Why trying different natural treatments for migraine may be a good idea
Some 20 percent of the global adult population regularly suffer from migraines either for part of their lives or as a life-long condition. The rate of occurrence likewise varies from once every other month to multiple times per month. Women are three times more likely to experience migraines than men and age 20 to 50 is when migraines happen most often. Almost 45 percent of women will get migraines during that period.
Hormonal changes are thought to be a major cause for migraines in women, but the range of all the other factors that can trigger migraines is very wide. Exhaustion, high blood pressure, neck tension, stress, anxiety, alcohol and other drugs, and environmental issues such as air pressure changes and heat are the most prominent ones. In a way, migraines often are only symptoms of other, primary problems. For example, if you don’t maintain a healthy posture at your office desk, your neck and shoulders will stiffen, which can then cause migraines.
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Given the multitude of possible causes, each migraine — as well as each person’s susceptibility to migraines — is individually unique. Therefore, the effectiveness of different cures and treatments will also differ from person to person. The same is true for OTC migraine medications: people respond differently to ibuprofen and paracetamol and consequently develop different preferences. Only triptans, such as Zolmitriptan, seem to be rather universally effective for aborting migraines.
When it comes to home remedies for migraines, it also makes sense to try different things and see what works best for you. The internet is full with advice on home cures, but many are either nearly useless, like essential oils, migraine music and homeopathic solutions, or they have an unclear record, like acupuncture, Vitamin B2 or magnesium. Feel free to try all of them, but below we list several migraine home remedies that actually have some science behind them proving that they can be effective. We’ll start with prevention remedies, as reducing the frequency of migraines in the first place should be our biggest concern. Later we’ll talk about cures that help reduce the pain of migraines once they happen.
Natural cures for migraine prevention
Lifestyle changes: exercise & healthy food
More exercise and healthier food: it’s that simple. Except for hormone-triggered migraines, most migraines and their root causes (high blood pressure, neck stiffness, etc.) happen because of bad lifestyle choices, such as a lack of physical activity, cholesterol-rich food, obesity, or habits of sleeping too little or too late at night. Improving your lifestyle can make a huge difference in your vulnerability to migraine attacks.
If a doctor had to recommend only one single remedy against migraine, the usual answer would be: more physical exercise. A rich body of research supports this recommendation. Moderate, regular exercise will not only help relax muscles and nerves but also reduce mental stress and lower your blood pressure. Take it easy at first, because exercising after a long period of inactivity may, for a short period, worsen your migraine problem. Once you get into a regular exercise regime though, the positive effects will start showing. In fact, yoga can be an excellent start to get back into exercising.
Combine this with a healthier diet, and you’ll get even more protection against migraines. One 2015 study on 3,000 women found that a healthier diet made a statistically significant difference, controlling for all other factors such as body weight. The key here is a nutrition low in carbohydrates and particular sugar, but high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. It’s not just migraine prevention, but this sort of diet has many other benefits for your wellbeing. You might find it helpful to see a nutrition specialist in order to set a balanced nutrition plan.
Vitamin & mineral supplements
Various supplements are marketed for migraine prevention, with two common ingredients being magnesium and Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), which also are available as standalone supplements. Magnesium in recent decades has enjoyed a good reputation among migraine sufferers and several studies show that it can decrease the rate of migraine attacks by up to 40 percent if taken daily in 400 to 500mg doses. However, yet other studies have found that it doesn’t have much of an effect. The different findings may stem from different trial doses and the way magnesium is chemically bound (either as citrate, carbonate, or chloride). The jury is still out on whether it works and what the right dose is. Magnesium has many other positive benefits for the body, but also several side effects and drug interactions you need to consider. Therefore, if you think magnesium could help, first consult with your doctor before starting supplementation.
As for Vitamin B2, research shows that it does boost migraine prevention, but apparently the improvement is greatest in people who had a Vitamin B2 deficiency in the first place (which is one of the factors that may have triggered their migraines). If your Vitamin B2 levels already are at normal levels, additional Vitamin B2 supplementation will be of little use.
Low-fat diets often are praised for treating migraines, based on one 2015 study that found a minimum 40 percent reduction in migraine occurrence. It’s not that simple, though. Fatty food is alright (and still better than a carb-rich diet), but it all depends on the kind of fatty acids you eat. More precisely, the omega-3/omega-6 ratio matters. Omega-3, which can be found in fish, nuts and beans but also bought as a supplement (make sure to get one purified from heavy metals), is associated with cardiovascular health, neural development, and anti-inflammatory functions. The latter is important for migraine prevention, as migraines often can be caused by chronic inflammations in your body. You can eat all the Omega-3 fatty acids you want; in fact, doctors will even encourage you to do so.
Healthy sleeping habits
This may be obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing: regular, healthy sleep with a bedtime that starts prior to 11:00 pm can do much to lower the occurrence of migraines. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep and keep bedtime and wake up times consistent every day. Numerous studies across different countries have shown that such a practice will improve your resilience against migraines.
Modern science doesn’t quite understand how acupuncture works and for many decades it was ridiculed as ineffective. But there’s been growing evidence over the past 10 years that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of migraines as well as several other physical pain conditions. For example, a 2012 meta-review of 23 high-quality studies with a total 18,000 patients saw a clear improvement in their migraine susceptibility. If you are interested in acupuncture as a migraine treatment, talk to a licensed acupuncture therapist who can help you come up with treatment options.
Natural remedies for migraine pain
Once a migraine has started taking its evil course only pills will help to completely eliminate the pain and aura symptoms as fast as possible. Some people swear they can kill off a migraine in its early stages by taking a high dose of magnesium, downing a double espresso, taking a hot shower or sauna session, or by applying essential oils to temples and forehead. While this may indeed work for some lucky people, there’s no broader evidence that any of this is universally applicable. Stopping a migraine in its tracks in most cases is nearly impossible.
There are several home remedies that you can try to make the pain more tolerable and decrease the migraine duration a bit.
Rest in a calm environment
The luxury of a bed or sofa in a dark, quiet, and cool room may not always be available when you have migraines, but try finding an environment that comes close to that. Like an unused meeting room at work or your car parked in a quiet, shadowy parking lot. It’s important that you rest — ideally sleep — for the meds to be more effective or for the pain to naturally ease a bit (which will happen when your blood pressure comes down). Don’t read or play on your smartphone. Instead keep your eyes closed and try to relax. Meditation can be very helpful too.
Drink water (and coffee) but avoid food
Staying sufficiently hydrated has been shown to reduce migraine intensity. So, drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel like it. Do frequent small sips rather than large quantities in one go. Cold unsweetened herbal tea or fresh lemon water also work great. Don’t have any sugary drinks, as the sugar can worsen the migraine. Some people also find cold coffee useful, since the caffeine’s effect on blood flows can help against migraine. Moreover, caffeine improves the effectiveness of OTC migraine drugs acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Unless you feel very hungry, eat nothing or only something light during migraine attacks, as this avoids unnecessary stress on your body caused by digestion. And stay away from all things sweet and simple carbs like pasta or white rice, as this will lead to a quick rise in blood sugar levels, which will likely make your migraine worse.
Using a cold compress on your forehead or neck is a tried and tested home remedy for migraines that dates back many millennia. Whether just a cold wet cloth, a towel-wrapped ice pack or metal plates (as the old Romans would sometimes do), the cooling sensation will have a soothing effect and numbs the pain. It doesn’t shorten the duration of the migraine attack, but makes the pain more bearable. It’s much more effective at that then peppermint oil or other essential oils.
- Amin, Faisal Mohammad, et al. “The Association between Migraine and Physical Exercise.” The Journal of Headache and Pain, vol. 19, no. 1, 10 Sept. 2018, 10.1186/s10194-018-0902-y. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
- Andreeva, Valentina, et al. “Macronutrient Intake in Relation to Migraine and Non-Migraine Headaches.” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 9, 15 Sept. 2018, p. 1309, 10.3390/nu10091309. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
- Evans, E. Whitney, et al. “Dietary Intake Patterns and Diet Quality in a Nationally Representative Sample of Women With and Without Severe Headache or Migraine.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, vol. 55, no. 4, 11 Mar. 2015, pp. 550–561, 10.1111/head.12527. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
- Ferrara, L.A., et al. “Low-Lipid Diet Reduces Frequency and Severity of Acute Migraine Attacks.” Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, vol. 25, no. 4, Apr. 2015, pp. 370–375, www.nmcd-journal.com/article/S0939-4753(14)00371-8/fulltext, 10.1016/j.numecd.2014.12.006. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
- Lin, Yu-Kai, et al. “Associations Between Sleep Quality and Migraine Frequency.” Medicine, vol. 95, no. 17, Apr. 2016, p. e3554, 10.1097/md.0000000000003554. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.