Migraines are much more than headaches and can wreak havoc on your life. Those who suffer with migraines know too well how a migraine can interfere with family time, work, social and travel plans. Though many migraine triggers are predictable and once understood, to some degree avoidable, there are also random and severe migraines that seem to come out of nowhere. There are solutions within naturopathic medicine that can help reduce triggers, symptoms and frequency and provide natural relief for migraine headache problems.
Many migraine patients have been told there is no cure and the best approach is to find rescue medications to use early and as needed. Naturopathic doctors have been treating migraine patients with lifestyle and gentle natural medicine approaches to good effect for decades. While naturopathic approaches may not stop all migraines, you can expect a reduction in number of headaches, severity of pain and duration of discomfort. As a neurological ailment, migraines impact the whole person, not just the head, so it follows that treatments are based on whole-person assessment, understanding and treatment.
Types of Migraine Headaches
Migraine headaches impact about 12% of the population, including children. More common between the ages of 18-44, migraine headaches often run in families. Incidence can be intermittent, perhaps once or twice a month, but many people have intractable ongoing head pain every day. Most people with migraines are unable to focus on school or work or social interactions when struck with a migraine.
Vision disturbances before or during attacks takes place in about one fifth of all migraine sufferers. Throbbing pain alongside sensitivity to light and sound are also common. Migraine headache pain is often on only one sided and is characterized by intense painfulness. Some people have digestive disturbances or changes in body temperature during a migraine headache. Emergency room visits as well as use of pharmaceuticals is more common for those who endure migraines compared to people who do not have migraines.
There are many other kinds of headaches like cluster headache, tension headaches, head pain from the neck being out of alignment, hormonal headaches, headaches that follow head injury and headaches related to digestive disturbances. Migraine headaches are usually more long lasting, more intense and oftentimes more challenging to treat that other kinds of headaches.
Migraine Headache Causes
What causes a migraine headache? There are many theories that revolve around shifts in blood flow, nerve conduction and muscular reactions. There can be any number of triggers, including inflammation and alterations in neurotransmitters in the brain. Stress in all its manifestations can be another common trigger. Alterations in hormones related to the menstrual cycle and other manifestations of imbalanced hormones can be the culprit for many people. Head injury or previous viral infections may in play.
Poor and inadequate sleep, and insufficient fluid intake can cause migraines. We see some people develop migraines as a side effect from medication. Some are sensitive to environmental exposures or have residual migraines that begin after a viral or bacterial infection. Some people develop migraines due to constipation and others yet from hypertension. We are seeing an uptick in migraine headache patients due to eye strain and too much time in front of the computer. Some people feel that changes in barometer and humidity can trigger a migraine. Some people suffer from migraines related to pregnancy.
Natural Relief for Migraine Headache
Licensed naturopathic doctors are perfectly suited to help you prevent occurrence and treat your migraine headache. NDs work to identify and treat the underlying cause of your migraines. From the list above, you can see that no two people with migraines are the same, and therefore treatment plans will need to be highly personalized. NDs will take time needed to understand your health history, family history, the nature of your headaches and to contextualize that information within the rest of your overall health– physical, emotional and cognitive. NDs use the Therapeutic Order to help ensure that the most gentle, effective treatments are used first, and aim to stimulate and support your innate healing capacity.
A highly individualized naturopathic medicine roadmap for getting rid of migraines is based on patient history, physical exam and laboratory findings, as pertinent.
An additional upside to naturopathic medicine prescriptions for migraines is that they highlight healthy overall lifestyle, which can improve additional health complaints and quality of life. And, naturopathic medical approaches carry low-to-nil side effects.
Treatments for relief of migraine headache may include any or all of the following:
Analysis of dietary intake. Many people with migraines have food allergy or food sensitivity. When offending foods are removed from the diet, the incidence, severity and duration of the headaches often decreases. Migraineurs might be sensitive to a specific food such as soy or salt, or a group of foods such as nuts or dairy, high histamine foods.
Other chemicals and additives in prepared foods such as monosodium glutamate, nitrates, nitrites, or artificial sweeteners, like aspartame can also be triggering. Yet others may have a migraine set off by alcohol or caffeine. Your naturopathic doctor can help you identify food sensitivities by careful assessment of a diet diary, by using an elimination and re-introduction diet, or by making use of laboratory testing. It can be challenging to give up a beloved food or food group, but patients often find that having less pain is indeed a strong motivator.
In general, an anti-inflammatory diet is recommended characterized by plenty of omega-3 fatty acids from nuts and wild caught fish, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats. Reducing overall inflammation throughout the body can help to decrease incidence and severity of migraines.
It is also important to normalize blood sugar levels as high or low blood sugar can trigger a headache. The anti-inflammatory diet is helpful here, as is remembering to eat at regular intervals and introducing intermittent fasting or the elongated the overnight fast, which have been shown to enhance insulin sensitivity and improve glycemic control which in turn help to balance overall blood sugar levels.
Proper hydration. The actual amount of fluid necessary varies from person to person based on size, activity level, and other dietary considerations, but for many people, being adequately hydrated is essential to the prevention of migraine and can make a notable difference.
Botanicals and supplements. A number of botanical medicines have been associated with a reduction in number of migraines, for instance, the herbs, Gingko (Gingko biloba,) Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), have each been associated with a reduction in occurrence of migraine. Note that unprocessed butterbur may contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) that can cause liver damage, so look for PA-free butterbur products.
Diffused essential oil of lavender, has shown evidence of reducing migraine incidence. Other essential oils may have similar impact.
Stress reduction. This has been shown to be a cornerstone of the prevention and treatment of migraine. Regular exercise, mindfulness meditation, biofeedback, massage therapy, enjoying a hobby, being in nature, and time with loved ones, and gratitude all go a long way to unwinding from the stressors of everyday living that for some, are direct triggers for an attack.
Environmental toxins. For some migraine patients, removing environmental toxins will be part of the equation. Household and personal care products, smoke, air pollution, and other environmental exposures can be ongoing migraine triggers. Trying to replace those items as you can in your home and avoiding other exposures as much as possible, can help to reduce migraine incidence. See the INM series on Low Toxin Living for further information.
If you are impacted by too much screen time, consider wearing blue-light blocking glasses. Similarly, if you are triggered by sunlight, invest in a pair of UV blocking sunglasses to wear when outdoors.
Hydrotherapy. Some patients will benefit from a short (5-minute) hot foot bath at the onset of a migraine. Others do well with ice packs to the head. A combination of these treatments also works for some patients.
Having enough and good quality sleep has been studied for how it impacts frequency of migraines. Naturopathic doctors have to help you fall and stay asleep.
Acupuncture. Some naturopathic doctors are also licensed acupuncturists and acupuncture has been assessed for its capacity to reduce frequency of migraines and to lower the use of migraine medication. For those uninitiated, tiny needles are placed at specific sites on your body and help to balance overall function and blood flow. You may need frequent visits to establish see enduring results.
Structural integrity. Making sure that skeletal alignment is correct will be another key area for some migraine patients. All naturopathic doctors are trained to correct and support structural integrity by using spinal manipulation, massage therapy, physiotherapy and more. Or your naturopathic doctor might refer you to a chiropractor or osteopathic doctor who works in the cranial field, who can further help you bring your spine and musculoskeletal areas into optimal alignment for the prevention of migraine headache.
For migraine sufferers there is hope by integrating a range of approaches from the naturopathic medicine toolbox. Working with a licensed naturopathic doctor can help you uncover root causes of your migraines and offer steps to remove and reduce triggers, improve overall nutrition, target deficiencies, lower inflammation, and correct for structural imbalances, all of which give you more control over your health and hopefully, fewer migraines. Find a licensed naturopathic doctor here.
This article is sponsored by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:
- Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
- Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
- Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine
Amy Rothenberg ND, DHANP is a contributor to INM and practicing licensed naturopathic doctor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dr. Rothenberg is the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 2017 Physician of the Year. Dr. Rothenberg’s writing can be found on NaturalMed.org, Better Nutrition’s Naturopathic Health Hub, Medium, Thrive Global, andThe Huff Post. She is the proud mother of 3 adult children.