Migraines can become an enormous source of anxiety for those who suffer from them. For some people they can be debilitating, forcing us to miss projects, tests, work, and important events.
So what causes migraines and what can we do about them? We'll explore that in this article.
What is a migraine?
Classic symptoms: a headache occurring on one side of the head which can lead to nausea, vomiting, vision or hearing disturbances, and/or sensitivity to light and sound.
Migraines generally start off gradually. It's typically dull, deep, and steady pain, however, it can become throbbing and pulsating as it intensifies.
Migraines affect three times more women than men, and episodes can start as early as 12 years old.
Auras: some migraine sufferers (20%) experience symptoms prior to the onset of a migraine, such as flashing lights, bright spots, zig zag lines, numbness or tingling in their hands, lips, tongue, or face.
Interestingly, migraines do not always cause a headache, there's a small percentage of people who have visual migraines; these people can lose a portion of their vision during their migraine, but they don't experience a headache.
What causes migraines?
1. Family history: 90% of migraine sufferers have a family member who also gets migraines.
2. Lifestyle triggers: dehydration, lack of sleep, hunger, stress, strenuous exercise, or an iron deficiency can all contribute to migraine headaches.
3. Hormonal imbalances: including menstruation. Unfortunately, our "time of month" can cause hormonal imbalances - whether just before, during, or after our periods - that can lead to the onset of migraines.
4. Food triggers: diet can play a surprisingly big role in preventing and managing migraines.
How can diet affect migraines?
There are several dietary components that can contribute to headaches. This includes:
Hunger - migraine sufferers often note that skipping meals can cause headaches. To avoid this, try eating every 3-4 hours.
Nutrient deficiencies - such as iron, vitamin B2, and magnesium (more on this below).
Read more about our recommendations for creating a "balanced plate" in this PUL article!
Some foods can cause a change in chemicals in the brain which cause thereby headaches, or they cause inflammation which can lead to a headache. Here are some examples of potential triggers:
Tyramine - found naturally in foods such as:
aged cheeses (blue cheese, feta, cheddar, gorgonzola, parmesan, Swiss)
certain beans (fava, broad, garbanzo, lima, pinto)
some overripe fruits (bananas, tomatoes, avocados)
Food additives - like nitrates, food colouring agents, artificial sweeteners, or MSG, found in things such as:
lots of packaged foods
Tannins, phenols, and sulphites - which can be found in things like:
Caffeine - withdrawal from caffeine can also be a major cause of migraines and can be found in things like:
Food sensitivities or nutrient deficiencies - can also be a culprit.
» Note, these are possible triggers, but since everyone is unique what might cause a migraine in one person might not have any affect on another. If food may be the culprit in causing migraines, try our tracking using our headache journal (see below) or see a registered dietitian for additional support.
If you think something might be the culprit, we advise changing only one thing at a time to see if it has an affect on your headaches. Too many changes at once will make it harder to determine what may or may not have been contributing. On that note, we also suggest slowly adding back foods that have been eliminated, to see if they can be tolerated again. Trigger foods can be "dose" dependant - for example, a whole dark chocolate bar might cause a migraine, but 1/4 of it might not.
» A note on elimination diets: we strongly recommend elimination diets only be done under the supervision of a dietitian, as it can become complicated, confusing, and frustrating, so it's important to have a trained health provider by your side.
Caffeine: friend or foe to the migraine?
If you've ever experienced a migraine before, you might have noticed that drinking some coffee can help. In fact, caffeine is an ingredient commonly found in over-the-counter headache medications, but, for some people, coffee can be the culprit causing the headaches.
Caffeine's affect on the brain depends on how often we use it. If you drink coffee seldomly, having one cup might relieve your headache. However, if you're a regular coffee drinker, there is likely very little it can do in alleviating the headache given the body has developed a tolerance to it. For those with chronic migraines, it's recommended that coffee be avoided altogether.
Also note that caffeine is a drug, and as with any drug, overuse can cause problems. Drinking coffee daily can cause "rebound" headaches, and quitting caffeine "cold turkey" can also cause migraines. If you feel you'd like to decrease your caffeine intake, we recommend decreasing it gradually. And remember, caffeine is in more things than just coffee!
We've created an article all about caffeine - read more about it here!
So, where to begin?
We've created a FREE PDF that you can use in your efforts to determine potential migraine triggers.
Download My PDF >>
We suggest tracking for at least 3 months to allow for a pattern to develop, but you might notice a pattern within the first month. This tool is also helpful to take with you to your family doctor so they can assist you with tracking potential trends.
What are the treatments?
Lifestyle management: ideally, we want to identify the triggers of the migraine and eliminate them. This might include:
avoiding foods and/or beverages that cause headaches
taking part in self-care rituals that decrease stress
ensuring adequate sleep
ensuring adequate hydration, and so on
Other remedies that might help include:
applying a cold compress to your forehead or back of the neck
finding a quiet and dark room to rest in
stretching or taking part in gentle forms of yoga
Medicine: over the counter painkillers can be an effective treatment option for migraines, however, over-using headache medicines can cause rebound headaches. Try to avoid using non-prescription medications more than once or twice a week to avoid these rebound headaches. And a reminder that Aspirin (ASA) should never be given to anyone under the age of 18.
Birth control: if migraines are related to hormones, birth control can be a way to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. If you have migraines with an aura, you should not be taking a birth control containing estrogen. For more information on this, see your family physician.
Preventative therapy: for those experiencing chronic migraines, a doctor might prescribe medications that can help to reduce the severity and frequency of headaches. Some types of that might be used include blood pressure, anti-seizure or anti-depressant medications.
Supplements: herbal treatment options for migraines and headaches are promising, however, more studies need to be done. Some supplements that have been researched include:
Because everyone has different requirements, we will not discuss doses for these supplements in this article.
For more information, talk to your doctor, pharmacist, nurse, dietitian, or other healthcare provider.
1. Identify potential trigger: such as caffeine, lack of sleep, certain foods, stress, menstruation, etc. Using a "headache journal" can help to identify trends.
2. Focus on lifestyle managements first: like getting enough sleep, drinking enough fluids, avoiding skipped meals, and avoiding stressors that could contribute to headaches.
3. If in need of medication: it's most helpful to take the medicine at the first sign of a headache.
4. See a healthcare professional: for additional support, as migraines can be complex and caused by various factors.
Want To Learn More?
Read this previous nutrition article called HOW TO GAIN WEIGHT » healthfully, on a plant-based diet
What About You?
Do you suffer from occasional migraines? Do you have any remedies that help? Let us know in the comment below or share your tips with us on Instagram with the hashtag #pickuplimes.
❤ Written by: Suzanne (migraine sufferer & Canadian pharmacist) & Sadia