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Whether you know someone who has had migraines or have experienced them yourself, you probably know that these extremely painful headaches can be debilitating.
The good news is that we have a better understanding of migraines than ever before, according to Angel Moreno, a practicing nurse with the UCLA Goldberg Migraine Program who specializes in non-drug migraine treatments.
“Migraines have for a long time been a very invisible illness,” Moreno said.
Headache disorders such as migraines and cluster headaches affect approximately 3 billion people worldwide each year. It is one of the most common neurological conditions, with up to 50% of women and 20% of men experiencing a migraine in their lifetime. While there are prescription medications that can help treat and prevent headaches and migraines, many people want to explore non-drug treatments or lifestyle changes that will also help.
For those looking for alternatives, we asked the experts for tips, over-the-counter products, and home remedies that can be used for migraines and headaches.
What causes headaches?
There are two types of headache disorders, primary and secondary, said Dr. Juliana Vanderbloem, a UCSM-certified headache specialist and neurologist at the Mayo Clinic.
Primary headache disorders occur when there is a problem at the cellular or electrical level, or when the nervous system causes headaches for no reason. In other words, the headache itself is the problem. Migraine is an example of a primary headache disorder.
Secondary headache disorders are situations in which another condition is likely to damage or irritate nerves, such as a neck injury or sinusitis. People with secondary headache disorders are more likely to seek treatment for their main concerns, which hopefully will resolve the headaches.
While lifestyle or behavioral factors were previously thought to trigger migraines, Vanderbloem said studies show that the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that regulates appetite, temperature and other body functions, can be activated early, even before suffering People have headaches.
“Some clinicians speculate that maybe what we think are food triggers like cravings for chocolate or wine or cheese or salty meat or things like that, maybe those foods we think are triggers aren’t actually triggers,” she said. “Maybe it’s the hypothalamus that makes us crave those things. Then we eat them and we get migraines, but we’ll get migraines anyway because the hypothalamus becomes active.”
Overemphasis on potential triggers makes people feel personally responsible for their symptoms when they do absolutely nothing to cause them. While it’s a good idea to pay attention to sleep problems or manage stress that may increase the risk of developing a migraine, people don’t need to be overly concerned about everything that goes into their body, VanderPluym said.
Since there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to treating people with headache disorders, it is important to work with a physician on treatment plans and preventive measures to find the right balance between general guidelines and individual needs.
How do you get rid of a headache?
Once VanderPluym determines whether a patient has a primary or secondary headache disorder, they divide their treatment into three categories — lifestyle recommendations, rescue treatments, and preventative treatments.
“Migraine is a condition that doesn’t really like big changes, so we want to make sure that people have some kind of consistency in their lifestyle habits and that they also follow healthy lifestyle habits,” she said.
Moreno recommends a healthy diet for headache sufferers. He suggests eating small, protein-rich meals scattered throughout the day to deliver a steady amount of energy to the brain.
“We have problems when people eat a lot of sugar and a lot of processed carbohydrates,” Moreno said. These types of foods may create an energy peak followed by a crash, he said, while a diet rich in vegetables and animal proteins can help maintain an appropriate amount of energy delivered to the central nervous system.
The experts said that people who are prone to headaches could consider supplementing with magnesium and vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin. Moreno also likes to incorporate coenzyme Q10, another type of supplement.
“The data tells us that if you take these three supplements for about two months, you start to see a reduction in migraine severity and possibly migraine frequency,” he said. The way these supplements work, they are basically cofactors in helping the body extract energy from the food we eat and the air we breathe. It’s all about metabolic support. “
The next category is what VanderPluym calls rescue therapy or acute therapy, which is the medicine that people take for comfort when they start to have migraine symptoms. Rescue treatments can be prescription medications (such as triptans for migraines) or over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
She said caution should be exercised with this class of pain medications because some products like Excedrin, which contain caffeine, can trigger rebound headaches if overused.
A rebound headache is possible if you go into a cycle of using these medications and get another headache when the medication is gone, so you take the medication again. If you find yourself taking headache medication for two or more days out of the week, you should see a doctor to discuss preventive measures so you can avoid this cycle.
For those who struggle with nausea with migraines, Moreno said treating nausea can help. There are some medications that may relieve these symptoms, but the non-drug treatment he recommends is ginger extract. He also emphasized the importance of staying properly hydrated, and that doesn’t always mean just drinking water.
“You need the right electrolyte balance to get water into the cells,” he said. He’s a big proponent of electrolyte replacement products without tons of added sugar for reaching optimal hydration levels.
Not everyone who gets headaches or migraines necessarily needs the third category – preventive treatments. It depends on how often or how severe your migraines are, VanderPluym said. If they are frequent or severe, starting a preventive plan will ideally reduce symptoms.
These preventative measures could include trying triple Moreno supplements, or turning to behavioral interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy or biofeedback training.
“If you want to avoid taking anything completely, these have very solid evidence but it does require work and finding a psychologist who is trained and can provide guidance,” VanderPluym said.
Whether you have migraines, cluster headaches, or tension headaches that you are looking to treat or even avoid without relying too much on prescription medications, these are some of the products that may help you.