Migraines. They can ruin your day, wreck your carefully laid work program or derail your social plans and make any sort of mental function out of the question. They truly deserve their reputation as the severest type of headache and, whatever their cause, are unwelcome intruders into your everyday life.
According to Headache Australia, up to 3 million Australians suffer from migraine. While some headaches are a sign of a deeper problem or disease, others are lifestyle-based and, as such, you can take steps to prevent them occurring and reduce their impact when they do.
What is migraine?
Migraines involve the constriction and dilation of the arteries around the brain. Migraine pain is throbbing, worsens with movement and can be felt on one or both sides of the head. You may feel nauseous, experience extreme sensitivity to light or sound, or see flashing lights or wavy lines (migraine aura). You may be dizzy and fatigued. The pain can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, possibly lasting 72 hours if untreated.
Migraines can be triggered by many factors. You could be tired, stressed or have a food intolerance; the light could be too bright, the music too loud, the perfume too strong, that smell too toxic; you may have missed a meal, the weather may have changed or your hormones could be giving you grief.
The main causes of my migraines are food additives, dehydration, eyestrain and/or tension. Migraines are complex and may have more than one trigger. While it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact cause, there are things you can do to reduce the influence they have on your life.
Steps you can take
1 Dose up on magnesium
If you needed another reason to love almonds, this is it. Research from various studies has found reduced magnesium levels in migraine sufferers, both between and during attacks. A 1996 study in Cephalalgia found that supplying the body with additional magnesium was an effective migraine treatment. To help reduce the number of migraines and the pain felt during the attacks, ensure you get the right amount of magnesium. Magnesium may also help with period-related migraines.
Magnesium has an effect on neurotransmitters and hormones in the body and is a relaxant. This means magnesium will help your blood vessels avoid that painful constriction that heralds the onset of a migraine headache. It’s also essential for nerve transmission, enzyme function and lowering your blood pressure. It helps you metabolise carbohydrates and other minerals, plays a role in protein repair and helps protect your body from free-radical attack. Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron, which means they can react readily with your cells to damage or destroy. They are thought to be involved in ageing and almost every disease, including cancer.
B vitamins balance your hormones, boost your immune system and are needed for cognitive function.
Although magnesium is theoretically found in many foods, soil depletion and modern processing mean many foods contain less magnesium than they used to. It is remarkably easy to have a low magnesium intake, even though total deficiency is rare. Foods that have been processed to remove the outer germ, such as white rice and white flour, have significantly lower levels of magnesium than their unprocessed counterparts, so even simple dietary switches such as choosing wholefoods — brown rice over white, and wholemeal flour over white flour, for instance — will help boost your magnesium intake.
You can boost the magnesium in your diet by eating foods such as almonds, spinach, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, brassicas (such as broccoli or cauliflower) and seaweed. Raw almonds will have more nutrients than commercially roasted ones but will need to be soaked before you eat them so you can digest them effectively. I soak them overnight with one teaspoon of salt per cup of almonds in enough water to fully submerge, and then dry them at 60°C in a food dryer. They are fresh, crisp and tasty.
In general, food obtained from organic or biodynamic sources will have higher levels of nutrients. Growing your own is a cheap, healthy option if you have the space.
2 Eat more B vitamins
B vitamins balance your hormones, boost your immune system and are needed for cognitive function. A 1998 Belgian study found that taking 400mg of riboflavin (vitamin B2) daily reduced the frequency of migraines in patients.
The use of riboflavin to treat migraines is based on the theory of impaired mitochondrial metabolism or, in layman’s terms, an inefficient energy-making process in your body’s cells. If this process is impaired, the migraine sufferer’s brain becomes hypersensitive to stimuli, making headache more likely. Mitochondria are the components of your cells that help produce energy through a process called cellular respiration, or metabolism. Riboflavin is an essential part of this activity because some of the coenzymes, which help speed the process up, are derived from riboflavin. Providing your cells with more riboflavin should therefore accelerate the energy-making process and make it more efficient.
Migraine pain is throbbing, worsens with movement and can be felt on one or both sides of the head.
Riboflavin and the other B vitamins are found in almonds and other nuts, legumes (such as peas or beans), organ meats, whole grains, mushrooms, eggs, green vegetables, fruit and dairy products. You should store foods containing riboflavin in the dark to maintain their nutrient content, as riboflavin is easily destroyed by light. Excess consumption of a single B vitamin creates a deficiency of the other important B vitamins, so it’s not advised to take a riboflavin-only supplement. If you wish to take a supplement, be sure to take one that contains all the B vitamins.
3 Check your essential fatty acid intake
Essential fatty acids are called “essential” because your body needs them to function but cannot manufacture them — they must be obtained through your diet. They form a structural part of your brain tissue and act as chemical messengers.
The two main types of essential fatty acids are omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, while omega-6s are inflammatory. These two need to be in balance. Such balance was achieved in traditional diets, however our modern Western diets can include up to 16 times more omega-6 than omega-3. The result? A diet that encourages inflammation — and migraines are thought to involve the inflammation and spasm of the blood vessels. A US study published in 2013 found that a diet with reduced omega-6 intake and increased omega-3 consumption not only corrected the imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3, but also reduced head pain and improved quality of life.
To reduce your omega-6 intake, avoid using safflower, sunflower, grapeseed and cottonseed oils. Sources of animal-based omega-3 fatty acids (called EPA and DHA) include seafood such as herring, mackerel and salmon. Consider choosing freshly wild-caught seafood for optimal omega-3 levels. The medical benefits of omega-3 come from EPA and DHA, and so consuming seafood (unless you’re allergic) is the most direct way of getting omega-3.
The plant-based omega-3 (ALA) must be converted to EPA or DHA in the body. Sources of ALA include chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil. Keep flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and fish oil in the refrigerator in order to retain their nutrient content. You can add small amounts of flaxseed oil to olive oil and apple cider vinegar to make a nutritious salad dressing. And, to get your day off to a good start, try sprinkling freshly ground flaxseed over your morning porridge.
4 Examine your diet
If you suffer from regular migraines, food intolerances may be the root of the problem. One of the main reasons I suffered from migraines, before my family started eating almost entirely homegrown foods, was food additives. Almost all processed foods contain some sort of additive, some of which give me migraines. Even innocent-looking fruit juices are out of bounds due to preservatives. Trips to restaurants are now minefields: as each plate comes out, I wonder what sauce has been drizzled over the meat or the salad. Sometimes I get through unscathed; other times, disaster.
Additives that may cause headaches, according to both a 2008 article in the Delhi Psychiatry Journal and Bill Statham, author of The Chemical Maze Shopping Companion, include food colours, nitrites, sulphites, flavour enhancers, artificial sweeteners and preservatives. Of course, sometimes the food itself is the problem. Different people can tolerate different foods, and the saying “one person’s meat is another person’s poison” definitely applies.
If you suffer from regular migraines, food intolerances may be the root of the problem.
The chemical histamine is a common cause of migraine headaches. Histamine triggers inflammation and has a potent dilation effect on your blood vessels, so can easily cause a migraine. Histamine is found in cheese, salami, sausage, alcohol, vinegar and processed meats, as well as in fresh foods such as spinach, tomato and eggplant. Another possible culprit is tyramine, a monoamine that’s present in higher quantities in cheddar-type cheeses, red wine, soy sauce, coffee, chocolate and sardines. If it’s histamine or tyramine that triggers your migraines, limit your intake of these foods, though you may still be able to consume small servings on an occasional basis.
Other foods that may trigger migraine include meats that contain nitrates (such as bacon, hot dogs, salami or cured meats), dairy products, peanut butter and onion. It can be difficult to find what foods or additives are causing the problem, but with patience and experimentation you should be able to find an answer to what your body can and can’t process. Try keeping a food log and see what meals or processed foods precipitate headaches, then remove or limit those ingredients in your diet.
5 Maintain your blood sugar level
Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can cause the arteries to spasm and trigger a migraine. If you skip a meal, your blood sugar may fall too low. Your brain requires glucose to function, so is one of the first organs affected by a drop in blood sugar. When this happens, the body releases hormones that boost the glucose flow to the brain but also have the unhappy side-effect of increasing blood pressure and narrowing arteries. This often means a migraine.
While low blood sugar causes headache, too much sugar doesn’t help, either. Refined sugars hit the bloodstream very quickly, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar. Your body overreacts to such a spike by rapidly producing insulin, the chemical that moves glucose from your blood and into your cells. This flood of insulin causes a rapid drop in blood sugar, the constriction of your arteries — and a migraine.
Naturally occurring sugars and carbohydrates, found in unrefined wholefoods, are converted into glucose much more slowly than their refined cousins. This gives the body time to react, avoiding the “knee-jerk” insulin production and consequent migraine. Choosing wholefoods over refined foods, and fresh foods over processed (among other things, processed foods often contain a lot of refined sugars), will help avoid sharp fluctuations in blood sugar.
You can also try adding apple cider vinegar, lemon or orange to a meal, as they also slow the digestion of food into glucose. A teaspoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar can be added to a cup of water for a zingy digestion-aiding pre-breakfast drink, or combined with olive or flaxseed oil for a delicious salad dressing. Eating regularly and having smaller meals will also help you help maintain your blood sugar levels. Too large a meal may cause a large rise in blood sugar simply because of the sheer volume of sugar or carbohydrates consumed.
6 Reduce caffeine consumption
Caffeine is structurally similar to a chemical in your body called adenosine, so can block its action. Adenosine, among other things, causes your blood vessels to dilate and, by blocking this, caffeine causes constriction of the blood vessels, high blood pressure and increased heart rate. Your body compensates for this by increasing adenosine levels.
Daily use of caffeine causes dependence on a specific dose. When this need goes unmet, be it during sleep or because you’ve run out of coffee, the increased adenosine levels cause dilated blood vessels, excessive blood flow and a throbbing headache that’s fixed only by drinking even more coffee.
To avoid these side-effects, reduce your caffeine consumption gradually over several weeks. If you’re struggling for something to drink, try a chai-style infusion. A good homemade recipe (making four servings) involves a teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, ground allspice and ground cardamom, a pinch of clove and about half a centimetre of chopped fresh ginger in four cups of water. Bring to the boil, simmer for 20 minutes in a pan with the lid on and then add 1 teaspoon of honey. Mix well, strain through a sieve into cups and top up with warm frothy milk. Yes, this may take more preparation than a cup of instant coffee, but it’s a delicious alternative for when you need a coffee break but don’t want coffee.
7 Look after your eyes
Eyestrain is a chief cause of headaches if you have to work long hours. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the strain on your eyes if you spend a long time using a computer screen. Adjust the lighting in the room to reduce glare, remember to blink (as you tend to forget if you’re concentrating hard) and look away every so often and focus your eyes on something on the far corner of the room or out the window.
In natural situations, your eyes have to change focus constantly, whereas if you have to concentrate on a screen (or any reading material such as a book) your focal point is fixed. If you can take the time out at least every hour to change your focal point, switching from something close to something far away, it will not only reduce eyestrain (and thereby eyestrain-triggered headaches) but also help keep your eyes in good condition.
8 Stay hydrated
Dehydration causes increased blood pressure and headaches. As a general rule, aim for two litres of water a day. If you suspect your headache is from dehydration, the answer is simple: start to drink.
9 Get enough exercise
Tense muscles in the neck and shoulders are a common cause of tension headache but can also cause migraine pain. Being active should help loosen these muscles and keep you healthy. If you spend all day at a computer, try to change position or go for a walk around the office every hour or so. If a headache does result, and you can pinpoint stiffness as the issue, a heat pack or a good massage may be the remedy. With many of my own migraines, I found massage to be the only thing that worked to reduce the duration of the headache.
Making these simple lifestyle changes to increase your health and wellbeing should help reduce migraine headaches. Eat more almonds, fresh seafood, whole grains and fresh green vegetables, drink enough water, and exercise your eyes and body. This is prevention to enjoy. There are many pieces to the migraine puzzle, but every step helps.