Natural Treatment & Relief for Migraines & Headaches in Vermont
Migraine headaches, which are caused by the dilation of blood vessels in the head, affect 18-30% of women and 6-20% of men. They differ from the more common tension headache in that the pain is usually throbbing rather than constant, and is frequently associated with visual disturbances or nausea and vomiting. The pain is typically also much more severe, with pain medications such as Tylenol or Advil offering little or no relief. Fortunately, there are several natural remedies for headaches and migraines which Green Mountain Natural Health in Montpelier, VT can help with that can be very effective in resolving both migraine and non-migraine headaches.
Causes of Headaches and Migraines
From a naturopathic medical perspective there are a variety of dietary/nutritional factors that can contribute to migraines and headaches. In my experience most people with headaches and migraines will improve when these factors are addressed. These factors are as follows:
- Food allergy/sensitivity
- Blood sugar imbalances
Headaches and migraines, like most conditions, are multi-factorial. In any given person, a variety of factors will add up to cause the headaches. When enough of those factors are present (when a certain threshold is exceeded), the person experiences a headache. To prevent the headaches, all of the factors don’t generally need to be addressed, just enough of the factors to take the person below this threshold.
Food Allergies in Headache and Migraine Treatment
First and foremost, it is important to take a look at food allergies and sensitivities. Food allergies occur when the immune system reacts to foods in the same way it would to a foreign bacteria, and are a very common cause of headaches and migraines.
Food allergies occur most commonly to dairy, wheat, citrus, soy, peanuts, corn, yeast, chocolate, nightshades (potato, tomato, pepper, eggplant) and eggs. The list of potentially allergic foods, however, includes pretty much everything a person eats. The more frequently a food is eaten, the more likely it is to be a food allergen.
While most people think of a food allergy as an immediate, severe reaction such as when someone eats a peanut or strawberry and can't breathe, this reaction is relatively rare compared to the much more common delayed allergic reaction. Delayed reactions are caused by an IgG or IgA antibody (rather than the IgE antibody that causes the immediate and severe reactions), and can occur anywhere from a few minutes to a couple days after eating the allergic food. The reaction is generally much more insidious, and can include things such as asthma, eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, ear infections, sinusitis, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel disease, anxiety, depression, fatigue, hyperactivity, obesity, and post nasal drip. Most often people with delayed allergies don't realize they are allergic because of this and because they may be eating a variety of food allergens frequently.
There are many different options when it comes to diagnosing food allergies. The best is a blood antibody test, which is more accurate for this type of allergy than a skin prick test. Blood tests are available to check up to 96 or more foods all at once and are covered by most health insurance plans.
Food sensitivities, which are different from food allergies, can also trigger migraines. The most common culprits are chocolate, nuts, MSG, caffeine, alcohol, Nutrasweet, and tyramine containing foods such as wine and cheese. Nightshade family vegetables and nitrate containing foods such as cured meats and bacon can also cause difficulty. The best way to determine if any of these foods are problematic is to follow an elimination/challenge diet of these foods.
Blood Sugar Imbalances in Headache and Migraine Treatment
Some people with headaches also suffer from hypoglycemia, a condition in which the blood sugar drops precipitously a couple hours after eating. Correcting this condition through diet is very important to the successful treatment of headaches. A low glycemic eating plan is generally very effective at preventing hypoglycemia and headaches caused by hypoglycemia, as well as depression and fatigue in many cases.
Dehydration in Headache and Migraine Treatment
Another common dietary trigger for headaches and migraines is dehydration. A good general rule of thumb is that most people should drink 2 quarts of water per day (8 cups). A more specific rule is to take your weight and divide it by 2 to get the number of ounces of water per day you should drink. A 150 pound person would therefore drink 75 ounces of water per day.
Herbal and Nutritional Medicines in Headache and Migraine Treatment
In addition to the dietary treatments discussed above, there are a number of supplements that can be very effective in the treatment of migraine headaches. Here are some of the best:
- Feverfew – an herbal medicine that has been used for centuries to relieve migraines, fever, and arthritis. It has been studied extensively in recent times, and was found to help 70% of 270 migraine sufferers in a 1983 survey. For feverfew to be effective, however, it must be taken on a regular basis for four to eight weeks. It works by preventing migraines, not by relieving the pain of a migraine headache already underway.
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2) – Numerous studies dating back to 1946 have documented the efficacy of riboflavin in the treatment of migraines. In one of those studies, for example, 59% of the people in the treatment group that received riboflavin experienced at least a 50% improvement in their headaches, versus only 15% in the placebo group.
- Magnesium – several clinical trials have also documented the efficacy of magnesium in the treatment of migraine. Taking excessive amounts of magnesium can cause loose stools.
- Butterbur – this herbal medicine was shown to be effective in a 1996 double blind, placebo controlled study in which 77% of the treatment group vs. 27% of the placebo group reported benefit.
Other treatments include vitamin B6 and 5-hydroxy tryptophan, a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. These can be especially helpful to women who have migraine headaches which are associated with their menstrual cycle.
The most effective approach to the prevention and treatment of migraines and headaches generally includes a combination of the above mentioned therapies, and can take a couple months to be completely effective. Many people, however, can get significant or even complete relief within a few weeks by eliminating their food allergens or decreasing their intake of high glycemic foods.
Natural Medicines vs. Prescription Drugs
While prescription drugs can offer effective relief from headaches and migraines for some people, they can also cause significant side effects. Prescription drugs also usually just treat one complaint. If you have four different complaints, you will need to take 4 (or more) different drugs to address those complaints. Prescription drugs are also periodically recalled as new evidence comes to light on significant side effects (look at the example of hormone replacement therapy, to name only one). In contrast, the natural medicines I describe here typically have few to no side effects. The dietary changes and natural medicines I describe treat the root cause of disease and often help with many complaints at the same time. A person with food allergies, for example, may suffer from asthma, stomach aches, and eczema – addressing the food allergies typically resolves or helps with all of these complaints at the same time, and helps to prevent future disease. Here is what I like to say to illustrate this point:
"Give a man a drug, he's healthy for a day.
Teach a woman a healthy lifestyle, she'll be healthy for a lifetime."
Bottom Line for the Natural Treatment of Headaches
Natural headache and migraine treatment should begin with identifying and treating the underlying causes that can contribute to headaches. Specifically, I recommend:
- Get a blood test for food allergies – Easy and accurate, this can be extraordinarily helpful
- Eat less sugar and flour – the effects of this simple dietary intervention can be dramatic for many people
- Drink adequate water, at least 2 quarts (8 cups) per day
- Take natural medicines such as feverfew, riboflavin, butterbur, and magnesium
How We Can Help
Naturopathic doctors are physician experts in treating the underlying cause of disease and using natural medicines to help people get and stay well. To find out which natural treatments are appropriate for you or to be tested for food allergies, schedule an office visit or food allergy test.