Migraines: How Food can Stop (and Start) Migraines
If you’ve ever had a migraine, you understand all about the painful, disabling pulsing threatening to split your head wide open.
You know about the nausea and the intense desire for all sound, smells, and light to disappear.
You may have even seen auras that can accompany the throbbing.
Although the symptoms may vary from person to person, one thing is certain:
Migraines are not for the faint of heart.
What is a migraine?
Migraines affect millions of women, men and kids, about 12% of the US population and 10% of people worldwide suffer from them. They are characterized by pounding headaches accompanied by nausea, vomiting, light, sound and smell sensitivity.
More than just bad headaches, migraines are “an extremely incapacitating collection of neurological symptoms” according to the Migraine Research Foundation.
The neurological symptoms vary from person to person and can occur before, after or during the headache.
Chronic migraines mean a migraine headache at least 15 days per month.
The effects of migraines are far-reaching, in fact, they rank in the top 40 conditions causing disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Despite migraine sufferers receiving more than a billion dollars worth of brain scans each year, migraines remain a poorly understood disease with the majority of migraine sufferers not receiving medical care or going undiagnosed.
Who develops migraines?
Although migraines can strike anyone, from kids to adults, women tend to have them more often than men, up to 3x more often- thanks, hormone changes. Good (ish) news there- women tend to have fewer migraines after menopause.
What causes migraines?
Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that one. The how and the why of what goes wrong leading to a migraine is still largely unknown.
While the exact cause is still unknown, a genetic component exists. Migraine researchers now believe genetic mutations in the brain lead to neurological abnormalities.
Ready for more bad news?
After a migraine, a person has an increased sensitivity to another migraine. And sensitivity increases even more after the next one… a vicious cycle which can lead to chronic and even daily migraines. Overuse of preventative migraine medication can also be a factor in migraines becoming chronic.
How can you treat migraines?
Usually not indicative of a more serious problem, migraines are often serious enough on their own to warrant some serious drugs. Medications are available that can nip a migraine in the bud and others to help mitigate pain; interestingly, even botox (Botulinum toxin A) has been shown to help prevent migraines.
Migraine fact: the pathophysiology (what’s going wrong) of migraines is not fully understood, so no hard and fast cure exists when it comes to migraines.
With no absolute cure, there are two choices:
- Manage the pain when a migraine occurs.
- Help prevent the attacks.
Wouldn’t you rather prevent a migraine from hitting in the first place?
The good news is, with a few simple changes you may be able to prevent a migraine from taking hold.
Shocker- a lot of them are healthy lifestyle changes: eating right, drinking lots of water, exercising, avoiding alcohol, managing stress and anxiety and getting enough shut-eye.
A healthy weight can help prevent migraines according to doctors from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They found people who were obese were up to 27% more likely to have migraines.
On the flip side, being underweight can also put you at an increased risk for a migraine.
So, find your healthy weight and make those healthy lifestyle choices (eating right and exercising), they’ll go a long way to preventing that next migraine.
But what if it’s not working?
What if you’re doing everything right: being physically active, avoiding alcohol, managing stress, getting adequate sleep and you still have migraines. What gives?
Have you considered the foods you eat may be impacting your migraines?
Diet can play a huge role in migraine onset and avoiding foods you may be sensitive to can help.
Think about this: you feel the beginning of a migraine building in your head, or start to see an aura so you quickly grab a cup of coffee for the caffeine. The beginning tickling of a migraine dies down.
The caffeine plays a role in migraines, so doesn’t it make sense other foods might as well?
But here’s the thing about caffeine- it’s not actually stopping the migraine.
Once the effects of the caffeine wear off, the protective effects wear off too, and boom. Migraine.
How do foods play a role?
Foods like free glutamates, amines, salicylates, caffeine and artificial sweeteners can trigger migraines.
But these foods are tricky.
They can be dose-dependent- meaning you have a little and you’re fine, but cross that line and the trouble begins.
Food sensitivities can also be quite time delayed- we’re not just talking hours here, sometimes symptoms can be delayed by days.
It’s hard to pinpoint the breakfast food you ate yesterday as the culprit when it doesn’t bother you until today.
More bad news:
These foods can add up. Everyone has a threshold at which different foods will cause problems and everyone’s threshold is different.
Think of your body as a bucket- as you eat these foods your bucket fills up. Until it’s full, you feel fine.
But if it does fill up- watch out!
Even if you regularly eat foods your body is sensitive to and have no ill effects, they can add up over time and cause problems.
Maybe you combined two foods that individually don’t fill up your bucket, but put them together and here comes the migraine.
Things like stress can also fill up your bucket faster (as if we didn’t have enough to be stressed about already).
Let’s say you have a meal high in amines (getting you closer to your threshold), then follow that up with a food high in MSG (closer still to that threshold) and then throw in a few sleepless nights and a tight deadline at work (yup, these count towards your threshold total too) and suddenly you are well over your threshold.
Like I said, tricky.
So how can you determine what foods are trigger migraines or impacting you?
The one sure fire way to determine your food sensitivities- the Mediator Release Test (MRT).
This simple blood test looks at the impact of 170 foods and chemicals and determines which ones your body reacts to and which ones can be triggering migraine.
Imagine knowing what foods and/or chemicals are triggering migraines.
Eliminating them could spell a whole new world of relief.
Ready to find the root of the problem (instead of band-aiding the symptoms) and determine which foods trigger migraines and finally feel real relief? Learn more about MRT here.
Not ready just yet?
Keep reading for more ways to find relief- experiment with them on your own or with the help of a dietitian.
Ever heard of amines?
Amines come in a variety of forms- tyramine, phenylethylamine, histamine and many more including the lovely sounding cadaverine and putrescine. These chemicals, often found in your food, are common migraine triggers.
What are they and where do you find these amines?
Quick answer: they are a result of bacteria on aged foods.
Aged food can mean anything from leftovers to sausage, aged cheeses or red wine or spoiled food. That’s a pretty big list. And it becomes even bigger when you consider many meats and even some fruits (like those overripe bananas) can be high in amines.
When foods are left out, bacteria start to break them down. When these bacteria act on the protein in these foods they break it down, forming amines.
Freezing and refrigeration help prevent the formation of amines, so foods intentionally left out (like bananas) or intentionally allowed to age (like wine, soy sauce, sausage or cheese) are higher in amines.
Foods which are intentionally produced with bacteria (like beer, cheese, miso, wine, sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi) are also high in amines.
Usually, the body has mechanisms for removing amines, called monoamine oxidase (MAO) and diamine oxidase (DAO) however, some medications (like MAO inhibitors, antibiotics, antidepressants and others) can block these.
But, it’s not just medications. Sometimes people are more sensitive to amines and sometimes they lack the enzymes to break them down.
Other times the body is simply overwhelmed by the number of amines- having a glass of wine with your meat and cheese plate, for example.
Perhaps eaten individually, your body will tolerate these foods just fine. It can eliminate amines when they are present in small amounts. But put them together, and it’s too much too fast- your body can’t process all the amines at once.
Remember, everyone’s threshold is different.
Reducing or eliminating amine containing foods can go a long way to helping prevent migraines. Check out this list (pdf) of histamine and tyramine-containing foods to learn more about which foods are safe and which to avoid.
Reducing your amine intake can help, but the migraine puzzle has many different pieces and we’re not done yet.
What else can help reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines?
Supplementing with key vitamins, minerals and supplements can also help.
Quick note: before you add any supplements to your daily regimen be sure to discuss it with your doctor, especially if you are taking other medications, so she knows what you are taking and work together to avoid any drug interactions.
One of the most important?
This important mineral (4th most abundant in the body), is responsible for many reactions in the body, including blood pressure, insulin metabolism, nerve transmission and neuromuscular conduction.
The brains of migraineurs (and those with cluster headaches) tend to have low magnesium. When magnesium levels are brought up not only are headaches reduced, all those medications you’ve been prescribed will work better.
Magnesium is best absorbed (and won’t cause GI symptoms) in a chelated form.
In plain English: look for magnesium glycinate or magnesium threonate (which may cross the blood-brain border more easily).
Either way, start with 300mg and, if you’re not having any GI issues, go ahead and work up as needed/tolerated.
Keep the magnesium train going by adding Epsom salts to your bath, or try using magnesium lotions or soak your feet in magnesium flakes foot bath when the going gets tough.
Bottom line: Magnesium helps reduce the incidence of migraines in some people and helps make medications more effective. Start with 300mg per day and increase up to 1,000mg if there are no GI issues. (Super important: too much magnesium can cause heart problems, especially in those with kidney problems. Be sure to talk to your doctor).
Adding a Riboflavin (B2) supplement to your medicine cabinet is a reasonably priced but effective way to reduce the frequency, duration and/or severity of migraines.
In migraine, the body metabolizes energy differently- this includes riboflavin- so the theory goes: those with migraines need more riboflavin.
How much riboflavin is needed to help prevent migraines? According to this review article, 400mg of riboflavin per day can help reduce migraines in adults (but, migraines in children? Unfortunately, they did not see the same results with kids).
The article also recommends spacing your intake throughout the day, the body can only absorb so much at once- one study concluded only 27mg is absorbed at a time- and it flushes out of the body quickly. And be patient, it can take 2-3 months for the riboflavin to kick in.
What else do I love about riboflavin? Fewer side effects than other meds and it’s an inexpensive addition to your daily supplement intake. It may also help prevent cataracts.
Bottom line: Riboflavin is well tolerated and when taken consistently over a 2-3 month period it may help reduce the incidence of migraine in adults. Aim for 400mg per day, and if possible spread your intake throughout the day.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), like it’s buddy riboflavin, improves energy metabolism, and for this reason, it has been studied for its efficacy in preventing migraine.
Usually found abundantly in the bodies cells, studies have shown CoQ10 levels are low in people who have diseases like cancer and some genetic disorders.
Theorizing CoQ10 levels may also be low in those with migraine, one study measured CoQ10 levels in kids with migraine ranging from 3-22 years old and found many were deficient in CoQ10.
When those deficient in CoQ10 levels were given a CoQ10 supplement the researchers found their migraines had reduced in frequency and intensity.
Although not a lot of large, well-designed studies looking at CoQ10 exist, the ones that have been done do show promising results.
Bottom line: Although CoQ10 has not been the focus of large studies, it is well tolerated and shows promise. Look to supplement with 150mg per day.
Feverfew, a common daisy-like plant found all over Europe, North and South America historically has been used to treat a variety of maladies, including migraines.
Although plenty of anecdotal evidence exists, there are not many large peer-reviewed studies looking at the efficacy of feverfew.
However, this review looked at the existing studies and concluded feverfew is both safe and likely effective at preventing or stopping migraine headaches.
Bottom line: Feverfew has long been used in folk medicine as a treatment for migraines. Studies are starting to back it up. Start with 400mg per day, taken throughout the day. Look for formulas with 0.2–0.4% parthenolides.
Another diet modification that may help prevent migraines?
The ketogenic diet.
That’s right, eating low carb, moderate protein, high fat on the ketogenic diet can help prevent migraines.
The ketogenic diet has been used for various maladies for decades and has been found to be especially effective at reducing the number of seizures associated with epilepsy in children. It was initially used as a last resort for kids who didn’t respond to medication but it proved to be incredibly effective.
Once its efficacy was established in treating seizures, it was only natural the keto diet would be adapted to other neurological disorders, including migraine.
How does a ketogenic diet help prevent migraines?
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for the brain and central nervous system. When you reduce or significantly eliminate carbs from your diet your body is forced to use other methods.
In ketosis, that means fatty acids.
Fatty acids are converted in the liver to ketones, which the brain then uses for energy. This combination helps to protect the nerves and the brain.
Keto’s claim as a powerful migraine reducer is backed up with plenty of anecdotal evidence and laboratory results.
Your body will also make ketones if you’re fasting- but not eating regularly can spell disaster for migraine. The ketogenic diet replicates the effects of fasting without, you know, not eating.
The keto diet is not for everyone, for example, if you are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol, or you have any condition impacting your ability to digest and absorb fat.
Even for those who can tolerate a high fat, low carb diet, the ketogenic diet can also be difficult to follow and everyone responds differently.
Remember, your body will go through an adjustment period as it flips from using carbohydrates to using fat as its main fuel source. To learn more about it or give it a shot, check out this site and be sure to do it under your doctor’s guidance.
If it’s too late for something preventative and you feel a migraine coming on-
I’ve got more good news:
Ginger may help.
According to a 2014 study taking ginger powder reduced headache severity… as much as the popular medication sumatriptan.
Finding ways to reduce the incidence and severity of migraines can truly be a lifesaver. This guide is designed to help you find yours.
Although everyone reacts differently to supplements and/or elimination or ketogenic diets hopefully something here will bring you relief.
To learn more about a personalized diet based on the foods/chemicals your body reacts to and determine if the Mediator Release Test (MRT) is right for you, contact me today.
Disclaimer: The content on this website is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Any statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA and any information or products discussed are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any disease or illness. Consult a doctor or healthcare professional before making changes to your diet.