When a migraine—an intense headache that affects more than 29.5 million Americans—strikes, many people pop pain pills. Sure, they work—at least at first. But when the medication wears off, another headache likely rears its ugly head. Sufferers grab their bottle of relief again, and soon enough, they're locked into a never-ending cycle of migraines and medication. "If you take too much of anti-inflammatory or other migraine medications, you can get rebound migraines when you don't take the medication on a regular basis," says Debra Brammer, N.D., associate clinical dean in the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle.
"It's almost like you get addicted."
How can you help customers break the habit and naturally halt chronic—as well as acute—migraines? First, address lifestyle factors. "Food allergies and sensitivities can be big," Brammer says. Common food culprits such as chocolate, wine, cheese, beer, pickled herring, yogurt and raspberries contain high levels of the amino acids tyramine and phenylalanine. Food additives like monosodium glutamate, aspartame and sodium nitrate, found in processed meats, often are to blame as well, says Laurie Steelsmith, N.D., LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women (Three Rivers Press, 2005).
Stress is another cause of migraines, and biofeedback, which teaches people to control tension, is promoted as an alternative to drug therapy by the National Headache Foundation. Having an irregular lifestyle can be a contributing factor, too, so migraine sufferers shouldn't skimp on sleep, miss meals or forgo exercise. Some supplements and herbs can offer relief and a few can even help migraine sufferers wean themselves off addictive medications.
1. Magnesium This mineral, found in leafy green vegetables, nuts and whole grains, can decrease the severity and frequency of migraines. "Magnesium is a smooth-muscle relaxer," Brammer says. Magnesium is thought to help regulate pain by preventing blood-vessel spasms. According to Brammer, magnesium can help people wean themselves off medications that cause rebound migraines.
How much to take: 600 mg once a day. Lower the dose if individuals experience diarrhea.
2. Vitamin B2 If mitochondrial energy metabolism isn't working properly, a migraine can develop. Because vitamin B2, or riboflavin, can increase mitochondrial efficiency, it could theoretically help ease migraines. "B2 donates itself to the enzymes that promote mitochondrial activity, which is the energy-producing detoxification locus of the cell," Brammer says. Several studies confirm the speculation and have shown that taking riboflavin supplements reduces the frequency and duration of migraines.
How much to take: 200 mg twice a day, taken in a B-complex supplement. It may take two to three months to see an improvement, and the dose may turn urine yellow.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids Inflammation is linked to headaches and migraines, according to Brammer. Swollen blood vessels on the surface of the brain send pain signals to the brainstem, which processes the information. Ouch. In addition to eating an anti-inflammatory diet, omega-3 fatty acids found in fish-oil supplements reduce the inflammatory response of platelets. "Interestingly, essential fatty acids may have more action in teenagers, adolescents and younger adults than older adults," Brammer notes. Indeed, adolescents taking fish oil in a 2002 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health reported that they had an 83 percent reduction in headache frequency, and a 78 percent reduction in headache duration.
How much to take: 2,000 to 3,000 mg fish or flaxseed oil per day.
4. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) "Feverfew has a long history of medicinal use for the prevention of migraines," Steelsmith says. Researchers aren't yet sure exactly how the herb works. "But it seems to reduce the overall inflammatory response in the body," Brammer says. "Whether that's the only way it works, we don't know yet."
How much to take: 125 mg a day of dried feverfew leaf standardized to 0.2 percent parthenolide content. Take continuously for at least four to six weeks to give it time to work. Pregnant or nursing women and children younger than 2 years should not take feverfew.
5 I Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) This herb is great for allergies, but it also shows promise for reducing migraine frequency. How does it do its job exactly? No one knows for sure, but petasines, the main active components of butterbur, reduce inflammation and relax smooth muscles, according to researchers.
How much to take: 50 mg three times a day taken at regular intervals for two months. Then go down to 50 mg two times a day for prevention.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 12/p. 24