Migraine sufferers know all about the signals – nausea, confusion, impaired vision. Then the throbbing, pounding headache and the exhaustion that follows an attack. But what exactly is a migraine? And what can you do to prevent or relieve the symptoms when they appear?
What is a migraine?
In South Africa, one in five employees at an average company suffers from acute or chronic migraines that prevent them doing their jobs properly. So says Dr Elliot Shevel, Medical Director at The Headache Clinic. A migraine, he explains, is usually a moderate to severe headache that can affect one side (a unilateral migraine) or both the sides of the head (bilateral). It’s a neurological disorder that occurs repetitively and may continue for hours or even days. Migraines are more than only a throbbing headache though – the pain is often accompanied by confusion, inability to speak coherently, nausea and other physical malfunctions. In short, a migraine can be alarming and very debilitating.
What causes migraine?
The exact cause of migraines is still unknown, but genetics, hormonal and environmental factors appear to play a role. If you suffer with bipolar disorder, nervousness or depression or come from a family of sufferers, you’re a candidate for migraine. It can also be influenced by changes in levels of hormones such as serotonin, which can cause blood vessels in the brain or head to contract and dilate. You may get an attack if you’re premenstrual or menopausal.
Stress and anxiety are possible triggers, as are fatigue, or shoulder or neck strain (common among people who work on computers).
Having too much chocolate (especially women), alcohol or caffeine and too little water? Spending time in an environment that’s smoky, has constantly flashing lights or loud noise, or has a strong odour (such as a lab using chemicals) and doesn’t have good air circulation? Taking medications such as sleeping pills, contraceptive tablets or HRT? Look out for the signs.
Women generally are three times more likely than men to suffer with migraines (about 6% of men and 18% of women).
The path of a migraine
- Pre-headache or ‘prodromal’ stage: Some people feel moody, irritable, achy, depressed or lose their appetite hours or even days before an attack.
- Auras: Shortly before the pain starts, many people experience warning signs such as stiff, aching shoulders and neck, tingling sensations, problems with vision (blind spots, seeing zigzag patterns or flashes of light), and aphasia or speech problems.
- Boom! And the pain arrives, starting on one or both sides of the head, often bringing with it nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.
- Remedying the pain: The pain gradually settles down when you take an effective remedy. It takes a while to disappear, though.
- Recovery or ‘postdromal’ stage: The pain has passed, thank goodness, but you’re left feeling weak and exhausted.
The silent migraine
When you feel the aura and other symptoms of migraine but don’t get the pain, you’re experiencing a ‘silent’ migraine. Other people get migraines with no warning signs.
10 Natural remedies for migraine
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium): This well-known migraine remedy has been sanctioned by both the British Medical Journal and the Harvard Medical School, who confirm that feverfew appears to treat the cause of the headaches rather than simply the pain. It helps inhibit the release of two inflammatory substances, serotonin and prostaglandins, both believed to contribute to the onset of migraines. Flora Force Feverfew is a popular single-ingredient remedy used by migraine sufferers throughout South Africa. (Avoid Feverfew if you are pregnant.)
- Butterbur herb (Petasites hybrids) may help to relax muscles, soothe constrictions in the cerebral blood vessels and reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. It’s also safe for children and teenagers.
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Migraine patients given high doses of riboflavin have reported fewer headaches and a need for less medication. You can find it in eggs, asparagus and whole grains.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is effective for migraine relief. Don’t take more than the recommended dose though – you could get diarrhoea and gastric upset. Spinach, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, quinoa, sunflower seeds and whole grains are good food sources.
- Peppermint oil: Massage your forehead and temples with peppermint oil containing 10% menthol solution to alleviate nausea, pain and sensitivity to light and sound.
- Ginger: Eat a small knob of ginger to help relieve digestive problems and nausea and prevent inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain. Flora Force Ginger is a powerful single-ingredient extract that works well when nausea and vomiting strike.
- Hold back on common food triggers: Wine, chocolate, citrus, MSG, cheese, ice-cream and other high-fat foods. Not all migraine sufferers are triggered by these. If you are uncertain, eliminate them for at least 3 months and then reintroduce them one at a time to identify if one or more of them is a trigger for you.
- Chug back the water: Dehydration can spark migraine headaches.
- Relaxation techniques: Chill out with yoga or meditation to calm your mind and relax your muscles.
- Get sufficient sleep: Sleep is one of the most valuable cures for migraines. Settle in a dark room to help your body to release melatonin, a hormone that induces better sleep and helps soothe head pain.
Migraine is a debilitating pain. However, you may help prevent or soothe an attack with these simple lifestyle adjustments and having potentially helpful natural remedies at hand.
Acknowledgements & Photo credits
Article compiled for Flora Force by Judy Beyer.
- Herb Wisdom. Feverfew.
- Leaders in Wellness. SA migraine stats: Migraines and the corporate South African female. 2014. https://www.leadersinwellness.co.za/articles/sa-migraine-stats-11245.html
- Organic Facts. Home remedies for migraines. https://www.organicfacts.net/home-remedies/migraine.html
- Photo courtesy of Marcelo Gerpe / Freeimages.com