Migraines...not so simple


Migraines are a common complaint that brings people to see me. They are debilitating experiences and throw a wrench into whatever plans you’ve had for the rest of the day. Some migraines are only relieved by sleep, which can be a difficult and dangerous situation if you’re not able to get to a place to lie down.

Most of the time I find that people are looking for an herb to take the place of a pharmaceutical. The medications used to alleviate the pain and discomfort of migraines are strong and have significant side effects, so I completely understand wanting to avoid using them. There really aren’t herbs that will replace your ibuprofen or triptans for relief of an already occurring headache. Where herbs and foods are helpful is in balancing the system so that migraines don’t happen as often.

Migraines are caused by a number of triggers. Dietary choices, hormone imbalance, low blood sugar, caffeine, computer screens, food, pharmaceutical, and environmental toxins, and stress can all be triggers for a migraine.

Migraines, much like autoimmune disorders, have more than just a trigger at the heart of the problem. I like to think about migraines as having a triangle of conditions that must be present for a headache to start and continue.

In a migraine triangle, one side is a physiological difference. People who get migraines have an instability in the way the brain deals with incoming sensory information. This is why not everyone gets migraines, and since it tends to run in families, it is believed to be genetically influenced.

The second side of the triangle is an ongoing imbalance in your system. It could be a hormonal imbalance related to menstrual cycles, puberty, or menopause. It could be nutrient deficiencies that prevent your cells from functioning properly. It could be an overload of some substance that your body has a difficult time processing, like a medication you take, additives and preservatives in food, chemical exposure, or pollution. It might also be related to insulin control or an autoimmune response that creates underlying inflammation.

The third side is the trigger. This is the specific stimulus that starts the migraine. You probably already know what your main triggers are, but if you don’t you should keep a symptom log and identify what things are most likely to trigger your migraines.

Removing any one side of the triangle will prevent the migraine from happening. You can’t remove the physical differences in the brain, so that leaves the trigger and the underlying imbalances as the focus areas. Most medical approaches look to remove the trigger side of the triangle. They will help you identify the triggers and work to eliminate them. They’ll offer medications to soothe the symptoms once they occur. This approach is usually preferred because their patients come in looking for quick relief from their pain, not an extended study of their nutrition, lifestyle, and environment. From a holistic herbal approach, I look at both the trigger side AND the imbalance. Reducing the triggers is the first step. After that, I look at what imbalance is happening and work to correct that.

This is why I don’t give herbal recommendations for migraines without actually talking to the person and understanding their situation.

There’s lots of memes on Pinterest and Facebook about using feverfew and butterbur for migraines. There are some studies that suggest that a daily dose of feverfew can reduce the number of migraines you have by a small amount (0.2 migraines/month) . Butterbur is also associated with a reduction in the frequency of migraines, but it has toxic compounds that can cause liver dysfunction. If you take butterbur, then you should only take those products that have been processed to remove the toxins. My experience and that of my herbal mentors shows that taking these two herbs will most certainly NOT be the miracle that it’s positioned to be.

There is a growing skepticism in the herbal community about these ‘herban legends’ where certain herbs are promoted as being the panacea when in fact, they are only minimally helpful. Feverfew and butterbur are near the top of the list!

I think there are a few things that are reasonable for anyone to do, just considering the state of the Standard American Diet. I recommend to everyone to take a magnesium supplement. I suggest 400 mg twice daily of magnesium glycinate. It’s better absorbed than most, and less likely to cause side effects. Studies are mixed about the effectiveness of magnesium for preventing migraines, but even if it doesn’t help with the migraine, our diet is woefully lacking in this key mineral, and taking a supplement will support normal cell function and metabolism . Those who have menstrual migraines are more likely to get benefit from supplementing with magnesium.

The other supplement I suggest is CoQ10. This is an antioxidant that has been shown in some studies to significantly reduce the frequency of migraines . A 200 mg dose daily seems to be a good place to start. CoQ10 is especially important if you take statin drugs, as those medications reduce the amount of CoQ10 in your body.

A third supplement I suggest is riboflavin, or vitamin B2. This vitamin is commonly found in lean meat, legumes, leafy green vegetables, and dairy products. It is commonly fortified in flour and cereal products. This is an important supplement for people with autoimmune disorders because many of them are not getting enough dietary B2 because of removing gluten, dairy, and soy. It is also inhibited by antidepressants and some types of antibiotics. Riboflavin should NOT be taken if you’re undergoing cancer treatment with methotrexate, as it will make the methotrexate less effective. A dose of 400 mg of riboflavin daily was shown to reduce migraine frequency by  50%.

If you would like to start trying any of these supplements, I recommend you consult your doctor to make sure there are no adverse interactions with any of your current treatment plans.

When I speak with my clients, we go through a detailed discussion where you get to tell me about all the things going on with your health. It’s amazing to see how things like zinc deficiency can change the way that your whole body works – and finding that zinc deficiency comes from observing digestive symptoms. Sometimes, simple fixes work amazingly well and you don’t need my help to get there. Sometimes, you need a little more help.  Want to see if working with me makes sense? Connect with me today and bring your toughest migraine questions!