About 25 years ago I worked for a company that made high end sports goggles. Though the front of the building was covered with posters of pro swimmers and skiers and often felt like a party, my days were spent in a back office, sorting and filing paperwork. It was disappointing, but I met a nice guy there and our conversations helped break up the monotony.
Then he started missing work. A day here and a day there. Then a few days at a time. Then he was absent more than he showed up. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to pry. Finally, on one of his rare appearances at work he told me he had been having severe migraine headaches. They were so crippling he was considering quitting his job.
This was just before I started grad school in Chinese Medicine and I didn’t have anything useful to say. I just remember feeling bad for him and being surprised that migraines could be that debilitating. I wish I knew then what I know now. I believe most cases are completely treatable with natural medicine. Here are some of the key treatments that can make a huge difference:
- Acupuncture. I’d estimate I can control 80% of migraine cases with acupuncture alone. Other acupuncturists may fare better or worse than that. (You might ask if this is an area of focus for an acupuncturist you’re considering.) Migraines can result from several underlying patterns, but there is always a condition of stagnation in the head (and sometimes neck and upper torso) – which acupuncture is excellent at releasing.
- Massage. Get regular deep tissue massages. Have them focus on your head overall (including your face, jaw, and the base of your skull), the sides and back of your neck, your upper back and chest, your hands, feet, lower back, and abdomen. Between massages do self-massage with a lacrosse ball. Lie on your back on a carpeted floor with bent knees, and place the ball under you, against the inside edge of your shoulder blade. Moving the ball inch by inch, find every single tender spot, and relax into the ball for a minute or two before moving onto the next one.
- Hydrate. Divide the number of pounds you weigh in half and drink that many ounces of water each day, evenly over the course of the day. (For instance, if you weigh 200 pounds, drink 100 ounces of water a day.)
- Avoid Caffeine. Even though caffeine is an ingredient in some headache medications (because it constricts the blood vessels in the head, making them smaller) it’s also a known trigger of migraines for some people. Many migraine cases improve when caffeine is cut out altogether.
- Figure Out What Foods You’re Sensitive to and Avoid Them. The most reliable way to figure out your food sensitivities is by doing an elimination diet (there are numerous books and websites that explain the process) and then systematically reintroducing foods, one at a time, to see what your reaction is. It’s a good idea to reintroduce foods at least 2 days apart, since the migraine may be delayed by a day. Figuring out your sensitivities and eliminating those foods is often a total cure for migraines. It’s worth the work.
- Clean Up Your Diet. Cut out processed foods and eat more live, fresh, healthy, chemical-free foods, prepared by you or someone with a good heart.
- Avoid Aspartame (Nutrasweet / Equal). Some migraines are triggered by this artificial sweetener. I recommend avoiding it even if it doesn’t give you headaches.
- Consider Avoiding MSG. Although it’s been demonized for decades, most people have no trouble at all with MSG. That said, some find they have fewer headaches when they avoid it. You might see it listed in the ingredients as monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein or soy, or yeast extract. Analogs of MSG also occur naturally in many foods, including hard cheeses, tomatoes, soy sauce, and even breast milk.
- Avoid Getting Hypoglycemic. Many migraines are triggered by a drop in blood sugar. This is common a few hours after eating a meal with lots of simple carbs or sugar. In some folks, the blood sugar goes way up and then comes crashing down, in what is known as “reactive hypoglycemia.” Besides potentially triggering migraines, reactive hypoglycemia can be an early precursor to diabetes, so there are multiple reasons to get this under control. Eat protein with every meal, and eliminate juice and sweets.
- Reduce Your Stress Level. Exercise, breathe, meditate, do yoga, have fun, get counseling, take breaks, get acupuncture and massage . . . just do whatever you have to do to reduce the impact of your stress.
- Try Magnesium. Many migraine sufferers have low levels of magnesium. Try taking 600 mg (you can gradually go up to 1000 mg) in divided doses over the course of each day. The easiest form for most people to take is dissolvable powder such as Natural Calm brand and others. (Watch out for bowel loosening. If it gives you loose bowels, reduce the dose, spread it out more evenly over the course of the day, or try the form known as magnesium glycinate, which is easier on the digestion.)
- Try Direct Pressure on Your Head. One study had participants with migraines wrap an elastic band (with Velcro at the ends so that it could be secured tightly) around their head, covering the most tender spots. They would then place soft rubber discs under the head band at the places of greatest discomfort to apply extra pressure to these spots. 80% of the people reported a major improvement.
- Take a Good B Vitamin Complex. Several of the B vitamins have been shown to be useful for migraines. Just take all of them in one capsule, once or twice a day.
- Try a Chinese Herbal Formula. A practitioner who specializes in Chinese herbal medicine can write you a personalized formula (usually consisting of 8-12 herbs) to resolve the specific underlying pattern(s) implicated in your migraines. I’ve had many patients report great relief or total resolution of their migraines with a good, customized herbal formula.
- Take Frequent Breaks When Looking at Screens. Eyestrain and overexposure to bright light, especially in the blue range, is a common trigger of migraines. Sometimes blue-blocking glasses can help.
- Improve Your Posture. The mechanical stress of poor posture can cause tension in the head and neck that contributes to migraines. This is especially common when looking down for hours at a phone, laptop, tablet, or book. Tuck your chin slightly, drop your shoulders and bring them back, relax your chest, and imagine you’re being lifted by a string from the very top of your head (in line with the tops of your ears).
If you get migraines, I hope these tips are helpful. They aren’t the only useful approaches, of course. I had a patient who used to stick Q-tips up her nose – the whole way up – and felt that made a huge difference. Others like essential oils, cold compresses, or decapitation. I encourage you to give my suggestions a try. Then let me know what happens, or share your own favorite remedies in the comments section below.
Dr. Peter Borten