By Dr. Mercola
An estimated 26 million Americans suffer with migraines. Approximately 80 percent of them are women. All in all, about one in five women get migraines while only one in 16 men get them, according to migraines.org.1 About 60 percent of women affected have menstrual-related migraines, meaning it tends to coincide with their menstrual cycle.
A migraine headache is characterized as an intense throbbing or pulsing headache, typically in one area or side of your head, and is commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
Those who have never had a migraine before can be very frightened with the neurological symptoms. The visual problems are most problematic as a migraine can simulate a stroke where you start to have disturbed vision and even short term visual loss and flashing lights.
Migraine attacks can cause debilitating pain for several hours to several days. Some migraineurs experience "aura" sensations before an attack. These are sensory warning symptoms, such as flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling in your arm or leg.
The featured article2 recently brought up the dietary links to migraines – specifically how the grain- and dairy-free Paleo diet appears to help banish the pain for many people. This is not entirely surprising, considering that milk and wheat are two major food allergens.
Are Food Allergies Causing Your Migraines?
Searching the medical literature in PubMed.gov using the search terms "migraine" and "food allergies" will provide you with more than 150 different studies.3 Some of the top migraine-inducing foods identified include:
Processed foods in general can also contribute to allergies for a number of different reasons, and most processed foods contain a variety of food colorings, flavors, preservatives, and other additives that may also promote headaches and migraines. Both aspartame and MSG are notorious for causing headaches and triggering migraines. Besides noting whether or not your migraines typically occur after eating a specific food, additional questions that can help you determine whether or not you might have a food sensitivity or allergy are:
- Do you experience bloating after meals, gas, frequent belching, or any kind of digestive problems?
- Do you have chronic constipation or diarrhea?
- Do you have a stuffy nose after meals?
- Do you have low energy or feel drowsy after eating?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may want to investigate further. Keeping a detailed food diary is the easiest way to start tracking down potentially migraine-inducing foods, as well as foods that cause other symptoms of sensitivity. Keep in mind that eliminating your migraines is not the only health benefit you can reap from identifying food allergies or sensitivities. Eliminating food antigens is also critical for gut health. I've written extensively on this topic, as medical science is now beginning to realize just how important your gut is, not just for physical health, but emotional and psychological health as well.
Elimination Diets Shown Helpful in Reducing or Eliminating Migraines
In a 1979 study published in the Lancet,4 60 migraineurs with food antigen immunoreactivity who were put on an elimination diet experienced profound relief. According to the author:
"The commonest foods causing reactions were wheat (78 percent), orange (65 percent), eggs (45 percent), tea and coffee (40 percent each), chocolate and milk (37 percent) each), beef (35 percent), and corn, cane sugar, and yeast (33 percent each).
When an average of 10 common foods were avoided there was a dramatic fall in the number of headaches per month, 85 percent of patients becoming headache-free. The 25 percent of patients with hypertension became normotensive. Chemicals in the home environment can make this testing difficult for outpatients. Both immunological and non-immunological mechanisms may play a part in the pathogenesis of migraine caused by food intolerance."
A randomized, double blind, cross-over study published in 20105 also found that a six-week long diet restriction produced a statistically significant reduction in migraines in those diagnosed with migraine without aura. If you notice your migraines start up shortly after eating a specific food, then that's a good place to start. Keep in mind that you can also be sensitive to food additives like artificial colors, preservatives, flavor enhancers (MSG), and aspartame so read the food labels, and note the ingredients in your food journal.
One of the best things you can do if you believe you are suffering from a food allergy is to do a diet elimination challenge. Simply remove all foods that contain what you believe you are allergic to and see if your symptoms improve over the next several days. Keep in mind that depending on your typical migraine frequency, you may need to avoid the suspected food for a few weeks in order to evaluate whether it had an effect or not.
To confirm the results, you'll want to reintroduce the food or drink (on an empty stomach). If the suspected food is the culprit you will generally be able to feel the allergy symptoms return within an hour, although migraines can sometimes have a longer lag time than, say, bloating or drowsiness.
Diet for Migraine Relief
Quite a few people report ridding themselves of migraines on the Paleo diet, which can be summarized as "any food that can be eaten without being processed." That means no grains, bread or pasta, and no pasteurized dairy, but does include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, some nuts and oils along with wild caught fish, organic poultry and grass-fed lean meats. You can easily mold your diet around the principles of Paleo eating by following my nutrition plan. The full details are described in the plan, but generally speaking, the following key factors apply to any "healthy diet":
- Eliminate all gluten products
- Eliminate the other 10 common foods that the Lancet study found helpful in making 85 percent of participants headache free
- Eliminate all artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame. My sister is one of many who will get a guaranteed migraine if she consumes any aspartame. Obviously, even if you don't have migraines, there simply is no reason to ever consume aspartame
- Unprocessed whole foods
- Often raw or only lightly cooked (ideally, try to eat at least one-third of your food raw, or as much as you can manage)
- Organic or grass-fed, and free from additives and genetically modified ingredients
- Come from high-quality, local sources
- Carbohydrates primarily come from vegetables (except corn and potatoes, which should typically be avoided). Dramatically lowering your intake of non-vegetable carbs could improve leptin and insulin signaling which could also improve migraines
I believe a return to "real food" is one of the most profound interventions for the 21st century. We've strayed so far from the foods we are designed to eat, going back to basics and refocusing your diet on fresh, whole, unprocessed, "real" food can improve just about anyone's health, regardless of what health issues you need to address.
Helpful Supplements and More
In terms of supplements that might be helpful for migraines, one of the most critical is ubiquinol (the reduced form of Coenzyme Q10). According to experts like Dr. Robert Barry, an underlying problem involved with migraines is mitochondrial dysfunction. Ubiquinol plays a vital role in ATP production, which is the basic fuel for your mitochondria. Your body does produce ubiquinol naturally, in fact it is the predominant form in most healthy cells, tissues and organs, however, with rampant pollution and poor diet, mitochondrial dysfunction has become increasingly common.
A 2005 study published in Neurology6 found that CoQ10 was superior to a placebo in preventing migraines and reducing severity. Of the patients who received 100 mg of CoQ10 three times a day, 50 percent reported significantly reduced frequency of headaches compared to only 14 percent of those who took the placebo. Ubiquinol is the reduced form of CoQ10, and studies have repeatedly demonstrated that it is far more effective than CoQ10 due to its superior bioavailability.
Other dietary supplements that can be helpful for migraines include:
- Magnesium. This is probably the most important one as it contributes to relaxing the brain blood vessels that cause the pain. The best magnesium supplement I know of is magnesium threonate as it penetrates cell membranes, including the mitochondria, and no other magnesium supplement does this. Interestingly, some of the best drugs used to treat migraines are calcium channel blockers, and that is how magnesium works. Supplemental magnesium would be FAR safer than a calcium channel blocker
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Folic acid
A 2009 study7 evaluated the effect of 2 mg of folic acid, 25 mg vitamin B6, and 400 micrograms of vitamin B12 in 52 patients diagnosed with migraine with aura. Compared to the placebo group, those receiving these supplements experienced a 50 percent reduction in migraine disability over a six-month period. Previous studies, such as a 2004 study in the European Journal of Neurology,8 have also reported that high doses of B2 (riboflavin) can help prevent migraine attacks.
Patients received 400 mg riboflavin per day. Headache frequency was reduced from four days per month at baseline to two days per month after three months. Headache duration and intensity did not change significantly however. Keep in mind that prophylactic supplement regimens may take several weeks to produce results, so don't give up too soon. Typically, if the supplement is the right one, you'll notice results in about three to six months.
Exercise is something that should also be considered as an enormously useful strategy.
Last but not least, the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) often provides results for migraine headache relief. Newcomers who use this simple process by themselves tend to achieve relief 50 percent to 80 percent of the time. EFT is a very profound intervention that can be used in addition to the above strategies, it can also be useful for helping compliance to the lifestyle changes recommended.