Migraine Treatments: These drug-free approaches can cut the frequency and severity of migraine attacks
Approximately one in seven people in the UK regularly suffers the misery of migraine attacks and women are three times more likely to get them than men.
A migraine is more than just a bad headache it is a symptom of a deeper disorder of the blood and nervous systems that occurs when blood vessels in the brain contract and then suddenly dilate, causing the release of pain-causing chemicals such as histamine and substance P. At the same time, blood platelets become stickier and clump together, although it is not clear whether this also produces migraine symptoms.
The most common migraine symptom is a severe, throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head only, which can be accompanied by nausea, sometimes with vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and noise.
Migraines can be triggered by foods containing chemicals called amines such as cheese, chocolate and pickles or by an individual sensitivity to just about any food the most common being milk, wheat, eggs and oranges. Stress, weather changes, smoking and too much or too little sleep can all cause migraine headaches too by triggering hormonal or nervous system changes that affect the production of amines in your body.
Conventional migraine drugs can cause headaches as a side-effect!
In a small amount of cases migraines can lead to further complications such as vision loss or stroke. For this reason, and because frequent, severe headaches can be a symptom of a more serious condition such as a brain tumour or haemorrhage it is vital that you see your doctor
for a proper diagnosis.
Doctors routinely treat migraines with two main types of drugs painkillers to treat acute attacks and vasoconstrictors (which stop blood vessels dilating) for prevention. These drugs do nothing to cure the condition itself and may even cause headaches as a side-effect!
More worryingly, vasoconstrictors are not selective; they contract the arteries in the heart as effectively as those in the brain, which increases the risk of a heart attack .
Fortunately migraines can often be completely controlled using safe and effective alternative treatments.
Feverfew can offer much-needed relief from debilitating symptoms
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a herb that has proved its worth as a migraine preventive in several clinical trials. It contains a compound called parthenolide, which has been shown to block the release of pain chemicals in the brain and to reduce blood platelet clumping.
As far back as 1997 a study was conducted involving 57 migraine patients who took feverfew for two months, following which one group took a placebo while the other group continued with feverfew. After a further two months, the two groups switched treatments for two months more.
The results showed that when feverfew was being taken migraine symptoms including pain, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and noise were much reduced. Take 125mg of the freeze-dried herb (standardised to 0.2 per cent parthenolide), one to three times a day. Do not use feverfew if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Frequency of migraine headaches reduced by 50% after just 12 weeks
A new study has confirmed earlier findings that high doses of vitamin B2 (riboflavin) can reduce the frequency of migraine headaches. Researchers at the Humboldt University of Berlin gave 23 migraine sufferers 400mg of riboflavin daily for six months.
The subjects recorded details of the migraines they experienced as well as their use of pain-killing drugs during the trial. By three months into the trial, the average frequency of migraine attacks had been cut in half and the use of painkillers had dropped by 35 per cent. This backs up results from an earlier study, which also found that treatment with riboflavin cut the total number of headache days by half.
Riboflavin works by boosting energy production in the cells. This is thought to help as migraine patients appear to have unusually low energy reserves in the mitochondria of their brain cells. Take 200mg of riboflavin twice a day. Doses this high are completely safe, but some people might experience mild digestive upset or facial redness, in which case you should lower the dosage until these side-effects clear up.
Another nutrient that boosts cellular energy production is co-enzyme Q10 (Co-Q10) and it is effective at preventing migraines. In a study at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, 32 migraine patients took 150mg of Co-Q10 a day for three months. The number of migraine attacks they suffered was more than halved, while the total number of migraine days fell from 7.34 to 2.95 per month, a reduction of 60 per cent. Take 120 to 240mg of Co-Q10 a day.
Migraine sufferers have also been found to have lower blood and brain levels of magnesium than non-sufferers. In a double blind trial involving 81 migraine sufferers, researchers at the Munich-Harlaching Clinic in Germany found that 600mg of magnesium a day reduced the frequency of attacks by 41.6 per cent and also significantly cut total migraine days and the need for pain killing drugs. Take 600mg of magnesium a day.
Acupuncture and exercise can help prevent migraine attacks
As well as the supplements mentioned above, certain physical treatments also have a good record in migraine prevention. A recent UK study reported in the British Medical Journal, involving 401 patients attending GP clinics in England and Wales, has shown that acupuncture provides a beneficial alternative to drugs for treating migraines and other kinds of headaches. Total headache days, use of medication and days lost from work were all substantially reduced following acupuncture treatment.
Keeping active can work wonders, too. According to a recent study, taking just three 40-minute sessions of moderate aerobic exercise a week can significantly cut the frequency, duration and severity of migraine attacks. The researchers put the beneficial effects of exercise down to the production of pain-killing chemicals called endorphins in the brain.
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