Migraine is one of the most common conditions that I see in practice, and the vast majority of sufferers have it affect their daily lives to some degree. As a result, I’m always on the lookout for potential solutions to this problem. Reading this month’s edition of the medical journal Cephalalgia, I discovered that that the ancient Egyptians used a poultice of ass’s grease to relieve headaches. Interesting, I suppose, but not of whole heap of use to the six per cent of men and one in five women who regularly suffer from migraine attacks.
Migraines are no your common-or-garden headaches. The pain is usually felt on one side of the head, and is characteristically intense. I haven’t had a migraine myself, but have heard enough ‘head-in-a-vice’ and ‘nail-being-hammered-into-my-eye’ descriptions to know their potential ferocity. Apart from the headache, migraines often give rise to other symptoms including a need to be away from light, visual problems, and nausea and vomiting. While a migraine attack won’t kill anyone, I’ve heard a lot of people say that they sometimes wish it would. However, for those that are prone to migraine, help is at hand. Experience shows that nutritional approaches often do wonders to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. Getting to the underlying nature of the problem is often the key to controlling migraine in the long term.
One potential cause of migraine appears to be the very drugs used to treat attacks. This appears to be true for migraine sufferers who take painkillers every day to keep their headaches at bay. Ironically, coming off conventional medication may bring tremendous relief in the long term. One way to do this is to go cold turkey. This usually leads to a horrendous headache for a few days, after which the body generally returns to a state of relative calm. Another approach is to gradually wean off the medication over several weeks. This method takes longer than going cold turkey, but is generally an easier ride.
Before and during any reduction in medication, it can often help to look at correcting whatever imbalances might be at the root of the problem. There is good evidence that a major cause of migraine is sensitivity to specific foods. Certain foods are well known to trigger migraine. Sometimes referred to as ‘the five Cs’, these are; chocolate, cheese, claret (and other red wines), coffee (and other sources of caffeine) and citrus fruits. While these foods are commonly held to be the main culprits in migraine, research has suggested that the most common food trigger is actually wheat. Cutting back on bread, pasta, pastry, and wheat-based breakfast cereals and crackers does seem to help a surprising number of migraine sufferers.
Migraine can sometimes be triggered if the level of sugar in the blood stream gets too low (hypoglycaemia). This may well be the mechanism in individuals who can wake up with a headache or be prone to an attack if they skip a meal. To ensure a stable level of blood sugar regular meals and snacks should be eaten, and the diet should be based around blood sugar-stabilising foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrain starches such as oats and brown rice.
During a migraine attack the blood vessels around the brain tend to constrict (shut down) and then dilate (open out). This second phase of dilation that is believed to cause the pain characteristic of migraine. Deficiency of the mineral magnesium tends to increase the risk of spasm and subsequent dilation in the body’s arteries. Indeed, migraine sufferers have been found to have lower levels of magnesium in their blood streams compared to non-sufferers. One study found that 80 per cent of women treated with magnesium experienced an improvement in their headaches. Green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, and beans and pulses are good sources of magnesium. However, to get really useful quantities of this mineral into the system, I generally recommend a supplement containing 250 – 350 mg of magnesium, to be taken twice a day.
Another natural remedy which can often be effective in the prevention and treatment of migraine is the herb Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). The main active constituent in Feverfew is believed to be a substance called parthenolide. Parthenolide appears to inhibit the release of inflammatory substances that may play a part in the blood vessels changes typical in migraine. Feverfew has been found to reduce the frequency, severity and duration of migraine attacks, although it may take several weeks for benefits to become apparent. The daily recommended dose of parthenolide is 250 mg a day. In my experience, one or more of the above approaches is usually very effective in controlling migraine attacks. However, if all else fails, I suppose there’s always the ass’s grease.