Instead of going to work today, I’m lying on the couch with an ice pack and heated rice snake, recovering from an increasingly rare migraine headache. Although I get FAR fewer migraines than I used to (now I get one that lasts less than 24 hours once every couple of months, whereas as recently as 18 months ago I was getting 2-3 day migraines a couple times per month), I have unfortunately been prone to migraines my entire life, even as a child. I tried a number of prescription medications that various doctors recommended over the years, some of which had to be taken daily whether I had a migraine at that time or not, none of which proved to be particularly effective. As I have gotten older, I have become less and less trusting of the pharmaceutical industry (see the articles Doctors on the Take and Clinical Practice Guidelines or Legalized Bribery by nephrologist Dr. Jason Fung) and decided to try managing my migraines without medication. This is what has worked for me.
1. Following a ketogenic diet (evidence), including intermittent fasting (23:1 on weekdays, 16:8 on weekends) with an emphasis on whole (rather than processed) foods. Not only is this research-based, but it has been the most effective preventative for me. I currently keep my daily carbs below 50 g per day, with the goal of staying under 30 g at least 3-4 days per week. However, I have upped my carb level from the standard <20 g daily in order to incorporate more vegetables after reading “The Microbiome Solution ” by gastroenterologist Dr. Robyn Chutkan. Dysbiosis has been found to correlate with migraines in a number of studies (citation) and eating a diet rich in vegetables is associated with a healthier microbiome. Basically I just eat pastured poultry from our farm, grass-fed red meat from nearby farms, our own free-range eggs, and LOTS of vegetables. Nuts, cheese and plain full-fat yogurt are once-in-a -while treats, but these foods do increase migraine frequency for me. When I stray from this way of eating, not only do I start to gain back the weight I lost but my osteoarthritis and migraines start up again.
This is becoming one of the most common reasons (after weight loss) that people adopt a keto diet. One of my high schooler’s friends suffers from debilitating, frequent migraines, and her doctor actually put her on keto, as medication was useless for her.
2. Magnesium supplementation
There is a robust body of research supporting the use of supplemental magnesium for migraine prevention (synopsis). I use 250 mg magnesium citrate twice daily (but be aware that gel tabs often contain carbs) and a magnesium chloride body spray after showering.
3. I try to avoid regularly eating dairy products and nuts, even though they’re low-carb, because those foods trigger migraines for me (and many other people as well). Unfortunately, cheese and nuts are two of my favorite foods.
Comfort techniques for pain relief
1. Gel ice pack placed across the front and sides of the neck (evidence)
2. Heated rice snakes for referred pain along abdomen/back on the affected side (my migraines are always unilateral but will occur on either side)
3. Pressure applied to the posterior top of the skull (bribe your kids to do this for you)
4. Peppermint essential oil (some people report relief from lavender essential oil but for me lavender worsens my headaches and also increases other migraine symptoms such as auras and vomiting)
5. Lying quietly in a darkened room.
This last one ties in to how the pharmaceutical industry has changed our way of dealing with illness. Many drugs we take, such as cold medicines, are not in any way curative. Rather, they simply mask symptoms of illness so that we can continue our frenetic production/consumption lifestyles. However, as recently as a generation or two ago, illness meant a period of quiet rest at home. While reading Virginia Woolf’s (1882-1941) personal diaries I was struck by how she frequently referenced either herself or someone she knew “lying recumbent,” which meant the person stayed home on the couch or in bed when they weren’t feeling well. But we don’t really do that so much anymore; we pop a few ibuprofen tablets, some Benadryl and a sudafed and drag ourselves to work or school. And now, research into the gut-brain axis and microbiome (here is one example, but this is a hot area of research and new studies are being published frequently) are beginning to reveal that our processed food diet, frenetic pace of life, and national addiction to popping pills in place of nurturing our health is beginning to result in a significant decline in our physical and mental well-being.
These are the things that have helped me get some control over my migraines. Because different people have different triggers for their headaches, some or all of these might be helpful or not helpful for you; if you have found a really helpful tip or trick for managing migraine pain naturally, please do share it in the comments.