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Every year nearly one in five Americans experience some form of migraine attack. One in 25 will have headaches lasting at least 15 days per month. Here's what to do when a disabling migraine strikes you.
The World Health Organization in 2007 estimated that migraine headaches are responsible for more lost years of healthy life in the U.S. than multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, ovarian cancer, and tuberculosis combined.[i]
Every year nearly one in five Americans experience some form of migraine attack. One in 25 will have headaches lasting at least 15 days per month.
Migraine is a disorder marked by disabling attacks of severe one-sided, throbbing headaches, and sensitivity to light and sound. It’s often accompanied by nasal congestion, cloudy thinking, or nausea.
What Causes Migraines?
The cause of migraine headaches is still poorly understood. But some things are clear.
Foods are a common trigger of migraines. In a 1979 study in Lancet, 60 migraine patients completed elimination diets. Results showed the most common foods causing reactions were wheat (78%), oranges (65%), eggs (45%), tea and coffee (40% each), chocolate and milk (37% each), beef (35%), and corn, cane sugar, and yeast (33% each). When patients avoided an average of 10 common foods there was a dramatic fall in the number of their headaches per month. And 85% of patients became headache-free.
Other proven food triggers include cheese, wine, and beer.
Food additives are also a factor. A study published in the Journal of Headache Pain revealed that a single intake of monosodium glutamate (MSG) produces headache in the majority of healthy subjects tested.
The artificial sweetener aspartame has also been linked to migraines. One reason may be that aspartame breaks down into formaldehyde in various tissues. Sucrolose, another artificial sweetener sold as Splenda may also be a migraine trigger.
Exposure to heavy metals is another proven link to migraines. One study from Turkey found that compared to a control group, migraine sufferers had significantly higher levels of cadmium, iron, lead, and manganese.
Conventional medicine offers few effective or even tolerable therapies for migraines. But a combination strategy of avoiding migraine triggers while adding natural therapies is proven to help manage migraines.
The Green Med Info database contains 59 articles on natural remedies for migraines. They include a variety of therapies, vitamins, minerals, and herbs shown to be effective for migraine relief. Here are just 12 proven therapies to help prevent and relieve migraines.
Studies show that migraine sufferers have significantly lower blood levels of magnesium. But you might not know you’re low in magnesium. Most blood tests are not a true reflection of body magnesium stores since most measure less than 2% of magnesium. The majority of the body’s magnesium (67%) is stored in the bone and 31% is inside cells.
Magnesium is so important that some practitioners believe all migraine patients should be treated with magnesium. A meta-analysis of 21 studies found intravenous magnesium significantly relieved acute migraine within as little as 15 to 45 minutes. Oral magnesium also significantly alleviated the frequency and intensity of migraine.
And in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group trial conducted at seven Northern California Kaiser Permanente sites, children with migraine histories received either magnesium oxide (nine mg per kilogram of their body weight per day) or placebo. After 16 weeks the magnesium led to lower headache severity and a significant reduction in headache days.
Acupuncture has been used in China for centuries to treat migraine headache. In a multi-center randomized controlled study published in the journal Headache, migraine patients were divided into three groups. One group received real acupuncture treatments and the other two groups received sham acupuncture. Each patient received one treatment session and was observed over a period of 24 hours. Pain was measured using the Visual Analog Scale (VAS). After two hours only the real acupuncture group showed any improvement in pain. After four hours the decrease in the VAS score for the real acupuncture group was up to 10 times more than the sham groups. Within 24 hours 40.7% of the patients in the real acupuncture group experienced complete pain relief and 79.6% did not experience recurrence or intensification of pain.
But it’s not just better than placebo. Acupuncture beats drugs and other therapies for migraine relief too. In a 2015 Cochrane review of 22 trials with 4,419 participants researchers concluded there is consistent evidence that acupuncture provides additional benefit to treatment of acute migraine attacks when added to routine care. The researchers noted
“studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects.”
Other studies show that acupuncture is more effective and safer than the drugs metoprolol and flunarizine. Acupuncture had the added benefit of lowering the use of pain medications and improving patients’ quality of life.
Studies suggest that acupuncture may work by redistributing energy metabolism in the brain, or decreasing serum matrix metalloproteinase-2 (MMP-2) level and activity, or lowering levels of nitric oxide.
3. Chiropractic Treatments
A 2011 meta-analysis of 21 studies found that chiropractic care improves migraine headaches.
In particular, spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) has been shown to relieve migraines. In one randomized control trial of 127 migraine sufferers, 84 patients received two months (16 treatments) of SMT. Compared to the control group, the SMT group had significant improvement in migraine frequency, duration, disability, and medication use. About 22% of the SMT group reported more than a 90% reduction of migraines. In addition, about 50% more reported significant improvement in the symptoms of each episode. More than 80% of patients reported stress as a major factor for their migraines, and researchers suggested that chiropractic care improves conditions related to that stress.
Exercise can improve migraine symptoms. In one controlled, randomized study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine a group of migraine sufferers participated in a 6-week, twice weekly, indoor exercise program consisting of 45-minutes of aerobics and 15 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation. Compared to the control group, the exercise group reported significantly less migraine pain intensity.
5. Mindfulness Therapy
A randomized study in the journal Headache reported that migraine sufferers who participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program had 1.4 fewer migraines per month than controls. In addition, their headaches were less severe.
6. Gluten-Free Diet
A German study of 72 celiac patients found that 28% suffered with migraines. Conversely, an Italian study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that a significant proportion of migraine patients have celiac disease. In the study of 90 migraine sufferers 4.4% were found to have celiac’s compared to only 0.4% of a control group. After a six-month gluten-free diet, one of four celiac patients had no migraine attacks, and the remaining three patients experienced an improvement in frequency, duration, and intensity of migraine.
7. Coenzyme Q10
A deficiency of CoQ10 may be common in migraine sufferers. Doctors from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center measured CoQ10 levels in 1,550 pediatric and adolescent patients. Those with low levels started taking 1 to 3 mg/kg of body weight per day of CoQ10. After a few months patients on CoQ10 reported fewer headaches and less disability.
Another study from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia found that CoQ10 is an effective preventive treatment for migraines. Doctors treated 32 migraine patients with 150 mg of CoQ10 per day. At the end of three months 61.3% of patients had a greater than 50% reduction in the number of days with migraine headache. Mean migraine frequency also dropped by 55.3% and there were no side-effects.
And a double-blind, randomized Swiss study compared 100 mg of CoQ10 taken three times a day to placebo in 42 migraine patients. After three months it found CoQ10 was superior to placebo for attack-frequency, headache-days and days-with-nausea.
8. Gingko Biloba
An Italian study of 24 adolescents found that Ginkgolide B, a constituent of ginkgo biloba, was effective as a preventive treatment in reducing migraine frequency. It also lowered the need for migraine medications.
Another Italian study of 50 women showed that Ginkgolide B reduces migraine frequency and duration. Patients taking 60 mg of ginkgo biloba twice a day for four months reduced the average number of migraines from 3.7 to 1.2, and reduced length of migraines on average from 40 minutes to 17.6 minutes.
A study from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus School of Medicine found that medical marijuana decreases migraine frequency. Doctors treated 121 migraine sufferers with various forms of medical marijuana including inhaled and edible forms. Most subjects used more than one form of marijuana and used it every day. Headache frequency decreased from 10.4 to 4.6 headaches per month, and 39.7% of patients reported positive effects. In addition, 19.8% reported fewer headaches and 11.6% reported aborted migraines. Another 11.6% reported negative effects especially with edible marijuana.
10. B Vitamins
High homocysteine levels have been linked to migraine. In a randomized, double-blind placebo, controlled trial of 52 migraine patients vitamin B cut migraine disability in half. Every day, patients took either a placebo or a combination of 2 mg of folic acid, 25 mg of vitamin B6, and 400 micrograms of vitamin B12. After six months homocysteine was reduced by 39% in the B vitamin group but was not reduced with placebo. Headache frequency and pain severity were also reduced, whereas there was no reduction in the placebo group.
Another study published in Neurology found that high-dose riboflavin (vitamin B2) helps prevent migraines. Researchers compared riboflavin (400 mg per day) and placebo in 55 migraine patients in a randomized trial. After three months, riboflavin beat the placebo in reducing attack frequency. In addition, 59% of patients had an improvement of at least 50% in their number of headache days compared to only 15% of patients taking the placebo.
And a case report from the Mayo Clinic found that one patient’s migraine attacks responded dramatically to a course of niacin (vitamin B3).
11. Lavender Oil
Inhalation of lavender essential oil may be an effective treatment for acute migraine headaches. In a study of 47 migraine patients half inhaled lavender essential oil for 15 minutes. The control group used liquid paraffin for the same time period. Patients recorded their headache severity and symptoms in 30-minute intervals for a total of two hours. The mean reduction of headache severity on the Visual Analog Scale was 3.6 compared to 1.6 for the control group. Also in the lavender group 71% of headaches responded entirely or partially to the lavender compared to only 47% in the placebo group.
A German study found butterbur root extract prevents migraines in children and adolescents. Researchers recruited 108 children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 17 with severe migraines. Patients were treated with 50 to 150 mg of butterbur root extract depending on their age. After four months, 77% of all patients reported a reduction in the frequency of migraine attacks of at least 50%. Attack frequency was reduced by 63%. And 91% of patients felt substantially or at least slightly improved after 4 months of treatment.
In a study of adults, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found that butterbur extract effectively prevents migraines. Doctors gave 245 migraine patients either a placebo, or 75 mg of the butterbur extract or 50 mg of butterbur extract. Over 4 months of treatment, migraine attack frequency was reduced by 48% for the 75 mg group, 36% for the 50 mg group, and 26% for the placebo group. The proportion of patients with a 50% or more reduction in attack frequency after 4 months was 68% for patients in the 75 mg group and 49% for placebo.
There are many more proven natural migraine therapies. For more information visit Green Med Info’s page on migraine headaches.