The throbbing pain. The nausea. The head pain that shoots from back to front. The aura. The chills. The neck stiffness. The extreme sensitivity to light, to sound and to smells. The vision disturbances. The extreme fatigue. The dizziness. The hoping and praying that your rescue medications will kick in any minute now.
Yes, as you probably can surmise or know firsthand, this is the common yet horrendous experience of many unfortunate migraine sufferers – myself included. When migraines hit, they sweep into our lives with such a disruptive force that they can leave us down for the count for days.
Migraines are much more than terrible headaches, they are a debilitating neurological disorder. And, more people are afflicted with migraines than you might realize; the Migraine Research Foundation states that a whopping 12% of the population worldwide experience migraines. That’s approximately 888 million sufferers across the globe! While our individual symptoms and even the type of migraine may vary from person to person, the common thread is that all of us just want these migraines to go away…permanently… and never ruin another day/week/month again.
While combatting migraines can be a lifelong battle for some, natural remedies are available that can help prevent new migraines and alleviate migraines when they attack. I am excited to share my migraine prevention “bag of tricks” below that have helped me reduce my migraine attacks by over 95%.
I recognize that we are all unique beings. While the strategies and supplements that I share below have proven to be successful in my migraine journey, they might not work for everyone. I encourage you to discuss these and any other strategies with your physician (traditional or functional) and any other health professional that may be involved in your treatment.
My Top 5 Migraine Prevention Strategies
1. Find a Top Migraine Specialist in Your Area
I experienced my first migraine at age 17. I was lounging on my sofa while recovering from a lengthy bout of mononucleosis when my head began pounding like never before. After the first hour or so of intense pain, I was convinced I had a brain tumor or possibly hit my head the day before and didn’t remember. Little did I know that this would be the first of many migraines to follow.
My greatest rookie mistake was not seeing a neurologist who specialized in migraine care sooner. Instead, I relied on the limited migraine expertise of my general practitioner (GP) at the time – who simply told me to take the maximum amount of ibuprofen to reduce any migraine pain. There was no talk of prevention strategies or discussion about triggers. We were basically just putting a band-aid on the bigger problem.
It was an unusual migraine and an ER visit that finally prompted me to schedule a visit with a neurologist almost 10 years after my first migraine. I experienced an attack that I like to refer to as a “runaway migraine.” (I have experienced two other similar migraine attacks but thankfully not recently.) This runaway migraine lasted almost a month – which is very unusual for a migraine. Family and friends urged me to go to the ER and I obliged. After a battery of tests (CT-scan, blood work and neurological exams) came back negative, the ER doctor directed me to seek follow-up care from a neurologist.
It took me a few months to find a top-notch neurologist. My GP recommended my first neurologist. And he turned out to be a dud. He ordered an MRI and prescribed rescue meds and other meds that I probably didn’t need. My migraines actually got even worse during this time. To make matters worse, he was a terrible listener; it was nearly impossible to get a word in edgewise with this guy.
My desire to get better kicked me into action. I did my research and found an amazing neurologist – who not only was a stellar doctor but was a migraine sufferer herself. She helped me with the short-term migraine issues by prescribing a new rescue medication, but her main focus was long-term relief. She recommended an arsenal of “weapons” to prevent future migraines, encouraged me to track my migraines to better understand triggers and even helped me to recognize signs that a migraine was about to come my way. All of her strategies, plus some that I adopted on my own, have reduced my migraine episodes from several a month to just a few a year. Best of all, I no longer need prescription medications to treat my very infrequent migraines.
My advice to you: Do your research when selecting a neurologist for migraine treatment:
- Look at patient reviews online via your health plan or other sites
- Review “Top Doctor” lists in your area
- Ask other migraine sufferers for recommendations in migraine forums
- Before you make an appointment with neurologists, read their websites – which often include great information about their approach to care and areas of specialty
2. Know Your Triggers and Look for Clues that a Migraine is About to Arrive
Knowledge is power. The more you know about your migraines, the better prepared you are to prevent future migraines and reduce the intensity of any migraines that happen to pop up in the future.
My neurologist strongly recommended that I keep a headache diary. This seemed like a tedious and time-consuming task at the time; however, she recommended the iHeadache app (available for iPhones) which is an extremely quick and easy tool to use to track migraines. The app is free. (There is a paid version of the app available but it is exactly the same as the free version but without the ads). Those of you with Android devices can use the online version of the iHeadache tracker or can use similar tools available via Google Play (such as Migraine Buddy).
I used the iHeadache app religiously for two years. It enlightened me to potential triggers and also made me tap into the clues that my body were giving me to warn me that a migraine was about to ruin my day.
For example, I learned that I almost always experienced a migraine during “my time of the month.” In addition, a migraine always seemed to appear after consuming large quantities of caffeine or a glass of red wine. Tracking my migraines also allowed me to realize that a good chunk of my migraines came after stressful and action-packed weeks (otherwise known as stress release migraines). So, after completing a giant project at work on a Friday, a migraine was usually there to greet me on Saturday morning. Lastly, prolonged exposure to bright or flashing lights have triggered some of my worst migraines. I now avoid these triggers at all costs.
Tracking my migraines also made me evaluate potential clues that would alert me that a migraine would arrive in a few hours. I began to see that I was usually more absentminded than usual (making more typing errors, losing my train of thought, missing my exit on the highway, etc.) and became inexplicably overtired a few hours before a migraine would come on. Visual disturbances (or aura) also would appear just shortly before the pain would arrive. I learned if I took my rescue medication (these days it is strictly ibuprofen) when I first started experiencing these “clues,” I could either avoid the migraine entirely or reduce its intensity dramatically.
While we all may have distinct triggers, some triggers seem to be more prevalent than others. Click on the link below to see some common triggers:
Common Migraine Triggers
My advice to you: Consider downloading iHeadache or a similar app today. I guarantee that most of you will begin to see a pattern when it comes to what triggers your migraines. As an added benefit, most of these apps include a physician sharing feature – so that your neurologist can also help evaluate your migraine data for trends and treatment.
3. Consider Adding a Riboflavin (B2) Supplement
Riboflavin or vitamin B2 seems to be the forgotten stepchild of the vitamin B family. More notable B vitamins, like B12, B1 and B3, seem to hog the spotlight.
While all of the B vitamins offer substantial health benefits, riboflavin may actually help to prevent migraines. Several studies link riboflavin to fewer migraine episodes and decreased usage of migraine pain relief medications (or rescue medications).
My neurologist recommended 400 mg of riboflavin per day. Taking this supplement helped reduce my migraine attacks significantly. If I skip a few days of taking this vitamin, I will often get a mild headache if not a full-blown migraine. So, this vitamin bottle is always in my medicine cabinet.
The only down side about riboflavin is that it is hard to find at regular drug stores or grocery stores. On the plus side, it is readily available online and at vitamin stores, health food shops and some specialty supermarkets like Whole Foods.
My advice to you: Talk to your doctor about adding riboflavin to your own medicine cabinet and to your migraine preventive care plan.
4. Why Not Try Magnesium?
Along with riboflavin, magnesium is another go-to supplement in my quest to end my migraine suffering. Magnesium is an integral water soluble mineral that is involved in many of our bodily functions. Magnesium is often lacking in our American diets; in fact, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 75% of Americans do not get the US RDA for dietary intake of magnesium. Could this be a contributing factor as to why so many of us are afflicted with migraines? Hmmm…
And like riboflavin, the medical community continues to study how magnesium supplementation may help us migraine sufferers. My neurologist is a big proponent of taking magnesium for migraine prevention; in fact, it was her very first suggestion to me. My doctor recommended that I take 500 mg daily – but others on migraine forums have been instructed by their physicians to take more or less. Go with what your doctor recommends!
Magnesium is now a permanent fixture in my supplement routine. I recently switched from magnesium citrate to magnesium glycinate at the advice of my functional medicine doctor.
One thing to note about magnesium: it is always best taken at night – as it can make you quite relaxed and sleepy.
My advice to you: Add magnesium to the list of preventive care strategies to talk with your neurologist about at your next visit. Ask if he or she recommends other supplements or herbs as a prophylaxis as well.
5. Evaluate Your Diet
Certain foods in your diet can trigger migraines or make an attack worse. (Yes, you chocolate lovers out there – even chocolate.) An elimination diet may help you pinpoint some of your unknown triggers and avoid future migraine agony.
Around the same time that I first adopted many of the strategies discussed above, I changed my diet (for health reasons not related to migraines). I went 100% gluten and dairy free. I noticed after this diet switch-up that my migraines were much less frequent and those that appeared were much less intense. I already knew that gluten and dairy were wreaking havoc on my body in other ways, but they also might have been contributing to my migraines. This diet change, couple with my other prevention strategies, proved to be the winning combination in significantly reducing my migraine episodes.
My advice to you: Elimination diets are a great tool to uncover digestive issues; why not give it a try for migraines as well! Although challenging and time-consuming, it might provide you with the insight that you need to prevent these suckers (migraines) from creeping up on you again.
Get on the Path to Wellness
I am hopeful that these strategies as well as the countless other strategies out there (either from fellow sufferers on the Internet or from medical professionals) will get you on the path to feeling well. Find what works for you and embrace it!
In closing, I will leave you with a few other supplements I take or dietary choices I make that likely contribute to my significantly improved migraine health:
No added sugar (or almost no added sugar) in my diet