Health Supplements for Migraine
Severe headaches that disrupt normal daily activities are called migraine headaches, or migraines. Unlike common tension headaches, which last for a short time and are easily relieved by rest, migraines are often disabling, especially when accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and other disturbances in perception. Migraines are more common in women, and are usually triggered by stress, noise, bright light, certain foods, certain smells, hormonal changes, and others. Scientists believe that migraines occur due to some physical and chemical changes in the brain that cause blood vessels to pulsate. Genetic factors may also be involved. However, the exact cause is unknown.
Migraines affect around 28 million Americans, some of whom experience more than four attacks in a month. A migraine attack may or may not be preceded by an “aura,” which consists of visual disturbances and eye pain. The headache usually starts as a dull ache, which gets worse within a few minutes to hours. It develops into a throbbing, pulsating, or pounding pain, which is usually worse on one side of the head. It may be accompanied by pain behind the eye or pain at the back of the neck and head. Symptoms may last for several hours or days. Other symptoms include fatigue, increased sensitivity to light and sound, sweating, loss of appetite, numbness, trouble speaking, trouble concentrating, and other disabling symptoms.
The treatment of migraine consists of treatment of symptoms and prevention of acute attacks. Medications to reduce the severity of symptoms include over-the-counter pain killers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, and prescription drugs such as antidepressants, anticonvulsants, triptans, ergotamines and blood pressure medicines. To prevent migraines, Botox injections have been used for longer-lasting treatments. Non-drug strategies to reduce the frequency of attacks include massage therapy, behavioral therapy, acupuncture, lifestyle changes, diet changes, and more.
Health Supplements for Migraine Headaches
Studies suggest that some health supplements can help reduce migraine headaches. The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) has included complementary treatments such as dietary and herbal supplements in the management of migraine headaches. These include:
- Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), which is used traditionally as a herbal remedy for many ailments, including migraines. Butterbur is considered by AAN as an “effective” remedy, and recommends it for the prevention of migraine. It is the only non-drug treatment with Level A (highest proof of evidence) ranking for effectiveness. However, it may cause allergic reactions in individuals who are sensitive to ragweed.
- Feverfew, another well-studied herb used for headaches, is ranked by the AAN as “probably effective” (Level B) and is recommended for migraine prevention. A study involving 270 people suffering from migraines in Great Britain showed that most of them (> 70%) experienced improvement after taking two to three fresh leaves of feverfew daily. Several studies using dried leaf capsules demonstrated that taking them every day may reduce the frequency of attacks in people who have chronic migraine. Other studies, which combined feverfew with other supplements, such as white willow (Salix alba), magnesium, and vitamin B2, also showed that the supplements reduced migraines. Pregnant women are warned, however, that they should not take this herb, since it may harm the fetus.
- Riboflavin and Magnesium. Vitamin B2 or riboflavin, when taken with magnesium, are ranked as “probably effective” by the AAN. Vitamin B2 is an important nutrient that participates in many bodily functions, and is generally safe to use. Studies show that riboflavin reduces the frequency and duration of migraines. The best food sources of riboflavin include whole grains, almonds, brewer’s yeast, organ meats, wheat germ, wild rice, soybeans, mushrooms, milk, eggs, yogurt, broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts. Riboflavin content of foods, however, may be lost by exposure to light, soaking in water, and frying. It may also be taken as a supplement, usually combined with other B-vitamins.
Magnesium relaxes blood vessels, which may help reduce headaches. Some studies also suggest that magnesium deficiency in many patients may be related to migraine. Magnesium has been found to prevent migraine, shorten the duration of headaches, and reduce the amount of medicines needed. Aside from riboflavin, some experts suggest using magnesium with feverfew for greater relief of headaches. Rich food sources of magnesium include legumes, tofu, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, wheat bran, soybean flour, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, black walnuts, and pine nuts.
Other herbal and dietary supplements that have been studied for migraine prevention include:
- Fish Oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, have anti-inflammatory properties, as well as nerve protecting functions. These fatty acids are found in fatty fish, such as sardines, salmon, and mackerel. They can also be obtained from plant and nut oils. Specific omega-3 compounds such as EPA and DHA can be taken as health supplements in the form of fish oil capsules.
- Ginger is an herb that can be taken even by children and pregnant women, because it has no side effects when taken in proper amounts. It can be eaten or made into tea. Studies show that taking ginger reduces pain and frequency of migraines.
- 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a by-product of the metabolism tryptophan (an essential amino acid), which one gets from food. 5-HTP is converted in the body to serotonin, a brain chemical or neurotransmitter, which helps to regulate moods and behavior, promotes sleep, improves appetite, and reduces pain sensation. Some studies suggest that taking high doses of 5-HTP may help improve migraine symptoms. However, more evidence is needed to show its effectiveness.
This information should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your health care providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health.
UMMC. Migraine. http://umm.edu/health/medical/ency/articles/migraine
UMMC. Herbs and Supplements for migraine headache. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/lookup/herbs-and-supplements-for-migraine-headache
UMMC. Migraine Headaches.http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/migraine-headaches