A flash of lights and shapes seem to appear before your eyes. Soon, the unmistakable throbbing pain of a migraine headache takes over. You look for relief, but what can help you now? What can help you avoid these disabling attacks down the road?
If you’re one of the 40 million or so Americans who have migraines, you may already take prescription medications to prevent the powerful headaches or control the symptoms once they start. But there are also some simple migraine home remedies that may safely complement your medications or help you without taking any drugs at all.
It all starts with a diary.
Hsinlin T. Cheng, MD, PhD, director of the Headache and Neuropathic Pain Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department Neurology, says keeping a diary is the best way to track the frequency of headaches and discover what may trigger your attacks.
“You want to write down how often you have migraines, how long they last, any other symptoms you have, and any possible triggers,” he explains. “What did you do before the migraine? Did anything help treat it? With a diary, it’s easier to identify factors that contribute to your migraine and how to treat it.”
Of course, once a trigger has been identified, avoiding that food or beverage, or that problematic environment may be the simplest path away from future migraines. Migraines can develop from a wide range of causes. Among the more common potential dietary migraine triggers are:
- Processed foods containing nitrites, nitrates, sulfites, MSG, or tyramine (an amino acid found in aged cheese and other foods).
Understand that migraine triggers can vary greatly from person to person. Something as benign as a pickle or a citrus fruit could be your trigger. It’s also worth noting that a food you ate for years without any reaction could become a migraine trigger later in life. That’s why a migraine diary that includes a recounting of your pre-headache food intake is so important.
It’s also not just a matter of what you eat and drink, but how much. “Try to eat regular meals,” Dr. Cheng says. “Migraines can be triggered by eating too much or by eating too little. Hunger can be a common trigger for migraines.”
Managing Other Triggers
Plenty of other external and internal factors can also spark a migraine. Lifestyle behaviors that affect sleep, exercise, and stress can also affect your likelihood of developing a migraine.
“A regular sleep cycle is very important for migraine prevention,” Dr. Cheng says. This means improving your sleep hygiene, which is your nighttime routine to help prepare your mind and body for sleep. (See story on page 6 for more information.)
Stress itself is also a major trigger for migraines, so learning to relax through leisure activities, meditation, and exercise is highly recommended, Dr. Cheng says. Regular exercise is recommended for a few reasons, actually. In addition to helping you relax, exercise can improve your sleep. It’s best to exercise in the morning if possible, but exercising when it fits your schedule is better than not exercising at all. And of course, exercise is key to improving your cardiovascular health and managing your blood pressure and cholesterol.
Poor posture is another common migraine trigger. People who look at a computer screen are especially at risk if their screen is not at eye level. Changing your home or office workstation is an easy migraine home remedy. And if you’re particularly sensitive to noise at your office or in any environment, headphones that reduce noise may be a way to avoid that common migraine trigger. Dr. Cheng also notes that if light, such as too much sunlight, overhead indoor lighting, or oncoming headlights when driving, are your triggers, special eyeglasses can give you some protection.
Supplements and Painkillers
Taking certain supplements may also reduce the frequency of migraines, Dr. Cheng says, though there is no guarantee that they will be effective for everyone. The most widely recommended supplement to help prevent migraines is magnesium. This mineral plays important roles in the health of your cells, muscles, bones and heart. You can actually buy several types of magnesium in pill form, such as magnesium citrate and magnesium chloride. The version most recommended for migraine prevention is magnesium oxide, which is available over the counter (OTC). Magnesium can cause diarrhea in some people, so be aware. A lower dose may be effective and help you avoid any side effects.
A few herbal supplements have also been shown to help certain people who suffer periodic migraines. Feverfew (tanacetum parthenium) has been getting more attention in the U.S. and Europe in recent years, though a similar herb—wild chrysanthemum—has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine. Feverfew is available in OTC tablets. Coenzyme Q 10 is another supplement associated with migraine prevention.
When Symptoms Begin
When headache pain first appears, you may benefit from simple migraine home remedies, such as an ice pack or retreating to a dark, cool room. OTC painkillers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), may also help. These medications may be helpful in mild-to-moderate cases. Dr. Cheng warns, however, that overuse of NSAIDs and other painkillers can actually bring on migraines.
Severe migraines may require a different class of medications, called triptans. In addition to migraine drugs used to treat symptoms once they’ve started, there are drugs for prevention. They are taken daily to help reduce the frequency of migraines.
Don’t Suffer in Silence
If you experience migraines, don’t assume it’s a hopeless cause. Even if you have tried prescription treatments or homemade remedies, continue to look for relief. Talk with your doctor about treatment options, and don’t hesitate to seek a referral to a migraine specialist.
For any concerns about supplements or medications to prevent migraines or treat the onset of headaches, talk with your doctor about what’s best for you. You may need to try a few treatments before you find success.