If you suffer from frequent headaches, or worse, yet, migraines, you know how miserable they can be. Many of my patients tell me that with a bad flare, they might have to crawl into bed for as long as three days and lay there in a dark, quiet room just to cope. Migraines lead sufferers to miss school, work, and social engagements. Women experience them way more often than men, and some women are plagued with them close to their periods. Migraines are just awful!
The good news is that you can prevent chronic headaches and migraines… naturally.
Here are the key recommendations I give to all of my patients. I recommend incorporating all of these tips into an overall headache prevention plan.
Tip #1. Identify and eliminate your headache/migraine triggers
The most common triggers are:
- Red wine
- Aged cheese
- Nitrites (found in hot dogs and deli meats)
- Food additives (for example, MSG)
- Low blood sugar
- Neck and shoulder tension
- Allergies leading to sinus congestion
- Hormonal changes
Here is a super helpful headache diary from the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Center. I give this to all of my patients. You can download it and start to track your migraine patterns. Use it to monitor your progress once you get started on your headache prevention plan.
Most people don’t know this, but there is a phenomenon called medication overuse headache (MOH). When you take pain medications for headaches, including narcotics, Tylenol, aspirin, caffeine, and ibuprofen, on a regular basis, these medications actually start to cause headaches. So as crazy and scary as this might seem to you to try, stop all of your pain medications for a few months. You might be surprised to find that you are actually having fewer headaches! The triptan drugs and propranolol do not fall into this category, however they have their own side effects.
Tip #2 Manage your stress!
Adequate sleep, visualization, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises – all of these can help you manage stress and prevent headaches and migraines. Biofeedback has been show to reduce migraine as well as propranolol does, and unlike propranolol, which can cause depression, fatigue, and sexual dysfunction, these other practices can make you feel GREAT! Remember that driving yourself with caffeine when you are tired is a vicious cycle. Both the fatigue and the caffeine cause migraines, and the fatigue and migraines make you want more caffeine! So break the habit and get the rest you need.
On an even deeper level, it’s important to ask yourself how the migraine impacts your life – what do you “get” to skip or miss when you have a migraine, for example, work or stressful events? Sometimes our bodies, in their infinite wisdom, create symptoms for us when we don’t know how to speak up for ourselves. This might not be the only thing going on, but often, with chronic problems that have a stress component, there is a tiny golden nugget of truth in there. If this rings true for you as part of the picture, is there a different, healthier way you can meet your needs other than through painful symptoms?
Tip #3: Get rid of gnarly neck tension.
Wow! You wouldn’t believe how much neck tension contributes to headaches, and how easy this is to treat. Massage therapy, physical therapy, and osteopathic manipulation can all relieve neck tightness and spasms – and with it your headaches! And your doctor can recommend these and your insurance should cover them!
Tip #4 Take your vitamins!
Riboflavin, or Vitamin B2, has been shown to safely prevent recurrent migraines by 50% compared to 15% for placebo – that’s a lot! Dose: 400 mg daily. It may take about a month to notice results, but hang in there. It’s often very effective. And if you are on a beta-blocker for migraine prevention, riboflavin has been shown to enhance the benefits so it may allow you to lower your dose or get better results from the dose you are taking.
Magnesium calms the nervous systems and helps improve blood vessel tone, preventing migraines. It can also help migraines associated with your period (hallelujah sister!) Dose 600 mg daily. It may take as long as 3 months to see results, but hang in there wit this one, too.
Tip #5 Herbs can help, too!
Feverfew is an herb that acts as a natural anti-inflammatory. It reduces migraine frequency and severity, as well as lessening migraine-associated symptoms. Dose: 25 mg daily. If you are on blood thinners, feverfew is not for you – it can interfere with your medication and increase bleeding.
Butterbur (also called Petasites) is also anti-inflammatory and has been shown to lead to a significant reduction in headache frequency. The dose is 75 mg twice daily. It may take several months before you notice major improvement, but give it a whirl. Because it also helps with symptoms of allergic rhinitis, this is an especially useful herb if you have allergy-associated headaches.
Note that neither feverfew nor butterbur (petasites) are safe for use in pregnancy!
Tip #6: Eat an anti-inflammatory diet and keep your blood sugar balanced.
Reducing the pro-inflammatory foods in your diet, particularly sugar, red meat and poultry, and processed foods, while adding antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables and good quality oils can reduce your headache frequency. Oils I recommend include olive oil, walnut oil, and coconut oil, all of which can be eaten raw or cooked. Also, avoid low blood sugar by eating healthy meals at regular times, and eating healthful snacks such as vegetables with hummus, a small handful of nuts or seeds, or an apple with almond butter. Future blogs will talk more about the anti-inflammatory diet and healthful eating. If you struggle with inflammation or blood sugar problems read The Blood Sugar Solution by Dr. Mark Hyman.
Supplementing with fish oil (750 mg/day eicosapentaenoic acid and 500 mg/day docosahexaenoic acid), which is anti-inflammatory, has been shown to reduce headache frequency, length, and severity.
I have seen these migraine prevention tips work for so many patients! If you have suggestions for things you have found helpful in migraine prevention, please let me know – I’d love to know what methods work for you! And if you have success with any of these suggestions, please be sure to drop me a comment!