addition to making healthy lifestyle changes, migraines can be stymied with the help of herbs, vitamins, and minerals. As always, it’s best to talk with your doctor before taking any of these home remedies.
Called butterbur (Petasites hybridus) because its large rhubarb-like leaves were once used as a wrapping for butter during the summer months, it is a marsh-loving plant that can be found all over the world. Used for thousands of years to treat pain, modern studies on butterbur extract have found that it decreases the frequency of migraine attacks when taken daily over the course of three to four months.
Unprocessed butterbur contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), chemicals that can damage the liver. Butterbur root extract, available in capsule form, has been purified and is free of toxic PAs.
A member of the daisy family, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a small flowering bush that is native to southeastern Europe. Though it was initially used to treat fever (hence the name), it never really worked all that well for alleviating high body temperature. However, feverfew can be very effective when used to prevent migraine attacks.
Dozens of studies have investigated feverfew’s effects on migraine sufferers, and while some of the results have been mixed, others have found feverfew to have potent antimigraine properties for some people. Feverfew can be taken raw (by placing a fresh leaf under the tongue), in leaf capsules, or as a standardized extract.
Found in milk, cheese, leaf vegetables, legumes, mushrooms, almonds, and other foods, riboflavin is one of eight B-complex vitamins. It helps with the conversion of food into energy. Since riboflavin is not stored in the body, it must be consumed regularly to meet your daily needs.
11. Coenzyme Q10
Although coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) sounds like it was brewed up in a laboratory, it is actually a powerful antioxidant that is made naturally in the human body. As a supplement, CoQ10 has shown a lot of promise for treating heart-related conditions, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and in preventing migraine headaches.
Findings from a study published in 2005 revealed that migraine suffers who took 300mg per day of CoQ10 had less migraine attacks and less headache-induced nausea after three months.
As the eleventh most abundant element by mass in the human body, magnesium is essential for organ and cell function. It activates enzymes, helps produce energy, and regulates other important nutrients in the body.
Low levels of magnesium have been linked to migraines, but taking a magnesium supplement may help bring magnesium levels back up and prevent attacks. In one study, taking 600mg of magnesium daily over 12 weeks reduced the number of migraine episodes by 41.6% while also decreasing the duration and intensity of attacks.
Best known as the hormone that regulates circadian rhythms, melatonin is also a potent antioxidant that helps strengthen the immune system. And taking a 3mg melatonin supplement 30 minutes before bedtime was found to reduce the occurrence of migraines by more than 50% in the majority of patients. A quarter of the study’s participants experienced a complete remission of symptoms while taking melatonin for three months; over 20% had the frequency of their migraines reduced by more than 75%; and the remaining patients enjoyed a 50% to 75% migraine reduction. Melatonin also decreased headache intensity and duration.
14. Peppermint Oil
Composed of about 50% menthol, peppermint essential oil can be used to prevent migraines while also easing pain during a migraine attack. A study published in 2010 found that dabbing a 10% solution of menthol on the forehead and temples had the effect of preventing the onset of an attack, providing pain-relief during an acute episode, as well as alleviating the symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound during an attack.
15. Lavender Oil
Prized for its astounding versatility, lavender oil is indeed a potent pain-reliever. A recent study has found that inhaling lavender oil for a total of 15 minutes during a migraine can significantly reduce the pain and severity of the attack.
Comparing ginger with sumatriptan – a medication prescribed to treat acute migraine episodes – researchers found that taking 250mg powdered ginger capsules worked just as well as the pharmaceutical drug, but without the adverse side effects. Two hours after using ginger, the study’s participants experienced a substantial decrease in headache severity, reported an overall satisfaction with ginger’s efficacy, and showed a willingness to continue using ginger for migraine relief.