Migraine is a complex and unpleasant condition which can be improved using diet, lifestyle and natural approaches. The following natural migraine remedies have helped thousands of people, and as a doctor I have recommended them to my patients with good results.
Do you have migraine symptoms?
Migraine is a complex condition associated with severe, recurrent headaches in which throbbing, pulsating or hammering pain is felt on one side of the head. Discomfort often centres around the eye, although it can be felt anywhere on the head or neck. Nausea or vomiting can also occur, along with hypersensitivity to light and noise.
Some people – between 10% and 30% – experience a warning ‘aura’ with sensory disturbances up to an hour before an attack. This may include visual symptoms such as shimmering or flashing lights, zig-zag shapes or blind spots, difficulty in speaking, or numbness and tingling on one side of the face.
Migraine symptoms tend to build over one to two hours, and can last anywhere from four to 72 hours if left untreated.
How common is migraine headache?
Migraine headaches affect at least 1 in 10 adults, with three times more women affected than men. Migraine symptoms tend to begin at puberty and cause recurrent migraine headache ‘attacks’ until middle age, when they often disappear. The tendency towards migraine often runs in families.
What causes migraine?
Migraine was originally thought to result from the constriction and rebound widening of blood vessels in the brain, leading to congestion. Newer scanning procedures have led to the theory that migraine is due to over-excitability of nerve cells in the brain caused by an underlying, low-level inflammation. This is believed to cause secondary changes in blood flow to the brain in response to certain triggers.
A particular branch of the trigeminal nerve, found within the forehead, is involved in this response, which is why devices that stimulate nerves in this part of the body are often effective in preventing and treating migraine headache.
Emerging evidence also suggests that migraine is associated with disturbances in brain energy metabolism, involving the mitochondria – energy-generating structures that act like batteries in brain cells. A number of vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements can improve mitochondrial function and are helpful in preventing and treating migraine headaches in many people.
Different people find they have different migraine triggers, which can include:
|Too much or too little sleep||Tiredness and fatigue||Stress or changes in stress levels|
|Lack of exercise||Extreme emotions||Smoking cigarettes|
|Bright or fluorescent light||Strong odours||Weather conditions|
|Motion sickness||Exposure to cold||Eating ice cream|
|Over use of painkillers||Medications (eg contraceptive pill)||Skipping meals|
|Dehydration||Eating certain foods||Drinking red wine|
Because individual triggers are so specific to each person, no particular situation will trigger symptoms in all people, or even in the same person at different times. A combination of factors is often needed to bring on a migraine attack.
Researchers have even found that if you make love when you have a headache, the pain can be re-triggered every time you climax for at least six weeks afterwards. In some cases, this re-triggering of headache effect lasts for a year or longer. Not tonight, I’ve got a headache is a valid excuse after all!
NB If you experience recurrent headaches, you should always have a medical assessment to determine the cause.
If your doctor confirms that you have migraine, the following nutritional approaches will help.
Migraine and diet
Follow a well-balanced, Mediterranean-style diet that emphasises wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, fish and is low in salt – the so-called DASH diet designed for people with high blood pressure is ideal. Keep your intake of refined carbohydrates (eg sugar, white bread, white rice, white pasta) to a minimum but eat little and often to maintain blood glucose levels. Select healthy snacks such as fruit, and drink sufficient fluids – especially water.
Cutting back on dietary fat may help. One study found that following a low-fat diet significantly reduced the frequency, intensity and duration of migraine attacks, as well as the need for medication. Concentrate on obtaining healthy oils (olive oil, omega-3 fish oil, flaxseed, nut oils) instead as research suggests that increasing intakes of omega-3 fats and reducing omega-6s can reduce the frequency, duration and severity of chronic headaches such as migraine – possibly due to beneficial anti-inflammatory effects.
Eat magnesium-rich foods (eg spinach, sweet potatoes, and wholegrains) as levels of magnesium are consistently lowered in people with migraine. Researchers have found that magnesium deficiency is present in up to half of sufferers, and have suggested that all people with migraine should be treated with magnesium supplements (see suggested doses below).
Identify your food triggers for migraine
Many foods are known to trigger migraine headaches, especially milk, German sausages and cheese. Other reported dietary triggers include coffee, garlic, eggs, beans, beef, citrus fruits, corn, fried foods, nuts, pork, shellfish, tea, tomatoes, chocolate, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and red wine.
In fact, it’s worth cutting out all alcohol for at least a month to see how you respond. One study found that drinking alcohol is a headache trigger for around one in three people with migraine – possibly due to a direct toxic effect on brain cells rather than through dilation of blood vessels.
Keep a food diary for migraine
Because triggers are so individual, keeping a food diary can help to pinpoint associations. Jot down everything you eat for at least two weeks, or long enough to cover 3 migraine attacks. Bear in mind that trigger foods/drinks are usually consumed 24 to 48 hours before the migraine occurs.
While keeping your diary, do you best to eliminate all other factors such as menstruation or work stress as far as possible. Avoid missing meals as a survey of 123 migraine sufferers found that fasting was among the most common migraine triggers.
Click here to download a great migraine diary page from the Migraine Trust.
Immune testing for migraine triggers
If you have difficulty pinpointing your migraine food triggers, a finger prick blood test may help. These immune tests assess blood levels of antibodies (IgG) aimed against certain foods – typically 100 to 200 foods are checked.
Eliminating foods to which you have a raised IgG level may reduce the frequency and severity of your migraine headache attacks. Although controversial, research studies have shown benefits in some people.
In one study, 84 people were advised to remove ‘true’ foods identified by immune testing, while another 83 were asked to eliminate ‘sham’ foods to which they did not have raised IgG antibodies. After 4 weeks, those following the ‘true’ diet had significantly fewer (23%) migraine like headaches, while at 12 weeks the difference was 15% fewer headaches.
In another study, involving 21 people with both migraine and irritable bowel syndrome, eliminating foods to which they had raised IgG levels significantly fewer attacks, maximum attack duration, and maximum attack severity compared to when they were not following the diet.
A further study, involving 30 people diagnosed with migraine without aura, also showed a statistically significant reduction in the number of headache days and the number of migraine attacks while eliminating the foods for which raised levels of IgG antibodies were identified. The researchers concluded that ‘diet restriction based on IgG antibodies is an effective strategy in reducing the frequency of migraine attacks’.
The immune testing kits involve taking a small pinprick sample of blood which is sent to an accredited laboratory for testing. The blood tests aren’t cheap, but if other approaches haven’t helped to identify your trigger foods, they remain a useful option.
Most food intolerance tests check for raised IgG antibody levels to at least 50 foods, including common migraine triggers such as milk, yeast, wheat, soy, mushroom, coffee and garlic.
Don’t skip meals
Missing a meal is a common migraine trigger, possibly related to reduced glucose levels. Brain cells require a constant and regular supply of glucose to work properly, and when glucose levels slump, the levels of stress hormones rise, which can trigger a headache in anyone, or a more severe migraine in those who are susceptible.
A survey of 123 people with migraine found that fasting was perceived as one of the most common triggers for migraine headache.
Night-time snacks can reduce migraine headache
Going all night without food triggers physiological changes that include release of stress hormones in a similar way to skipping meals or fasting during the day. When researchers analyzed over a thousand food diaries they found that having a night-time snack before bed reduced the chance of experiencing a migraine headache on the following day by 40% compared to days without a previous night’s snack.
Even eating a late dinner reduced the odds of a headache the next day by 21%, although this finding was not statistically significant and could have occurred by chance alone.
Chewing gum can trigger migraine headache
If you normally use chewing gum, it’s a good idea to stop. Gum chewing has been identified as a cause of chronic headache in children and adolescents – probably due to tension in the large chewing muscles or strain around the temporomandibular joints which irritates the trigeminal nerve. When a group of 30 teenagers were advised to stop using chewing gum for a month, 26 out of the 30 reported significant improvements and 19 found their migraine headache disappeared. When 20 of the group decided to reintroduce their chewing gum habit, all experienced a recurrence of their migraines within a few days.
Devices that reduce migraine headache
A variety of devices are designed have been developed to relieve or reduce migraine attacks. Some have a simple pain-killing action, some block out bright light or particular light wavelengths, while others were developed by scientists to reduce headache through actions on the nervous system – especially a branch of the trigeminal nerve in the forehead which is involved in triggering migraine attacks.
Cefaly migraine device
The symptoms of many migraine headaches involve the trigeminal nerve, one branch of which ends above the eye socket, and within the forehead.
The first generation Cefaly migraine device reduces migraine headache by using an adhesive electrode placed on the forehead over the trigeminal nerve. The Cefaly migraine device generates precise micro-impulses which have a relaxing effect on this nerve and the surrounding muscles.
Using the Cefaly migraine device for 20 minutes a day reduces migraine symptoms in 40% to 50% of migraine sufferers. Cefaly can also be used when you feel a migraine coming on to reduce progression of an attack. It usually takes up to six weeks before full improvement is felt.
The latest device, Cefaly II, works in the same way, by applying precise neurostimulation to the supraorbital branch of the trigeminal nerves. It has been redesigned, however, to include a magnetic contact between the forehead electrodes which improves conductivity between the two. The headband ‘arms’ have also been removed so the Cefaly II device can be used while wearing glasses, and is easier to carry with you in a pocket or handbag.
Both Cefaly devices are side effect free, and are even safe enough for use in children over 8 years of age, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. There is a 60 day partially refundable guarantee.
Electrodes can be re-used for around 20 sessions before they need to be replaced.
The original Cefaly is highly effective at reducing migraine, banishing them altogether in many people with regular use. Although an expensive investment, the 60 partially refundable guarantee means you can evaluate its effectiveness and return it if it doesn’t work for you. Many patients describe it as a life-saver.
Cefaly II attaches to the forehead via an adhesive electrode strip which some users prefer.
A hand-held red light massager is also available to stimulate the forehead, but is more effective for stress headaches than for a full-blown migraine headache.
Occles for migraine headache
Occles blackout eyewear were originally invented as travel sunglasses, to block bright sunlight when sunbathing, but migraine sufferers have found they are also highly effective for removing light stimulation when a migraine attack is coming on. This makes it easier to rest, meditate or sleep even in the most uncomfortable situations. They rest gently over the eyes, with soft seals that let you open your eyes – even when in bright light – with full sun protection.
Occles blackout eyewear are adjustable to fit a range of head sizes and, importantly, they don’t press against the trigeminal nerve branch in the forehead.
Migraine relief glasses
Researchers have found that exposure to certain light wavelengths can bring on a migraine headache, while exposure to certain other wavelengths can keep migraine at bay.
Exposure to pure-green wavelengths in particular reduce light sensitivity and the severity of migraine headache by at least 20%. Scientists are currently developing a light bulb that emits a pure, narrow band wavelength of green light at low intensity, as well as sunglasses that block all but this narrow band of pure green light.
In the meantime, lenses that block red and blue light have been launched to reduce light sensitivity during a headache.
Migralens Migraine Headache Relief Glasses are approved by the Migraine Action Association. These wrap-around glasses block out red and blue light wavelengths which can make headaches worse, to reduce the intensity, severity and duration of migraines.
Cooling relief for migraine
Taking too many oral painkillers is now recognised as a potential trigger for migraine, and can cause a rebound headache in some people. Several topical alternatives can relive pain and muscle tension via effects on nerve endings, but only a few are suitable for use on the forehead.
The latest development in treating both migraine and difficulty sleeping is the recognition that cooling the head helps. Exposure to cold causes dilated blood vessels to constrict, relieving headache and cooling the brain which, in turn, releases chemicals that promote a better night’s sleep.
4head is my go-to remedy whenever I feel a migraine or stress headache coming on. Swipe the menthol stick across your forehead and the rapid, cooling sensation usually relieves an incipient headache within 15 minutes. Use it as soon as possible when you feel a migraine coming on. It is non-greasy, colourless and does not leave a sticky residue. 4head can be used repeatedly, as often as required, although I’ve never needed to use it more than twice for the same headache.
I keep a 4head in my handbag, one in my bedside drawer, one in my office, and one in the car. Don’t throw away the inner cap – replace it to keep the menthol from evaporating. One of my 4head sticks is still going strong, and remains effective, after ten years!
Kool’n’Soothe Migraine Cooling Strips do not require refrigeration and work for up to 8 hours. Once removed from its packaging, the soft gel sheet can be cut to size, if needed, and is designed to stick to the forehead so it stays in place.
Arkopharma’s cooling, roll-on Migrastick relieves headache and migraine using 100% pure, natural essential oils of Mint and Lavender. Simply roll over your temples, forehead and the nape of your neck using circular massage movements. Lovely scent and nice to use. View offers on Amazon.co.uk, or check the price on Amazon.com.
Magnetic therapy for migraine
I am a great fan of magnetic therapy. Every cell in your body generates its own electromagnetic field due to the flow of electrically charged ions in and out of cells, and the transmission of electric impulses along nerve cell membranes.
Your cells and nerves interact with the electromagnetic fields produced by magnets placed near the skin to improve blood flow and relieve tension.
Researchers have even found minute particles of magnetite within the human brain which may play a role in modulating brain waves and biorhythm cycles, although another theory is that they are a pollutant inhaled via the nose.
Although research is limited, a study involving 77 people found that 4 weeks of impulse magnetic-field therapy produced clear or very clear relief of headaches, including migraine, in 76% of those receiving active treatment compared to 2.5% of those receiving placebo treatment.
Vitamin and mineral supplements for migraine
Many people prefer to use natural remedies for migraine headaches, as these can relieve pain without causing the side effects associated with over-the-counter or prescribed painkillers, such as rebound headache.
Many people with migraine have underlying deficiencies of vitamin B2, vitamin D and magnesium which, if corrected, can reduce the frequency of migraine attacks.
The following supplements have research evidence to support their use in the prevention or treatment of migraine headache. Most of them appear to work, at least in part, through their roles in energy production. If you are taking any prescribed medicines, always check with a pharmacist before taking any migraine supplements to ensure there are no known interactions.
Vitamin B2 for migraine headache
A review of 11 study, seven involving adults, and 4 with children, found that vitamin B2 supplements (riboflavin) are a safe and well-tolerate option for prevention migraine symptoms in adults, although it was less effective in children. In one study, involving 55 people with migraine, the frequency of attacks and number of headache days was reduced by at least half for 59% of those taking 400mg riboflavin daily, compared with a similar improvement in only 15% taking placebo.
Taking vitamin B2 (riboflavin) will colour your urine bright yellow, but it is a safe vitamin to take. The upper safe level for long-term use from supplements is suggested as 40mg, but short-term use of 400mg has been used in clinical trials to prevent migraine.
No studies have reported significant adverse effects from high riboflavin consumption and, in fact, the EU failed to derive an upper limit for riboflavin due to lack of evidence. However, if you decide to take high doses, do seek individual advice from a nutritional therapist.
You may obtain beneficial effects from lower doses, of course.
Vitamin D for migraine headache
Many people with migraine have underlying deficiencies of vitamin D. This is especially true during autumn/fall and winter, when the UV index is below 3 – too low to allow vitamin D synthesis in the skin. Vitamin D deficiency becomes more common with increasing latitude due to reduced sun exposure, and this is mirrored in a tendency for headaches and migraine to become more common in people living closer to the poles.
Although the link between migraine and vitamin D is far from proven, when vitamin D supplements were given to children in addition to anti-migraine treatment, the number of migraine attacks was significantly reduced.
Given that vitamin D is important for general health, it is worth trying a supplement to see if it improves your migraine headaches. Capsules, oral spray or even a vitamin D3 cream are available.
Magnesium for migraine headache
Magnesium deficiency is also common among people with migraine, and low magnesium intakes are associated with migraine headache, as magnesium is vital for energy production in brain cells. Studies show that magnesium deficiency may be present in up to half of migraine sufferers, and researchers have declared that all migraine patients should be treated with magnesium supplements.
A trial involving 70 people referred to an emergency department with migraine headache compared the effectiveness of magnesium supplements against usual prescribed treatment (dexamethasone and metoclopramide). The results showed that taking magnesium supplements was associated with a greater decrease in pain severity at 20 minutes, 1 hour and 2 hours than the usual drug therapy. The emergency department concluded that magnesium sulfate was a more effective and fast-acting treatment for acute migraine headaches than standard medical care.
Another trial showed that taking magnesium supplements (360mg/day) reduced menstrual migraine when taken in the two weeks before menstruation, and significantly reduced the number of days with migraine headache compared with placebo.
If you are sensitive to the laxative effects of magnesium, using it as a spray that is absorbed through the skin is a popular option.
Coenzyme Q10 for migraine headache
Coenzyme Q10 is another factor needed by mitochondria for energy production within cells, including those of the brain. Low levels of Coenzyme Q10 mean that cells do not receive all the energy they need and they function at a sub-optimal level which, in the brain, has been associated with migraine headache.
A study that compared coenzyme Q10 (100mg three times a day) against placebo in 42 people with migraine showed that by the 3rd month of treatment, Coenzyme Q10 was significantly better than placebo for reducing attack-frequency, headache days and days with nausea. Symptoms were at least halved in 47.6% of those taking co-enzyme Q10 compared with 14.4% of those on placebo.
Two forms of Coenzyme Q10 are available – ubiquinol, which is the reduced, ‘body-ready’ form, and ubiquinone which is converted into ubiquinol within the mitochondria for use. When you have migraine, I recommend taking 100mg of the ubiquinol form of coenyme Q10.
Combination treatments may work best
The above supplements, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin D, magnesium and co-enzyme Q10, are often taken together for the synergistic effects on energy production in cells, and some combinations have been tested in clinical trials.
A study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain involved 130 adults who experienced at least three migraine attacks per month. These were divided into two groups. Half were asked to take a fixed combination of magnesium (600mg), riboflavin (400mg) and co-enzyme Q10 (150mg) in a supplement (Migravent/Dolovent) which includes other multivitamins and trace elements that help to maintain energy production in the brain. The other half were given tablets with no active ingredients.
After three months treatment, migraine days declined from 6.2 days per month to 4.4 days in the active supplement group, and the intensity of migraine pain also significantly reduced. In those taking placebo, migraine days only reduced from 6.2 days down to 5.2 days with little change in pain intensity.
Herbal remedies for migraine
Herbal medicines are among the most effective natural migraine remedies that work in different ways to reduce migraine headache.
Ginkgo biloba for migraine
Ginkgo biloba is among the oldest living tree species, dating back over 270 million years.Its fan-shaped leaves contain a variety of unique antioxidants that have been shown to stabilise cell membranes, relax blood vessel walls and increase the flexibility of red blood cells, so that oxygen-rich blood flows more freely through the brain and peripheries.
A study involving 25 people who experienced migraine with aura, who were asked to record their symptoms during two consecutive attacks. In the first one, they only took note of the duration of their neurological symptoms. In the following attack, they were instructed to take a combination of 60 mg Ginkgo biloba, 11 mg coenzyme Q10 and 8.7 mg vitamin B2 (Migrasoll). Aura duration (expressed in minutes) was significantly reduced by taking the Ginkgo supplement and, in four people, the pain phase disappeared.
The doses used in this study were relatively low. Better results may occur with higher doses, but have not yet been tested against migraine in clinical trials.
Doses of Ginkgo biloba that are used to treat migraine vary from 60mg to 6000mg.
A dose of 120mg is typically used to improve memory. Higher doses of 6000mg may be helpful for preventing migraine.
5-HTP for migraine
5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP) is only found in two places in nature – in the human body, and in the seeds of a West African medicinal plant, Griffonia simplicifolia.
5-HTP has been used in the prevention and treatment of chronic daily headache, tension headache and migraine. It acts as a building block to boost production of serotonin in the brain, which is involved in regulating the dilation and constriction of brain blood flow. 5-HTP is also thought to increase pain thresholds by increasing levels of endorphins – the brain’s own morphine-like painkillers.It also promotes better sleep through conversion on to melatonin hormone.
When compared with the prescribed beta-blocker, propranolol, and placebo, 5-HTP produced a statistically significant reduction in frequency of migraine attacks and was consider a possible alternative to propranolol for many patients.
Another study involved 124 people who were treated with 5-HTP or the antimigraine drug, methysergide. Significant improvements were seen in 71% taking 5-HTP and 74% taking methysergide, who experienced either prevention or a substantially decreased number of attacks. Side effects were less frequent with 5-HTP, however, and its greatest benefits were in reducing the intensity and duration of attacks. The researchers concluded that 5-HTP coud be a treatment of choice for preventing migraine.
It is important to buy products made to pharmaceutical standard to ensure there are no contaminants. Which ever brand you select, check that it is made to GMP in the UK or CGMP (current Good Manufacturing Practice) in the US.
Feverfew for migraine
Feverfew is a plant belonging to the daisy family. Its leaves contain a substance called parthenolide whose actions regulate serotonin effects in the brain to reduce the severity and frequency of migraine attacks. In the UK it is classed as a traditional herbal medicine for the treatment of migraine
In clinical trials, 70 per cent of people taking feverfew leaf extract found it either prevented headaches or lessened their severity. In three out of four trials, feverfew extracts lessened the severity of headaches as well as related symptoms of nausea and vomiting.
A study published in The Lancet showed that feverfew significantly reduced the average number and severity of migraine attacks, and the degree of vomiting, with no serious side effects.
In a trial involving 170 people with migraine, taking feverfew extracts for 16 weeks reduced the average number of migraine attacks per month by 1.9, with the chance of responding being 3.4 times that of placebo.
Butterbur for migraine
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is an interesting plant that grows in damp, marshy areas and is commonly known as bog rhubarb. Its leaves, root and bulb contain a number of substances, such as petasin and isopetasin, which have natural pain killing, antispasm and anti-inflammatory actions.
Butterbur has a long history of use to relieve migraine, with studies suggesting it is significantly more effective than placebo, reducing the frequency and severity of migraine attacks by up to 68%.
Until 2012 it was one of the most popular herbal medicines used in the UK to prevent and treat migraine. Then, on what some scientists feel were flimsy grounds, manufacturers were asked to remove Butterbur products from their shelves. Cases of liver damage had been associated with the use of some Butterbur products due to the presence of substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). The herb is not on the list of prohibited herbs in the UK, however, as there was insufficient evidence to ban it, and some people import it for their personal use.
Butterbur remains available in the US, however, where it is a popular supplement to prevent and treat migraine headache.
For absolute safety, it is important to select a product that has been tested and is certified as ‘PA free’.
Another nice option is to use a magnesium essential oil spray on your forehead and temples, which includes a blend of peppermint, lavender, marjoram, rosemary and basil. Take care not to get it in your eyes.
It is important to seek medical advice if you experience:
- Three or more headaches a week
- A headache that keeps getting worse and won’t go away
- Other symptoms such as a stiff neck, fever, vomiting, confusion, drowsiness or unexpected symptoms affecting your eyes, ears, nose or throat
- A headache plus dizziness, slurred speech, weakness, or changes in sensation (numbness and/or tingling) which may indicate a stroke or mini-stroke
- A persistent headache following a head injury
- A headache triggered by exertion, coughing, bending or sexual activity.
Please leave feedback
Have you used any natural remedies to treat migraine? If so, which have you found most helpful? If you have any questions, comments, or product recommendations, please use the comment form below. Thanks.