Knocking Out Migraines with a (Natural) Punch!

 

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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

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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?

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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:

CoQ10

Fish Oil

Curcumin (turmeric)

No added sugar (or almost no added sugar) in my diet

Say Sayonara to Soda and Hello to Better Options!

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It’s no secret to anyone I know; I am no fan of sugary or fake sugary (diet) sodas. In fact, my family members, friends and twitter followers are likely growing weary of my regular tweeting and lecturing on the topic.

I gave up sugary and diet sodas about 10 years ago. The truth of the matter is that soda and I were growing apart for a long time before that. My initial “a-ha” moment about the potential dangers of soda came to me when I was just out of college. While at my first post-college job, I received a forwarded chain message about 50 unknown uses for Coca Cola. (Remember those forwarded chain emails that people would clog your email with 24/7; thankfully, that trend fizzled.)

I don’t remember who sent me the email about the uses of Coca Cola, but the more I scrolled through the list, the more mortified I became. Coca Cola was not only the refreshing beverage that I had come to know and love – it included chemicals that were capable of bleaching a toilet, removing oil stains from a garage floor, dissolving a tooth, stripping paint off metal furniture and more. Ick! In case you’re curious, here’s a similar list:

50+ Uses for Coca Cola

A Slow Goodbye

You would think that forwarded email would be enough to end my relationship with Coca Cola (and soda in general) once and for all; but it was not. Soda was a tough habit to break. It took a few more years and lots more articles and research on the topic before I said goodbye for (mostly) good.

I haven’t really thought about soda much in the last 10 years. On a few EXTREMELY rare occasions, mostly at parties or when it was the only option available wherever I was, I have splurged and sipped on a glass of Sprite or Ginger Ale. Soda is just not worth my time or energy overall any more, though. I have become content with the many other safer and healthier beverage choices out there. (See some healthier options below.)

Soda is Not Just Unhealthy…It’s Dangerous

Scientists and physicians have long studied the effects of regular soda consumption. For years, we were warned about the high sugar content of regular soda and the dangers of the artificial sweeteners in diet soda. Soda has been linked to everything from obesity to diabetes. Some of the latest research is even more troubling, linking soda consumption to higher rates of stroke, tooth decay and reduced bone density.

Consider the soda facts and research: It’s downright shocking that one 12 oz. can of Coca Cola includes almost 40g of sugar!  A 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew contains 77g of sugar. Diet soda is often branded as the healthier soda option. While diet soda does not contain sugar, the artificial sweeteners have been linked to weight gain and increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, large waist circumference and elevated glucose). Check out the research for yourself: 

Stop Drinking Soda

Risks of Diet Soda

Soft Drinks and Disease

Not to Fret…Better Options Are Here

Nobody can deny that soda provides the ultimate thirst refreshment; however, I’ve found a few fizzy beverage options that come pretty darn close to a satisfying glass of soda but without the health red flags. Here goes:

1)      Plain Old Seltzer or Mineral Water

It may be the obvious substitute but chilled seltzer or mineral water is almost as refreshing as soda – without the sugar or artificial sweeteners. If you are buying seltzer from a store, just make sure you steer clear of the options with added flavors or other additives. If you want to make your own seltzer, SodaStream is a great option; just avoid any of the SodaStream flavorings which are riddled with sugar or sweeteners.

2)      Seltzer with a Twist

My sister enlightened me to the art of doctoring up a seltzer. Here are a few things that you can add to seltzer to immediately up the flavor ante:

  • Fresh lemon or lime juice (or both)
  • Cucumber slices
  • Fresh ginger slices
  • A half teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract
  • Sliced strawberries, raspberries and grapes… in fact, why not make a pitcher of seltzer and make a seltzer sangria!

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3)      Sparkling Kombucha

Kombucha, which is fermented tea with a culture of yeast and bacteria, is an acquired taste for some. I’ve heard it compared to skunked beer, vinegar and much worse (if you could imagine). I actually found a sparkling kombucha that is mild and refreshing: Raw & Organic Live Kombucha – Sparkling Ginger. It’s much healthier than soda (about ¼ of the sugar) and contains billions of live probiotics in one bottle. Plus, the founder’s personal story is inspiring – as he was on a quest to create a healthy and tasty kombucha following the death of his sister to cancer. If you have shied away from kombucha in the past, give this one a try.

4)      Sparkling Herbal Tea

Make your regular tea a bit more exciting by adding some sparkling water. Simply brew your favorite herbal tea (my favorites include ginger, chamomile and mint), chill and add sparkling water. Enjoy!

The Great Salt Debate

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While scrolling through Twitter last week, I came upon a tweet about the dangers of consuming too much table salt. Table salt (otherwise known as iodized salt) has gotten a bad rap for a long time. For as long as I could remember, it was linked to everything from increased blood pressure to heart disease. Doctors often advise most patients to “go easy on the salt.”

So many of us listened. In fact, I stopped cooking with salt for a short time and even shunned the salt shakers on restaurant tables. But, that didn’t last long. Let’s face it; salt makes everything taste better. So, salt came back in my life in an entirely different form: unrefined sea salt. But is sea salt really better than table salt? Let’s discuss.

What’s the Deal with Table Salt?

Pros

  • Table salt contains added iodine which many of us are lacking in our diets.
  • It’s available everywhere (food stores, restaurants, pharmacies, etc.).
  • Table salt (in my humble opinion) is sometimes easier to use while cooking.

Cons

  • Table salt is highly processed to remove minerals.
  • Iodized salt contains additives (including some potentially dangerous ones such as silica, talc and ferrocyanide)
  • Many of us consume way too much salt (predominantly table salt) as it is contained in most processed foods.

  The 411 on Unrefined Sea Salt

Pros

  • Unrefined sea salt is natural and unprocessed.(Unrefined sea salt is typically not bright white in color, but may be pink, beige, gray or other colors.)
  • It contains no additives.
  • Unrefined sea salt contains trace minerals which could be beneficial, including selenium and boron.

Cons

  • Sea salt contains the same amount of sodium chloride as table salt – so even sea salt must be consumed in moderation.
  • Unrefined sea salt is typically more expensive than table salt and not as widely available.
  • It’s easier to add too much or too little salt to recipes when cooking with sea salt. (Practice makes perfect though!)

 Moderation is Key

Regardless of which type of salt you fancy, moderation is key! And you must also factor in salt added to the processed foods you may consume. In fact, most of the sodium that you consume (up to 75% according to the FDA) may be in the packaged foods you eat every day. So, it is important to read food labels carefully.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that Americans over the age of 4 consume less than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day. (If you have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes, it is recommended that you consume less than 1,500 milligrams of salt per day.)

Do Your Research

Based on dozens of articles on this topic that I have read, I have decided to stick with unrefined sea salt (in moderation of course!) and continue to limit my table salt intake (knowing that some of the packaged foods and restaurant foods will contain table salt). Since I am not a medical expert, I highly recommend that you do your own research or consult your physician or nutritionist for advice on this topic.