Migraines vary from an extremely painful headache to vomiting, blurred vision and sensitivity to light and sound. Often the terms ‘migraine’ ‘migraine headache’ and ‘headache’ are used interchangeably and are used to represent a scale of pain rather than separate conditions. Some of the causes of migraines include certain foods, allergies, stress, dehydration, skipping meals, alcohol and menstrual cycles. Sometimes a migraine only occurs after a combination of these factors.
The first step in avoiding migraines is to find your triggers. Many people find they get headaches from foods containing tyramine which include: hard cheeses, red wine, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs and some kinds of beans. Other foods known to cause migraines include chocolate, citrus, MSG, nitrate-foods (salami, saveloys, hot dogs), nuts, avocado, banana, dairy, fermented or pickled foods and excess sugar. Almost any processed food can trigger an allergic reaction and cause a migraine so be open-minded. Keeping a food diary may help you find a connection between the foods you eat and your headaches.
Often the migraine is caused by foods a person is allergic to so the best place to start is to eliminate all migraine causing foods for a few weeks. If you notice a reduction in migraines slowly introduce migraine trigger foods, one at a time, into your diet to see if they cause irritation. By introducing small quantities you’ll save yourself from experiencing a full blown migraine. Often it can be a cumulative effect of several foods. My brother, for example, can eat chocolate, coffee and citrus but if he has a moccachino and an orange at the same time it tips the balance and gives him a migraine.
Once you’ve eliminated migraine-causing foods you need to ensure you eat regularly and drink plenty of water. Often migraines are triggered by dehydration or hunger. Keep healthy snacks in your bag in case you have a long wait between meals and carry a water bottle with you at all times. Keep snacks and water in the car and at work too.
A healthy, balanced diet will keep your body in good condition and reduce the chance of migraines. Eating a good selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (plant and animal), whole grains and fibre will ensure you get a good range of vitamins and minerals and keep your immune system up to scratch. An unhealthy immune system will make you feel “run down” and more likely to suffer headaches and fatigue.
Building up your immune system can keep the brain healthy too. Good supplements for the brain are omega 3 oil, zinc, magnesium and the B vitamins (especially Riboflavin). I found taking a good quality multivitamin once a day and omega 3 three times day keeps the headaches away. Some people get great benefits from Feverfew but I have struggled to find a supplement that worked. Part of this may be due to the fact that scientists are still not sure which part of the Feverfew plant is beneficial and some supplements contain leaves whereas others have extracts from the rest of the plant. Another plant which is helpful is Tang Kuei (AKA Dong Kuei), a Chinese herb which helps with balancing hormones and relaxation.
Lifestyle plays an important part in migraines and is often the most difficult aspect to control. Many headaches and migraine are caused or exacerbated by stress so keeping stress to a minimum can keep migraines away. Regular exercise, fresh air and sunshine as well as practising your preferred relaxation techniques such as reading, massage or meditation will keep stress levels down. Look at your lifestyle and see if there are changes you can make to reduce the stress in it. It may be worth considering changing jobs, reducing hours or arranging working from home to make life more flexible around migraines. Ironically, by reducing the stress and workload in your life you’ll lose less time to migraine-illness and be able to work more productively.
If you are taking an oral contraceptive pill check with your Doctor about changing the brand or the type of pill as some types of contraceptive can cause hormone-related migraines. It may be a case of experimenting under your Doctor’s supervision to find a medication that suits your body best or changing to a completely different form of contraception for a while to see if your pills were causing your headaches.
Sometimes a migraine is a symptom of another problem such as tooth grinding or neck pain. If you know you’re a tooth grinder you can visit an orthodontist and get a plate made to wear at night and you may find it will also help with headaches. A visit to a chiropractor to get your spine checked is a good idea too as a spine out of alignment can out extra pressure on your head. Because your head weighs up to 4 kilos and is balanced on your neck vertebrae, if your neck vertebrae are a little crooked the whole weight of your head shifts and places a lot of pressure on your neck. Good posture at your desk or in your workplace will also reduce neck strain and keep headaches at bay.
Another trigger for office workers can be computer screens. Get your eyes checked every year and, if you wear glasses, make sure your lenses are always correct as squinting through too weak or too strong lenses can cause severe eye strain. Some optometrists provide tinted lenses for reducing the glare on computer screens. You sit at a computer at the optometrist and go through a series of tests to discover the best colour tint for your glasses and the tint is applied over the top of your spectacle lenses. Tinted lenses are also good for those working under neon lights.
When all your efforts at prevention have failed and you feel a headache sneaking up on you there are a few more things you can try. First, put on sunglasses, especially if you are sensitive to light. Get away from any noise, stress or distractions if possible. Have two large glasses of water and an Omega 3 tablet. If you have a preferred migraine prevention medication you could take it now too (consult with your Doctor before taking any medication or supplements). Find a nice person to massage your neck or head for a tension headache to relax you and distract from the pain. If you have a cat or dog now is a good time to sit in a quiet room and give them a pat – stroking your pets reduces blood pressure and will decrease the swelling in your brain. If caffeine is NOT a migraine trigger for you try a strong cup of tea or coffee as about 50-60 milligrams of caffeine can help reduce a headache. Don’t overdo it though as too much caffeine will give you a headache.
Above all get some rest – you may have to take an hour out from your day but it’s better than being out of action for several days. The more you can do to prevent your migraines, the easier it will be to handle them.