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If you suffer from migraine headaches, you will know all about severe throbbing head pain. You may also experience other common symptoms including nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light, noise and odours, visual disturbances including seeing ‘auras” around objects, or blurred vision. Diet, sleep deprivation, hormonal fluctuations and other stress factors may trigger migraines. Managing this debilitating condition can be a challenge, and strong pain medication is often needed.

Women are three times as likely to suffer from migraines (15 per cent) as men (5 per cent). Young women are most at risk. The frequency of attacks varies from occasionally (once or twice a year) to two or three times a week. The pain tends to be severe throbbing and usually localises on one side of the head. The attack can last from a few hours to 2 or 3 days.

Symptoms: a migraine headache has different symptoms from other types of headache. Migraine symptoms can include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • light and noise sensitivity
  • visual changes – blurred vision, aura
  • sensitivity to smell and touch
  • numbness of the face or hands and feet.

Triggers: Attacks are commonly triggered by a combination of factors, such as:

  • diet – chocolate, cheese, citrus fruits, alcohol (especially red wine)
  • lack of sleep, fatigue
  • menstrual cycle and hormone imbalances
  • excessive heat, light, noise or certain chemicals
  • emotional causes – stress or excitement
  • let down (weekend migraines) – a period of intense stress followed by relaxation.

If you go too long without eating, your blood sugar level may fall below the threshold where your brain can function well. This triggers the release of hormones that boost the amount of glucose to the brain. However these hormones can also cause constriction of the arteries, a factor that can contribute to headaches and migraines.

Eating food with a high sugar content can also contribute to headaches, as this causes the body to release a flood of insulin. The resulting drop in the blood sugar level triggers hormones that cause constriction of the arteries, contributing to headaches. It is therefore important to eat regularly and avoid sugar in food and drinks if you suffer from migraines, in order to minimise fluctuations in blood sugar levels.

Caffeine, commonly found in coffee, tea and chocolate, is often linked to headaches. Caffeine has an effect on hormone levels that control blood sugar, and also causes constriction of the arteries. This can cause headaches in some people. Limiting caffeine intake is generally recommended if you suffer with migraines. Green tea may be a better alternative as it contains less caffeine. However sudden caffeine withdrawal can cause severe headaches, so it is better to cut down gradually. Food additives such as MSG, nitrites and preservatives can also cause headaches in sensitive individuals. It is a good idea to keep a food diary so you can check what you have eaten in the few hours before the onset of a migraine, This allows you to back track and identify foods or ingredients that are headache triggers for you.

Up to half of women who experience migraines report that they occur pre-menstrually. The drop in hormone levels (estrogen and progesterone) at this time is thought to have an effect on brain chemicals, including serotonin, which in turn can contribute to migraines. Using nutritional, herbal and/or homeopathic medicines can help reduce the fluctuations in hormones during this time in the cycle.

Research has demonstrated that people who are prone to stress, anxiety and depression are more likely to suffer from frequent headaches and migraines. This is thought to be due to an imbalance in hormone and brain chemical levels, reducing the pain threshold and overall adaptability. Regular exercise can relieve tension and help alleviate stress-related symptoms by triggering the release of endorphins. Relaxation and meditation techniques can help switch the nervous system off stress overdrive and into restorative mode. Natural medicines to alleviate the effects of stress can help combat migraines.

Treatment: finding the right approach can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks.

  • Identify and avoid triggers: migraines are often triggered by a combination of factors. Learn what triggers affect you and how to manage them better.
  • Natural therapies: acupuncture, biofeedback, chiropractic, hypnotherapy, exclusion diets, relaxation, yoga and meditation.
  • Nutritional supplements, herbal and homeopathic medicines have a lot to offer migraine sufferers. Magnesium and Vit D3 nutrition supplements have been shown to reduce migraine frequency, help support normal blood glucose and relieve muscle tension and spasms.
  • Using a TENS unit – a small battery operated device that helps act as a pain blockade and may reduce the need for medication.
  • Ice packs on the forehead and back of the neck may help in some cases.
  • Lying down in a darkened room is the typical approach used to get through a migraine.
  • Medication: strong pain-relieving drugs may be needed for severe attacks, and preventative daily medication can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.
  • The lifestyle and dietary measures outlined above can make a big difference. Nutritional and natural medicines can help support hormone levels and improve overall function. This in turn helps prevent migraine attacks and reduces the need for medication.