If you, or someone you care for suffers migraines you’ll know the agony it causes. And you’ll know that it affects the whole family, not just the sufferer. There can be days and days when fun and work just go out of the window. But it need not be like that.
Most people start of by trying the conventional ways to “fix” migraine, with a trip to the doctor, and of course you should make that visit – to check that the pain is NOT caused by any underlying illness. Although there is more understanding and sympathy these days, many GPs will still prescribe medication and the side-effects of some drugs can be as bad as the problems they are used to treat.
It’s a sad fact that only a third of sufferers are fully satisfied with conventional migraine treatment. More and more people these days look for drug-free solutions, and nutritional therapy has much to offer.
Other complementary therapists have other tools they’ll use, and some are described in an ebook I wrote. However, most complementary therapists will also look at the basics of good nutrition which I cover here.
To treat migraine, identify the problem and eliminate it
Hah! Simple to say, but not easy to achieve. As a long-term sufferer myself, I studied migraine in detail in my 3-year nutrition consultancy college course. There are many possible nutrition and life-style causes. Too many to describe in detail in a short article such as this, but here’s a brief over-view of the main topics a nutritional approach to treating and preventing migraine and tension headaches will cover.
I’ll say right away that there are clinical differences between migraine and tension headaches, but this article isn’t meant to offer a scholarly differential diagnosis. You SHOULD visit your GP for that. My aim here is to point you in the direction of nutritional topics to investigate. Some will help with both migraine and tension headache, all will lead to a better diet and life-style overall.
There is little doubt that food intolerance is a major cause of migraine and probably the best known. Many studies have demonstrated that detecting and removing the offending food(s) can improve or even eliminate symptoms in many sufferers. A study in the Lancet found that 93% of sufferers felt better when they removed the culprits from their diet. However most people are surprised to find it’s not the ‘usual suspects’ (red wine, cheese, chocolate) that are the most common causes. You need to put in some detective work!
Food intolerance isn’t the cause of all migraines. If you have a poor diet improving it can make an incredible difference. This isn’t as simple as just eating ‘5-a-day’, important though that is!
Avoid acid forming foods (meat, dairy, cereals, grain and bread). Avoid fried, fatty foods. Avoid processed foods and eat more natural foods instead. It’s often far less expensive to produce meals from scratch, and it needn’t be time-consuming if you look for the right recipes. There are so many online these days, often with YouTube videos to show how quickly they can be put together. When you need to prepare foods fast, plan ahead so that you can pick up the right ingredients at your weekly shop.
Your problem may be that you are not maintaining a steady blood sugar level. It could be as simple to correct as eating regular, light meals that include protein but are low in simple carbohydrates (such as sugary and processed foods).
Acid / alkaline imbalance in your diet can cause problems – put simply, acid-forming foods are protein based, while alkaline-forming foods are plant based. Even if correcting the balance doesn’t cure your migraines it’s certain to improve your overall health.
Nutrient deficiencies can be problematical – there are many scientific papers exploring the role of different B vitamins and minerals such as magnesium in migraine prevention. As a simple example, calcium and magnesium in the correct ration help regulate muscle tone and nerve transmissions. Do YOU know if your mineral levels are in the correct balance? Mineral therapy can help overall health, because without the correct minerals, vitamins are useless.
Looking at another class of nutrients, your brain is largely composed of fatty material, so your diet must contain contains plenty of essential fats – while minimising intake of ‘bad’ fats. These essential fats will also help other areas of your health.
A less well-known nutrient has also been found to help migraine sufferers. CoQ10 is a naturally occurring substance similar in structure to vitamin K. It is not a vitamin because, if all nutrients necessary for production are available, it can be made in the body; but as so often happens, production declines with age! The main functions of CoQ10 are energy production and as an antioxidant. In migraine it’s thought to help by improving blood circulation to the brain.
Research by Dr Rozen at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation published in the International Headache Society’s journal found that after three months taking CoQ10, 61% of patients had a better than 50% reduction in the number of days with. Patients in the study had no ill-effects from using it, so added to its other beneficial effects, CoQ10 looks a very interesting strategy for preventing migraines.
Natural sources of CoQ10 include beef, chicken, ham, pork, salmon, sardines, mackerel, egg, spinach, sesame seeds and walnuts; but no food can provide anything close to the dose used in the trial so a supplement is the best way to approach this.
Ginkgo and vitamin B3 are also useful nutrients to look at when ensuring adequate to circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain. If taking supplements try to use hypo-allergenic and chelated forms. Exercise and correct breathing will also improve blood circulation.
So far we have looked at improving your intake of nutrients, but however good your diet is, unless you’re correctly digesting and absorbing your food, you won’t get the full benefits. You may be surprised to learn that you need hydrochloric acid in your body, but it’s essential for protein digestion! Don’t drink it (haha!) supplements are readily available.
Many sufferers notice that stress or strong emotions can trigger their migraines. We’d love to try and eliminate the cause of the stress, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes talking it through will suggest solutions you may have missed. What is less well-known is that even when you can’t do anything about your hectic life-style simple dietary changes can lessen the impact. For instance, vitamin B5 is important in a nutritional approach to stress management and vitamin C helps produce anti-stress hormones.
Non-food migraine triggers
Other non-food migraine triggers include lack of exercise, excess or lack of sleep, liver malfunction, weather changes, caffeine withdrawal, certain drugs, dental problems, flashing or glaring lights, bad posture or exposure to cigarette smoke.
Could toxic metals be slowly poisoning you? A Hair Mineral Analysis is a simple and cost-effective way to assess your levels of lead, aluminium, mercury and cadmium – as well as checking that you have adequate levels of important nutritional minerals magnesium, chromium, zinc – and just as importantly, that the balance between your minerals is correct.
Less dramatically, could simple constipation be causing a problem? If your bowel functions are poor and waste material isn’t being regularly eliminated it circulates for too long within your system releasing toxins. It’s also vital to maintain a good balance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in your intestine.
Hormonal health is important too, especially for women. The Pill may cause B6 deficiency resulting in migraines; some migraines result from oestrogen fluctuations – these often decrease after the menopause. Foods containing phyto-oestrogens (citrus fruits, apples, cherries, plums, oats, rice, wheat, carrots, potatoes, parsley and fennel) can have a hormone-balancing effect. Consideration of hormonal health leads onto looking at liver health because good liver function is necessary to remove spent hormones and other toxins.
The amino acid homocysteine also has a profound effect on blood vessels and in research, compared to controls, migraine sufferers were twice as likely to have a tendency to over-produce homocysteine. Any causal link to migraine has yet to be proven, but as there’s overwhelming research showing that high homocysteine is linked to strokes and heart-attacks, and as it can be simply and effectively lowered by nutritional means, it makes sense to maintain low levels. Dr Kilmer McCully’s book “The homocysteine revolution” is a fascinating read.
Many sufferers are not aware that misuse of over-the-counter painkillers may increase headaches, especially those that contain caffeine. It’s surprising that caffeine is linked to both causing and aborting migraines. If any prescribed medications contain caffeine, discuss changing them with your GP. Do not stop or change any prescribed medicine without contacting your GP.
This article has only been able to provide a taster of the factors that could be contributing to migraines. More information on migraine and hair mineral analysis is available at my blog: Stop The Migraine Madness.
You can also subscribe to my free mini-course on surprising dietary migraine triggers.