Six Ways to Manage Migraines
I'm one of nearly 30 million Americans who suffer from the painful, disorienting, and life-disrupting headaches known as migraines. No matter what else is going on in my day, I’m subject to being hijacked at any moment by one of these blinding, full-body attacks. A storm moves in? So does a migraine. Music too loud? Throbbing agony. A glass of red wine? A whiff of cologne? A stressful week? You guessed it: headache, headache, headache.
MIGRAINE PAIN. “Think of your migraine as a wave,” says Carolyn Bernstein, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Migraine Brain (Free Press, 2008). “When one hits, it sets off a cascade of cellular events throughout the brain, triggering responses that may differ from a regular headache. For some people, it’s nausea; for others, it’s pain in the face and jaw.”
MIGRAINE TRAITS. No two migraines are alike: You may experience auras, or vomiting, or widespread muscle pain, or dizziness, or sinus pressure, or ringing in the ears, or even partial paralysis. Or not. But there is one underlying constant: hyper-excitability. “In the brain of a migraine sufferer, the neurons are unstable and more susceptible to being triggered,” explains Bernstein.
MIGRAINE CAUSES. The list of migraine triggers includes—but is not limited to—barometric pressure changes, too much or too little sleep, stress, bright sunlight, intense heat or cold, muscular tension, hormonal shifts, loud noises, chemical odors or perfumes, overexertion, and a broad range of foods that includes aged cheese, chocolate, caffeine, canned foods, artificial sweeteners, MSG, red wine, beer, and processed foods of all sorts.
MIGRAINE MANAGEMENT. A lucky few will be able to identify one or two triggers. For most of us, it’s not so clear. “It could be a bit of misalignment, a bit of toxicity, or a little digestive problem,” says James Sensenig, N.D., founding president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Because of their variability, migraines are best treated from several angles including body alignment, diet, and emotions. Here are six of the best strategies:
1. Track triggers “People often don’t realize how many headaches they’re having,” says Audrey Halpern, M.D., holistic neurologist and founder of Manhattan Headache and Neurology. “It’s only when you understand how often you get them and what might be causing them that you can start to work toward natural balance.” And keeping a diary or journal is a great way to understand your particular triggers and headache patterns, says Halpern.
CHART EVERYTHING. Note all the conditions leading up to the headache—including weather patterns, menstrual cycle, and stress load—and see what patterns emerge. You can download a migraine diary form at Halpern’s website, audreyhalpern.com.
2. Detox your digestive system Ayurveda, India’s traditional system of medicine, believes digestion is a key factor in chronic headaches, so practitioners emphasize detoxification. “A migraine is a sign that the digestive system isn’t removing waste effectively,” says John Douillard, D.C., Ph.D., director of the LifeSpa Ayurveda center in Boulder, Colo. He likens the problem to a clogged drain. “If you have too much mucus in your intestinal tract, the drains can get clogged, which creates toxicity in the lymph, resulting in dilated blood vessels— or headache.”
SIP A TEA TONIC. To lubricate the intestinal lining, drink tea with demulcent herbs—like slippery elm, marshmallow, or licorice—every day, says Douillard. See Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat (traditional medicinals.com). To clean your lymphatic system, take sips of hot water every 15 minutes for two weeks.
3. Use acupuncture Acupuncture—using needles to stimulate certain energy points on the body—can have the same effect as Imitrex and other triptan anti-migraine drugs (See “Migraine Meds,” opposite.): Both release chemicals that cause blood vessels to constrict, says William Reddy, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., spokesperson for the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
NEEDLES LAST LONGER. Unlike medications, which wear off, “acupuncture teaches the blood vessels to stay toned so that over time you don’t have migraines anymore,” Reddy adds. Most people find relief in four to eight sessions, he says, noting that acupuncture has been effective for 85 to 90 percent of his patients. A meta-analysis published in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia found that acupuncture worked to relieve migraines more often than not.