Migraine headaches cause disabling pain among the estimated 18% of women and 6% of men who have them. While pain relieving drugs are invaluable in treating a full blown migraine, natural remedies offer hope for preventing and reducing the frequency and severity of migraines.
Who gets migraines?
While migraine can occur at any age, says a recent article in the American Journal of Natural Medicine (November 1997), 30% of migraine sufferers report having their first attack before the age of 10, and the condition is most common in adolescents and young adults.
British family physician, Dr. Mike Whiteside, author of Headaches, Finding Relief Without Drugs (Thorsons, revised 1995), says the first step is to discover your individual triggers. Triggers are different for each person. Whiteside emphasizes triggers such as prolonged or inadequate sleep, bright sunshine or bright lights, strenuous physical exertion, use of computer terminals and food.
Toronto physician Dr. Zoltan Rona includes triggers such as air travel, emotional upsets, menstruation, strong odors, weather changes, food additives, spinal misalignments, jaw misalignment (TMJ), underactive thyroid and female hormonal imbalances.
Food is the most common trigger. While a small number of migraine patients react to the tyramine found in aged cheese, wine, yogurt and other foods, the majority suffer from undiagnosed food allergies that can only be discovered through an elimination diet or through specialized testing.
One study looked at 60 patients who had experienced frequent migraines for an average of 20 years. They were put on a low risk diet of lamb, pears and spring water. By the fifth day, researchers found that most migraines had disappeared. Patients were then instructed to test one to three foods per day, looking for reactions. Common problem foods were wheat, oranges, eggs, tea, coffee, chocolate, milk and beef.
Another study found 93% of migraine sufferers found relief when allergenic foods were eliminated—often more than one food and often favorite foods. Sugar and sugar substitutes such as aspartame are often overlooked, but can be significant triggers for headaches.
Feverfew brings relief
Feverfew or Tanacetum parthenium can reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Feverfew is a hardy annual with small daisy-like flowers that grows easily in North American gardens.
Canada’s Health Protection Branch (HPB) has given a drug identification number (DIN) to a British feverfew product known as tanacet based on two British studies conducted in 1985 and 1989.
In the 1985 study, 70% of 270 migraine sufferers claimed that the herb decreased the frequency and/or intensity of their attacks. In the 1989 study, 70% of feverfew patients showed improvement versus 50% of patients on migraine medications.
The HPB recommends a minimum dose of 125 mg of feverfew containing .2% of parthenolide (one of the active ingredients) daily, but more can be taken. Feverfew can be safely taken over a long period of time. However, its safety has not been proven for pregnant or nursing mothers or children younger than two years.
HPB scientist Dr. Dennis Awang stresses that both British trials used encapsulated whole dried feverfew leaf equivalent to chewing two medium sized feverfew leaves daily. Awang says a new Dutch study calls into serious question the assumption that parthenolide is the main active ingredient. However, he points out that the parthenolide content is useful as a marker to confirm the identity of the plant.
More natural treatments
Other herbs used for migraines include ginger and ginkgo biloba. Ginger has anti-nausea and mild pain relieving properties. Ginkgo has shown promise in two small French trials, but more study is needed.
Women with hormonally induced migraines may find it helpful to use natural progesterone cream daily for the two weeks prior to menses, or in severe cases, every fifteen minutes until the pain disappears.
A small double blind study showed that taking fish oil significantly reduced migraine intensity compared with placebo. Other important nutrients include magnesium, niacin and quercetin, a bioflavonoid.
Chiropractic treatment, relaxation training, biofeedback or acupuncture can each provide another valuable tool for migraine relief. Whiteside has had great results using hypnosis for migraine. A remarkable acupuncture clinic in Georgetown, Ontario specializes exclusively in the treatment of migraine headaches. The clinic, under the direction of Brendan Cleary has an astounding 90% or greater success rate (themigraineclinic.ca).
Taking the natural approach to migraine involves time and commitment, a sense of adventure and a fair bit of detective work. For some dietary change and feverfew is all that they need, while others have to explore many different types of therapies to find the combination that works for them.