How To Fight Migraines Naturally
Nothing derails your day quicker than a migraine. But once a migraine begins, there may be natural ways to lessen its effects. Here’s everything you need to know about managing a migraine naturally.
A Headache VS. a Migraine
A migraine is a vascular headache that occurs when blood vessels on the surface of the brain are irritated and swollen. When these blood vessels are impaired and unable to pulsate properly, they send pain signals to the brain, says the National Headache Foundation (NHF). This can cause the eye, temple, and/or face, and sinus area to throb.
According to the NHF, 37 million Americans suffer from migraines. In the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Survey, migraines were listed as the seventh biggest disabler. Migraines may be hereditary, too: 70 to 80 percent of sufferers say migraines run in their families.
The most common type of migraine is one without aura, or visual disturbance. These can last anywhere between 4 and 72 hours, and possibly cause nausea and sensitivity to light and/or sound. If it’s a migraine with aura, the sufferer may temporarily see spots or lose vision altogether, experience numbness, and have difficulty with speech before the actual pain kicks in.
The Calm Before the (Head) Storm
Moments before a migraine, some sufferers may experience prodromal symptoms. These warning signs may include irritability, tension, fatigue, hunger, and nervousness. Bright light, genetics, obesity, stress, and alcohol consumption are also common migraine triggers.
Although scientists have not identified a single cause of migraines, they continue to make key discoveries. In 2013, researchers from King’s College London discovered 12 genetic regions in or near the parts of the brain responsible for maintaining healthy brain tissue. in a study of 3,862 people, researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore found that participants who suffered from an occasional migraine were also more likely to suffer from obesity. This backs up previous research that associates reduced physical activity with an increase in migraines.
While stress may be a trigger, a study in the journal Neurology suggests it’s the moments of relaxation following a particularly stressful time that increases onset. That indicates it’s important to be aware of and proactive about stress levels. According to lead study author Richard Lipton, MD, the first six hours after a stress decline translated into a nearly five-fold increased risk of migraine onset. That may be related to the levels of the hormone cortisol: It increases during stress in order to combat pain levels.
But a common stress reliever—a glass of wine—is not the answer for migraine sufferers. A slew of science finds a compound in alcohol called tyramine can also increase onset. According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, alcohol—including red wine, beer, whiskey, and champagne—increases blood flow to the brain, and that in turn can cause a migraine.
The silver lining? It may be possible to outgrow migraine triggers. A small study in Neurology finds if a person is exposed to a trigger for months at a time without any effect, they may not have to avoid it.
Misery Really Does Love Company
Since migraine pain can be felt in the sinus area, it’s often misdiagnosed as a sinus or tension headache. Unfortunately, a misdiagnosis can steer attention away from other underlying health problems.
For example, the American Heart Association found that older migraine sufferers may also experience silent brain injury. The injury involves a blood clot disrupting blood flow to the brain, which could lead to a future stroke. Similarly, researchers from Washington University’s School of Medicine found female migraine sufferers are nearly two times more likely to have cardiovascular disease. And, at the American Academy of Neurology’s 64th Annual Meeting in 2012, researchers presented a study that found female migraine sufferers were also at an increased risk for depression.
Migraines also may impact a sufferer’s relationships. A web-based study conducted by the American Headache Society found family members felt guilty, angry, annoyed, and lack of sexual desire due to headache.
Six Natural Pain Relievers
Excedrin, Advil, and Motrin—each available over-the-counter (OTC)—are recommended by the Food and Drug Administration to treat migraine pain. Per the NFH, these pills are most effective when taken as early as possible while pain is still mild.
But OTC drugs are not the only options. These natural pain relievers work, too.
Eat clean. Cutting common food triggers out of your diet is key. Aspartame, artificial sweeteners, and caffeine have also been problematic for migraine sufferers. Tyramine is found in alcohol and aged foods such and meats and cheeses, like brie, may be a trigger, as is phenylethylamine, which shows up in soy foods, nuts, citrus fruits, and vinegar.
Flex your green thumb.Feverfew is one of the oldest herbal remedies thought to mitigate migraines. According to the New York Headache Center, it contains an anti-inflammatory called parthenolide that helps to protect the blood vessels on the brain’s surface. It can be taken as a supplement, steeped in tea, or eaten raw.
Butterbur is another helpful herb, but only when taken as a supplement. (Any other form is toxic.) According to the Huffington Post, Butterbur supplements are capable of both preventing a migraine and stopping one in its tracks.
Massage. According to a small study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, migraine sufferers had fewer attacks following weekly massages. There are also at-home massage techniques that you can practice; try these from Women’s Health’s book for an awesome, DIY massage.
Say om. A study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine found yoga can improve vascular function in migraine sufferers. At-home moves may be helpful to practice, too; here are poses from MindBodyGreen.
Stop and smell the essential oil. Lavender, peppermint, and basil oil can help to relieve migraine pain, says Everyday Health. A whiff of peppermint oil can help control blood flow, and a whiff of basil oil can work to relax muscles.
Schedule acupuncture. During the Chinese technique of acupuncture, small needles are inserted at nerve points in a person’s in an effort to better their qi, or energy. Acupuncture has been found as an effective way to prevent tension headaches and migraines, in addition to relieving back pain and indigestion.
A Chronic Condition?
Chronic migraine sufferers are defined as having as many as 15 headaches a month; eight of those are full-on migraines. It’s a common neurological disorder, says the NHF, and affects two percent of the population.
Chronic symptoms are much like regular migraine symptoms. Additional factors that may contribute to chronic migraines include major life changes, such as divorce and employment status, snoring, sleep disorders, psychiatric disease, frequent use of OTC migraine drugs, lower socioeconomic status, comorbid pain disorders, and history of head or neck injury, according to a study review published in the journal BMJ.
Some scientists are skeptical of the use of OTC drugs for chronic conditions, meaning natural pain relief methods may be even more important.
Interestingly, BMJ also found that when patients take a passive role in their disorder, they don’t feel in control. The solution? Be active—research, plan, and take steps that may help the condition. The only way to find long-term relief is to do your research and act accordingly.
Pain, Pain, Go Away
Science has uncovered much about migraines, why they occur, and how they can be treated. But the brain is difficult to study, and information from one study may not be universally applicable to all migraine sufferers. If migraines persist or start to occur more frequently, call your doctor. Ask questions to determine the best course of action; use the NFH list here as a basis.
Your doctor may refer you to a neurologist. Since there are no special tests for migraines, a nerve and brain specialist may be able to help if routine examinations are inconclusive.
The bottom line: There are options for migraine sufferers that may include natural pain relievers.
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