I’ve suffered from migraines for as long as I can remember. As a small child, I’d stay home from school with what my mother referred to as the ‘stomach flu’. I’d grind my pounding head into the pillow on the couch in between bouts of vomiting and crying while watching talk shows and soap operas until I fell asleep.
As a teenager, I’d find relief in the school nurse's office with the lights turned off. I threw up in an alleyway walking home after 3pm more than once. As an adult, I’ve lost countless work days, missed important opportunities, and even fun times with friends because of the searing pain and nausea, light sensitivity, and feelings of helplessness.
In my mid 20’s, I got a diagnosis, and, with the diagnosis, a prescription for a triptan. Finally, there was some relief. When the familiar markers of an oncoming migraine showed up, I would take a pill and cross my fingers. 95% of the time, it kicked in and I avoided the pain – though I walked around in a fog or slept the day away. The other 5% of the time I would grind my pounding head into my pillow and cry and watch Netflix until I fell asleep.
Like many, I’ve spent countless hours researching how to control/stop/heal my migraines on the internets. And there is so much I’ve done in the spirit of curtailing their appearance in my life. I no longer drink alcohol because what I thought were hangovers were actually horrible migraines, complete with vomiting. I removed dairy from my diet once I realized it was a trigger because my love affair with cheese was actually one sided. I make sure that I eat before I’m starving because not eating enough will cause a migraine. So will eating too much, especially if I do it before I sleep. Ditto for sugar.
I avoid people who wear too much perfume, scented laundry detergent, and cleaning products that are designed to smell ‘nice’ but send my sinuses, and then my brain, into serious turmoil. I make sure that I don’t spend too much time in the sun. I set very clear boundaries with my time and availability because, if I don’t, the stress of the demands of others can sometimes lead to me ‘taking time off’ in the form of a migraine. I do yoga. I run almost daily. I avoid coffee. I take a supplement to prevent my estrogen from spiking or dropping. And I could go on.
Much of this ongoing prevention is because, after a decade of taking it, I want to get off of my medication. As much as I am grateful for the relief it provides, long term use of triptans is a grey area when it comes to side effects – especially when it comes to use over decades. Ongoing use of many migraine medications can result in rebound headaches once the medication wears off; what were one day events 10 years ago are often now three or four day disruptions for me. And, because there is a relationship between use of triptans and stroke events, I am concerned what the medication’s effect on my blood pressure will have on me later in life.
Triptans are not recommended for women who are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. The very few studies done on sumatriptan use during pregnancy, for example, don’t show any links between its use and stillbirth, miscarriage, or development of birth defects. But, as a woman of childbearing age, I can’t feel confident about taking any medication during pregnancy (or while breastfeeding) before any definitive testing has been done. Especially because a fertility nurse told me that, if I was ever trying to get pregnant, that taking my triptan should be avoided.
Not only are migraines a chronic condition that can be debilitating, studies also show that migraine sufferers experience more brain lesions, which can lead to stroke activity. But, like many chronic medical conditions, migraines can be managed – even eradicated. Below are the solutions that worked best for my migraines. Using them over the last three years, my migraines have reduced in frequency from up to ten per month to two or less. And, while experiencing a migraine, some of these solutions even allow me to function almost normally so that I don’t have to spend days in bed.
Yes, there is a little more effort here than taking a pill. But I believe my long-term health and wellness is worth it. I bet you do, too.
There was a time, early in my experience with migraines, when I could stave one off with a couple of cups of strong coffee and a Tylenol. But it wasn’t always successful and, after a few years, it no longer worked. According to The American Migraine Foundation, caffeine is known to stop migraines, but it can also work as a trigger for them, especially if a regular caffeine user goes through withdrawal when their daily caffeine intake is not met.
Caffeine acts against migraines by affecting the absorption of a substance called adenosine, found in the brain. During a migraine, levels of adenosine in the brain go up. Caffeine adheres to adenosine receptors and prevents it from bonding, which may explain why it stops migraines. Scientists are not really sure if it is that simple. But if you use caffeine regularly, especially in the form of coffee, a dependence is formed, and the migraine-quelling effects no longer work.
Moving away from caffeine in coffee has been an effective way for me to reduce my migraine attacks. When I do use caffeine, it is in the form of green tea, which also contains L-Theanine. L-Theanine not only increases mental alertness, but calms stress and relaxes muscles. Green tea is also not dehydrating, another trigger for migraines, like coffee can be. If you can’t live without your coffee, no judgement. But you may want to source out alternatives that do more good than harm — try water decaffeinated coffee, or matcha, or coffee bean extract.
When I was growing up, my mother’s answer to my complaint of a headache was: “Did you go to the bathroom?”. Of course, what she was really asking was if I had had a bowel movement that day. And she wasn’t far off. Research has found that there is a link between Irritable Bowel Syndrome and migraines in that 25 to 53% of people who have IBS also experience frequent headaches.
One of the causes of migraines is a sharp rise and fall of serotonin levels right before a migraine attack causing constriction of the blood vessels. Interestingly, during a bout of constipation, the intestines are flooded with serotonin. Studies on children with headache show that relieving chronic constipation will also reduce the amount of headaches suffered. And one of the ways to reduce constipation is the use of magnesium.
In addition to promoting regularity, magnesium may also prevent the narrowing of brain blood vessels caused by the levels of serotonin fluctuating during a migraine. In 2012, the American Headache Society and the American Academy of Neurology reviewed medications used for migraine prevention and gave magnesium a Level B rating. This means magnesium is probably effective and should be considered for patients requiring migraine preventive therapy – and it is particularly effective for migraine with aura.
The right kind of magnesium is important. The body best absorbs magnesium citrate. Sometimes it takes time to find the right balance for you – too much magnesium will cause diarrhea. Play with amounts from 400 to 800 milligrams per day to see what your body can comfortably handle. If you suffer from menstrual migraine, magnesium can be especially beneficial as it can also help to alleviate symptoms of PMS, such as bloating.
For some, migraines occur because of elevated homocysteine levels in the blood. These elevated levels can cause the familiar constriction of blood vessels that result in a migraine. B2 is a vasodilator, which means it widens the blood vessels, and increases blood flow, bringing relief. B2 is more of a preventative than something to take when you are in the midst of an attack. An ideal daily amount is 400 mg, which is more than you’d find in your average multivitamin so finding a quality source is ideal.
B2 is important because it also helps to calm the nerves, which can become over excited during a migraine. B2 helps the nerves and nervous system to function properly overall. This is important because of research showing the relationship between the nervous system, the trigeminal nerve, and migraines.
The trigeminal nerve, located in the neck, is connected to the brain stem. When it is inflamed, will impact the entire nervous system. I’ll come back to this later but keeping your trigeminal nerve calmed is an important part of avoiding a migraine attack.
In ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ Louise Hay cites masturbation as a way to find relief from, or even prevent an oncoming migraine.
It’s not just another wacko ‘new age’ theory. It may be due to the dopamine that floods your brain during orgasm because dopamine levels plummet during a migraine, just like serotonin. Research published in 2013 found that, of the patients who engaged in sexual activity during a migraine, a third experienced relief of symptoms. Another study found that a third of migraineurs use sex as a reliable way to relieve headache pain – and 60 percent of those migraineurs reported total or at least considerable relief after sexual relations. With no side effects!
In any case, the old complaint ‘Not tonight honey, I have a headache’ should be ‘Give it to me, baby’. And, if you don’t have a partner, you can just give it to yourself.
Thanks to its ability to promote muscle relaxation and calm the nervous system, kava is a popular herbal remedy for migraines. Most commonly taken as a bitter tasting tea, kava contains kavalactones, active compounds that are known to have pain-killing and neuroprotective (resulting in regeneration of the nervous system) properties. Studies also show kava to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. It also increases levels of dopamine, which plummet during migraine. It is these dopamine fluctuations that may cause common migraine sensitivities to smell, light, touch, and sound. Concentrated forms of kava, developed through distillation processes, were found to have similar and sometimes greater effectiveness than the natural form.
Taking high-quality kava is a must. Kava was taken off the market for a short time in some countries after reports of liver damage. But those reports were most likely caused by distribution of low-quality kava that contained the stems and leave of the plant, which contain toxic alkaloids. If you decide to try kava for your migraines, you must find a source that is organic, and is made from only the root of the plant.
I found no scientific studies on the effectiveness of kava on reducing or eliminating migraine symptoms so any reports are purely anecdotal. But those who report success with kava swear by it. I have used it with success – and have even been able to avoid using my prescription medications. One of the best forms of kava I’ve found is in a supplement called AVA, made by Limitless Life.
AVA combines kava, green tea extract, and vitamin B12 in a supplement that is reported to enhance mood and emotional wellness (by sustainably stimulating serotonin and dopamine), as well as act as a ‘yoga pre-workout’. I took it on the advice of a friend who had used it to boost her mood – and found its ability to take her migraine pain away by accident. AVA not only contains kava, but it is in a concentrated form thanks to a distillation process.
During a bout of migraine two months ago, I took one AVA as I felt the usual symptoms come on. Not only did my pain end, but I was actually able to work. I took a second one later in the day, and my boyfriend and I went to a Latin dance event in the early evening. I slept like a rock that night. It didn’t make any difference in the length of my migraine (which was three days, total) but as long as I was taking AVA, my head stopped hurting, I had no noise sensitivity, and my nausea subsided.
This month, when I felt the symptoms, I took an AVA in the morning. Again, my pain and symptoms disappeared. I took an additional AVA in the afternoon and, not only was I pretty much back to normal, but I woke up migraine free the next day. Since my migraines have been lasting up to four days, this was a huge deal for me.
Research has shown that triptans can interfere with serotonin production and impact the body’s ability to produce adequate stores. Since AVA sustainably increases serotonin and dopamine, that may be why it also works for migraines — and possibly why my most recent migraine only lasted one day. AVA’s ingredients are sustainably grown and are 99% organic. Thanks to AVA, I’m on my second month of no prescription meds, so I’m sold. You can find information about AVA at: http://www.myemotionalevolution.com/
I discovered massage and chiropractic adjustments years ago thanks to a car accident that left me with some serious whiplash. But after a few months of bi-weekly appointments, my regular treatment coincided with a migraine and I experienced significant relief of my symptoms. Regular massage helped manage my stress levels as well — if my stress was out of control, my migraines increased.
Throughout the last decade, I’ve used both massage and chiropractic as preventative measures, as well as treatments to fall back on if the pain becomes too much to bear. But I now tend to use massage only, specifically cranial sacral. While some massage therapies use strong muscle manipulation (like swedish massage or rolfing), craniosacral work causes less inflammation to the tissues. And that lessening of inflammation may be the key to relief.
What is cranial sacral massage? The following paragraphs are from the website of The Upledger Institute, founded by Dr. John E. Upledger, who developed cranial sacral therapy.
CranioSacral Therapy (CST) is a gentle, hands-on approach that releases tensions deep in the body to relieve pain and dysfunction and improve whole-body health and performance.
Using a soft touch which is generally no greater than 5 grams – about the weight of a nickel – practitioners release restrictions in the soft tissues that surround the central nervous system. CST is increasingly used as a preventive health measure for its ability to bolster resistance to disease, and it's effective for a wide range of medical problems associated with pain and dysfunction.
The trigeminal nerve is the primary nerve that carries pain impulses from your mouth, teeth, head, face, ears, and neck to your central nervous system. The trigeminal nerve also controls the amount of blood flow to the brain. But when the trigeminal nerve is inflamed, it can cause all sorts of issues with that blood flow and that familiar neck pain so many migraine sufferers experience. (Additionally, an inflamed trigeminal nerve is related to depletion of serotonin). Too many nerve impulses traveling to and from the trigeminal nerve will overload the central nervous system and result in migraine. It is my personal experience that cranial sacral not only returns my system to balance while in a migraine attack, but is an preventative measure to guard against later migraine attack by reducing pressure or inflammation on the tissue surrounding the trigeminal nerve.
I asked my cranial therapist (who requested to remain anonymous due to a client list chock-full of professional athletes and entertainment industry types) about her experience with migraines and the trigeminal nerve. She suggests first being properly diagnosed because migraines can be confused with headaches that occur post trauma, as in a concussion. It’s also important to know that the therapist you choose to work with is skilled; that they have a decade or more of experience with migraine, so that they can design a treatment plan that is specific to your triggers.
“I think that a skilled massage therapist is essential in a multilevel approach to managing migraine. Personally, the people that I have been around (with migraine) report that cranial work does help them”. In fact, my cranial therapist was trained by a woman whose interest in cranial sacral was driven by her experience of almost completely eradicating her migraines using its methods. Cranial sacral is not yet fully accepted within the medical community and is sometimes referred to as ‘pseudo science’. Whatever the ‘experts’ say, it is providing results for many.
If you do yoga, then you know there are benefits that go far beyond a tight behind and knowing Rumi quotes by heart. My own personal experience with yoga and migraines is a fairy tale: during a six month period where I lived eight blocks from my yoga studio, I did 90 minute classes at least five days per week. I experienced two migraines in that period that I can remember. And I didn’t take my triptan, at all.
My current lifestyle doesn’t always lend to getting to the studio for a full class but the effects of yoga – including savasana and a period of meditation – are undeniable. A 2014 study had participants participate in yoga five days a week over a six week period in addition to conventional care, and compared it with a group only receiving conventional care. The results found that the group doing yoga in addition to conventional care experienced more relief from migraines.
I have to be careful with poses that can overstress my neck (and, therefore, my trigeminal nerve). I’ve given myself a migraine more than once by staying too long in a shoulder stand or plow. And, if I do a hot class, I can’t go without a big bottle of electrolytes because dehydration is a trigger for me. But neither is a big enough reason to avoid yoga altogether.
At the very least, yoga helps to increase circulation and slow blood pressure. If you tend to carry stress in your neck or shoulders, poses like forward bend, standing forward bend, and child’s pose will take the pressure off. Cat pose will help to loosen your spine, and savasana will help you to reset and relax. And you don’t have to push to your limits (yoga ain’t no competition, yo). A gentle hatha class is more than effective for relief — and prevention. And don’t be afraid to mention to the teacher that you suffer from migraines. They may be able to let you know which poses could do more harm than good.
Yoga’s effect on the central nervous system is a huge part of its effectiveness in reducing migraine. And when our nervous system goes out of balance, we are open to a host of dysfunction and disease, including migraine. And one of the most talked about nervous system issues currently being discussed is trauma.
The Center For Anxiety And Mood Disorders defines trauma this way:
In general, trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. When loosely applied, this trauma definition can refer to something upsetting, such as being involved in an accident, having an illness or injury, losing a loved one, or going through a divorce. However, it can also encompass the far extreme and include experiences that are severely damaging, such as rape or torture.
From 1995 to 1997, Kaiser Permanente and The Center For Disease Control conducted The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). The study, which is frequently cited as a notable landmark in epidemiological (relating to the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of diseases) research, showed the connection between ten types of childhood trauma and health and social issues across a lifespan. Childhood trauma effects not only brain development but also impacts the hormonal and immune systems, and how DNA is read and transcribed. This causes health issues that may not have developed if life circumstances were different.
For those who have experienced trauma, migraines are extremely common. Often, when we experience trauma, we are not able to finish off our nervous system response and we hold the effect of the event in our bodies. Eventually, our nervous system is overloaded, and our inability to handle daily stress results in not only migraines, but chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and disease. According to a 2014 study in the medical journal Neurology, the “odds of migraine vs. episodic tension type headache were significantly higher for those reporting emotional neglect, emotional, or sexual abuse”.
Trauma is being discussed more and more, not only as a cause of health issues, but a significant contributing factor to both mental health issues and addiction. My personal experience with Somatic Experiencing is a significant reduction in migraine occurrence, going from up to ten a month to one or two after six months of treatment.
Trauma may begin as acute stress from a perceived life-threat or as the end product of cumulative stress. Both types of stress can seriously impair a person’s ability to function with resilience and ease. Trauma may result from a wide variety of stressors such as accidents, invasive medical procedures, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, neglect, war, natural disasters, loss, birth trauma, or the corrosive stressors of ongoing fear and conflict.
The SE approach facilitates the completion of self-protective motor responses and the release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body, thus addressing the root cause of trauma symptoms. This is approached by gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions.
-from the website of the The Somatic Experiencing Institute
You don’t need to have experienced childhood trauma for SE to be beneficial. We experience incidents each day that tax our nervous system — being lunged at by an unfamiliar dog or involvement in a minor car accident, for example. Nervous system health is often spoken in terms of capacity. When our stress levels go up, our nervous system can become overloaded and our capacity to deal with everyday occurrences goes down.
But there is evidence that trauma is slightly more insidious than we realize. I spoke with Carolyn, an entrepreneur and mother of four who has suffered from migraines her entire life (who is now using AVA successfully to manage her migraines). Although she, and her siblings, had an idyllic, happy childhood, she and her sister both experience excruciating migraines several times per month. Recently, she made the connection between her migraines and her father’s significant early life trauma.
Studies of epigenetics, specifically on family members of holocaust survivors, have proven that traumatic experiences are hereditary and can have a significant impact of the children of trauma survivors. But it’s not a life sentence. One of the benefits of SE is that it doesn't require the patient to bring up traumatic memories, since the focus is on the body finishing the nervous system response, not the cause of the trauma. Over a period of time, as the nervous system returns to normal, symptoms, such as migraines, reduce — even significantly, such as in my case.
Migraines don’t have to control your entire world. It is possible, with a little effort, to find solutions that work for you. Whether it is one — or more — of the options I’ve listed here, or another, you can set yourself free from a painful prison and live a happier, migraine-free life.
Before you make any changes to your healthcare routine, talk to your doctor or medical professional.