Head Off Migraines
Drug-free strategies to ease the pain and other symptoms of migraines.
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Migraines are a particularly debilitating type of head-ache. They often begin in childhood, and can cause an intense throbbing pain. In some people, they are accompanied by auras, which are visual disturbances such as flashes of light. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. Migraines can last from several hours to several days, and leave a person feeling incapacitated.
A variety of factors can trigger migraines, including changes in weather and hormonal shifts in women. Food sensitivities and some food additives, such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate, are also culprits. Certain nutritional deficiencies can also precipitate migraines, according to a presentation at a 2016 medical meeting.
Analgesic drugs can often reduce migraine pain, and some drugs can help prevent them or reduce their severity.
In some people, aged cheese or processed foods can contribute to migraines, so it’s best to avoid or minimize intake of these foods. Keeping a food diary can help identify food triggers.
Several supplements have been found helpful in preventing or reducing the severity or frequency of migraines, and they might work better in combination (though at lower doses than suggested below).
- Magnesium. Below-normal levels of magnesium increase the risk of a migraine headache by 35 times, according to a recent study. An analysis of 21 published studies found that an infusion of magnesium after the start of a migraine relieved symptoms around 75 percent of the time. That analysis also found that the frequency and intensity of migraines decreased. Researchers investigated 77 patients with migraines and found that magnesium supplements significantly reduced the number of migraines, days with migraines, and headache severity. Try: 400 mg of magnesium citrate daily. Larger amounts taken at one time may have a laxative effect.
- Vitamin B2. There’s some evidence that migraines may be related to reduced activity of mitochondria, the energy factories of cells, especially in the brain. Studies have shown that mitochondria function is impaired, with specific patterns of abnormalities, in people with migraines. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is the precursor to two key coenzymes involved in mitochondria, and supplements have been found to be helpful in reducing the frequency and severity of migraines. One study compared the effects of 400 mg of riboflavin and a common drug treatment. Both worked equally well in reducing the frequency, length, and severity of migraines, but the researchers noted that riboflavin resulted in fewer side effects. Try: Dosages in studies have varied, but benefits appear more likely when taking 400 mg of riboflavin daily.
- Coenzyme Q10. Like riboflavin, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) plays essential roles in mitochondria. CoQ10 levels tend to be low in people prone to migraines. Doctors in Switzerland gave 42 migraine patients either 100 mg of CoQ10 or placebos three times daily. After the third month of supplementation, people taking CoQ10 had significantly fewer migraines. Another study in children and adolescents yielded similar benefits. Try: Adults should try 100 mg of CoQ10 three times daily. Children and adolescents may benefit from smaller amounts, e.g., 50–200 mg daily, depending on body weight.
- Feverfew. This herb (Tanacetum parthenium) has a long history of use as a pain reliever, with evidence showing it’s specifically helpful for migraines. One study analyzed 218 people given either a feverfew extract or placebo for 16 weeks. Those taking feverfew had a decrease from five to three migraines a month, an improvement far greater than those taking placebos. Try: A standardized feverfew extract and follow label directions.
- Homeopathy. Belladonna is often prescribed as a homeopathic remedy for migraines, indicated when there is throbbing pain in the temporal region (behind the temples). Natrum Mur,Sanguinaria, and Glonoine are also go-tos for migraines, depending on symptoms. Try: Look for combination formulas that cover a range of symptoms. Follow label instructions.
- Butterbur. This herb (Petasites hybridus) was found to be effective in reducing the frequency of migraines in an analysis of two published studies. A study of 245 patients found that butterbur root taken twice daily led to a 50 percent reduction in migraine frequency. A study of children found that a combination of the herb and music therapy resulted in a “substantial reduction of attack frequency.” Try: 50 mg of a standardized extract one to three times each day.
An Unusual Type of Headache
If you suffer headaches on a regular basis, such as every weekend, there’s a chance you could be experiencing what’s called analgesic-rebound headaches. Typically, a person takes an analgesic drug, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, once or twice each week. In effect, he becomes dependent on the drug, and he develops a headache as it wears off. Some research has found that many people need to avoid headache medications—and endure headache pain—for a couple weeks to several months to break the pattern of analgesic-rebound headaches.
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