A complete look into the mechanics of migraine and holistic remedies.
The pain starts in the left temple. A dull, constant pressure soon morphs into a sharp dagger that spreads behind the left eye. Soon, sunlight is unbearable. The exhaust fumes of a passing car are toxic. And every small sound like a hammer, knocking the migraine deeper. Sounds unbearable, right?
For 12% of the American population, this scenario happens regularly. While there are manifold treatment options for migraine, including preventative Botox treatments, there is no cure for migraine. It’s accepted as an inevitable part of your life, if you’ve been diagnosed.
Migraines are known as an “invisible illness” because there are no outward signs that someone may be suffering. Frequently, migraine sufferers are dismissed or invalidated because there are no outward physical signs of pain. To be sure, migraines are very real. Here, we’ll explore what a migraine entails, who is most likely to suffer from them, and holistic remedies for treatment and prevention.
What is Migraine?
Migraines can affect anyone but you are at greater risk, “if you are a woman, have a family history of migraines, or have other medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, sleep disorders, and epilepsy,” according to Medline Plus, a US National Library of Medicine publication. Becoming familiar with migraine and its symptoms may help differentiate between simple headaches and this painful “invisible illness.” Migraine entails four distinct phases, only one of which encompasses the actual migraine pain itself.
The first phase of migraine, known as prodrome, happens one to two days before the migraine hits. “You might notice subtle changes that warn of an upcoming attack, including constipation, mood changes (from depression to euphoria), food cravings, neck stiffness, increased thirst and frequent yawning,” notes the Mayo Clinic. If you are attuned to your common prodrome symptoms, you may be able to effectively prevent the migraine before it happens.
If the prodrome symptoms aren’t enough to signal an oncoming attack, take note of the second phase of migraine, known as aura. “Each [aura] symptom usually begins gradually, builds up over several minutes and lasts for 20-60 minutes,” the Mayo Clinic explains, “Examples of migraine aura include visual phenomena, vision loss, pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg, weakness or numbness in the face or one side of the body, difficulty speaking, hearing noises or music, and uncontrollable jerking or other movements.” Some migraine sufferers experience flashing lights or zig-zag lines in the field of vision, which can be alarming if not associated as an aura symptom.
The third phase of migraine is the most notorious—migraine attack. Migraine attacks can last anywhere from four to 72 hours, if left untreated. They are often debilitating, leaving the migraine sufferer incapable of performing day-to-day activities. In addition to the attack itself, “other symptoms include sensitivity to light, noise and odors, nausea, vomiting, and worsened pain when you cough, move or sneeze,” notes Medline Plus. Therefore, a dark quiet room is an ideal place to rest.
After enduring prodrome, aura, and the migraine attack, it’s easy to see why in the fourth phase, postdrome, migraine sufferers often feel drained, exhausted, and confused for up to a day. From start to finish, the process of a migraine from prodrome to postdrome can last from three days up to a week.
The most common migraine triggers, according to the American Migraine Foundation, include, “stress, changes in or an irregular sleep schedule, hormones, caffeine and alcohol, changes in the weather, diet, dehydration, light, smell and/or medication overuse.” Therefore, migraine triggers are a combination of elements within and out of our control.
Tracking migraine attacks and suspected triggers can help manage the onset of migraines. Investing in self-care activities aimed to reduce and manage stress can be useful. Adhering to a regular sleep schedule, monitoring caffeine and alcohol consumption and keeping a log of the foods you eat can also be beneficial in identifying migraine triggers.
Even with rigorous prevention tactics, migraines are often unavoidable for most who are diagnosed. However, some prevention tactics have proved to significantly lower the severity and regularity of migraine attacks—and for sufferers, this small victory is a big win.
Teshamae Monteith, MD, FAHS, notes three potentially useful supplements in preventing migraines: vitamin B2; Coenzyme Q10; and magnesium. Two of these supplements in particular, vitamin B2 and magnesium, performed well in initial studies, providing an affordable, accessible prevention plan.
Vitamin B2, also called riboflavin, assists in the metabolization of fats and proteins. Though unclear of exactly how vitamin B2 works neurologically in migraine relief, “it could be because some people who are deficient in it are more prone to migraine,” concludes Dr. Monteith. Certainly, the results of a study in the European Journal of Neurology, provides hopeful results for migraine sufferers. “23 people who took daily doses of 400 mg of riboflavin (vitamin B2) for six months reported half the number of headaches per month – from four to two—and reduced their use of medicines from seven pills per month to four and a half,” reports Dr. Monteith.
Magnesium is an essential mineral in the body, regulating nerve function, blood sugar levels and the creation of protein. Similar to vitamin B2, “people with migraines may have lower levels of magnesium than those who don’t have migraines,” says Dr. Monteith, suspecting this may be why magnesium proves so effective in migraine prevention. A study published in Cephalalgia revealed migraine attacks reduced in frequency by 41.6% in participants. “Those taking magnesium had fewer migraine days and took fewer drugs to treat symptoms,” says Dr. Monteith.
Small changes in daily routine and diet may help to reduce the duration, frequency, and severity of migraine attacks. Primary care physicians may be able to recommend medical treatment that works preventatively for migraine. Consult your doctor before taking any new supplements.
Though migraine treatments vary widely, one common thread seems to remain the same—the assertion that the best treatment for migraine is prevention. In fact, once a migraine sets in, there is little one can do to stop it. Our best chance is to have an arsenal of symptom-relieving options at the ready. In the event of an attack, we can be prepared to fight back.
For holistic remedies, dark room rest, drinking water, and eating well work best. A cold compress, hot shower, and aromatherapy with peppermint oil may also help. If you can handle the heat, a spoonful of ginger may provide some relief.
According to a study published in Phytotherapy Research, “100 patients who had acute migraine were randomly assigned to be treated with either ginger powder or a prescription drug used to treat migraine. Two hours after taking either treatment, headache severity decreased significantly, but the side effects of ginger were less than those of the prescription drug.” Dr. Monteith recommends taking a quarter teaspoon of ginger powder mixed with water.
The American Migraine Foundation provides a multitude of free resources for navigating life with migraine. There’s even an app, called Migraine Buddy, which allows sufferers to easily track attacks in all phases, along with what helped to relieve symptoms.
Migraine effects everyone differently. If someone you care about suffers from migraines, sometimes what they need most is a dark room, quiet time, and your support. Because of it’s status as an, “invisible illness” migraine sufferers are often invalidated in their pain. Standing by your loved one, and believing their pain can sometimes be the best thing to do.
Migraines affect 12% of Americans, and are often unavoidable. Holistic remedies provide prevention and treatment options. If someone you care for suffers from migraine, offer your support and a dark, quiet place to rest their aching head.
Note: This article was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.