I have suffered from migraines for as long as I can remember. In my teens they were frequent, probably linked to my wildly fluctuating hormones at that time. In recent years they have been few and far between. It now takes me by surprise when a migraine creeps up on me, as it did last week.
A huge part of nutritional therapy is understanding the root cause for someone’s symptoms – be they gut related, hormonal, nutritional etc. So it won’t come as a surprise to know that the second my aura (see below) started, I was trying to work out why. What had I done differently that day or earlier in the week to trigger a migraine? It was time to delve deeper into the possible causes, and potential ways to prevent them. I thought I’d share my findings with you today.
Some facts about migraines
Migraines are incredibly common, affecting approximately 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 15 men. These severe headaches can last anywhere from a couple of hours to several days and often leaving the sufferer feeling tired and dazed with a heightened sensitivity to light or sound afterwards.
A classic migraine typically falls into one of three categories:
- Migraine with aura
- Migraine without aura
- Silent migraine
An aura is normally experienced as a disturbance in vision – blurring, flashing lights, zigzagging lines. For me I suddenly realise that I can only see half a sentence, the rest is covered by a bright spot that ‘fizzes’ slightly. Non-visual auras may appear as muscle numbness or tingling, or a change in speech. 10-20% of people find their migraine is preceded by an aura.
A silent migraine is something I was unaware of until last week when I experienced one. This is an aura, plus the physical oversensitivity that often accompanies a migraine, but no headache. It still landed me in bed for 12 hours, and unable to look at a screen for a couple of days!
What causes a migraine?
For something that is so common, the precise cause of migraines remains something of a mystery. It is thought to be a result of changes to the brain – possibly shifts in neurotransmitters, nerves and/or blood vessels. There are several triggers that migraines are linked to:
- certain foods and/or drinks
- changes in air pressure
- imbalanced blood glucose levels
- Helicobacter pylori infection
There may also be a genetic link.
Let’s look at some of these triggers in more detail
Hormones – as I mentioned earlier, I experienced frequent migraines as a teenager. This is not uncommon. There is a known link to changes in hormone levels and it may be one of the reasons that women suffer more than men. PMS, ovulation, the start of a period – the list of female hormonal fluctuations goes on, all of which may trigger a migraine.
Certain foods and/or drinks – studies have shown that dairy, wheat, chocolate, MSG and citrus fruits are amongst the most common triggers for migraines. In addition, foods that are high in histamine (or cause histamine release in the body) such as aged cheeses, fermented foods, wine (particularly red) and beer have been shown to be triggers.
Imbalanced blood glucose levels – hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose) is another known trigger for migraines. Working to balance levels through the day to avoid the peaks and troughs associated with a high carb, high sugar diet may reduce the frequency of migraines if this is a trigger for you.
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection – this bacteria can reside in the stomach where it irritates the stomach lining, possibly causing ulcers. Studies have shown increased migraines amongst people with a known H. pylori infection.
What might help prevent a migraine?
While over-the-counter drugs can help mask the pain of a migraine, until the exact mechanism that causes them is better understood, medication can’t prevent a migraine. However, if you suffer from migraines, it’s worth going back to the list above and working through them to see if you can find what your personal trigger might be. You can then take steps to avoid it as much as possible. Things to try include:
- elimination diet – if you suspect a food or food group is causing your migraines
- reduce stress
- ensure good sleep
- balance blood glucose levels
- check for a H. pylori infection and treat if necessary
- supplement – vitamins B2 and B6 (as part of a B complex), magnesium, CoQ10 have all been shown to play a role in migraine prevention
- include essential fatty acids in the diet – studies have shown a reduction in severity, duration and frequency
- try a herbal remedy – feverfew has several studies behind it showing efficacy in reducing migraine frequency, although some studies saw no effect
Do get in touch if you’d like more advice on some of these – an elimination diet in particular can be hard to navigate alone.
And what can help a migraine once it’s started?
Painkillers can help with the physical discomfort of a migraine, but there are some other treatments to try once a migraine has started. These include:
- essential oils – lavender and peppermint are the two essential oils that have been linked to migraine relief. Lavender in particular has several studies showing a significant reduction in migraine severity when applied. I love the Migraine signature scent combination from B Calm – lavender, peppermint and lemon. The oils can be added to a diffuser or applied directly onto pulse points in a roller ball. The owner of B Calm, Becky, has suffered from migraines for many years and developed this blend to ease her own symptoms.
- stay hydrated
- reduce stimuli – turn down lights, noises, smells
- sleep it off – if you can, go to bed in a darkened room and let it run its course
It’s also important to remember to take things gently for the next couple of days. Try to reduce screen time, get early nights, choose foods and drink that nourish and hydrate, pause any heavy exercise routines. Listen to your body, it will tell you when it’s ready to go again.