Migraine Headaches? Alternative Remedies That Have Worked for Me
If you suffer from migraine headaches, or know someone that does, hopefully my own personal experience as a migraine victim, and my list of remedies that have worked well for me, may be helpful.
First, a couple of points. Point one — Most of us that are victims of migraine headaches, and, I think, the public at large, tend to just call them "migraines". However, be aware that there are ocular migraines, referring to the eyesight "floaters" that many of us have on occasion—annoying but generally harmless transitory spots wandering through our vision (apparently they're usually caused by stray blood cells or protein coagulations). Be that as it may, migraine headaches are usually referred to as just migraines by most of us, and that's how this article uses the term.
Point two — I'm not a medical, nutritional, or therapeutic professional, so I'm just going to describe what has worked for me extremely well in controlling and apparently eliminating my migraine condition. Hopefully, my own, personal experience can be helpful to some of you that also suffer from this affliction, or will help set you out on a path to find your own solutions for managing your migraine problems. In any case, it may be useful for you to Google some of these remedies, and perhaps consult with a nutritionist or other medical professional (preferably one familiar with holistic medicine and alternative approaches).
Some migraine background
First, a little background on migraines. According to Wikipedia, migraines affect more than ten percent of people worldwide. In the USA, the figure is about 9-10%; MedicineNet gives a figure of 28 million Americans that suffer from this affliction. (about 8 million in the UK.)
Women seem to be affected at about three times the rate of men, and Wikipedia cites a "lifetime risk" for migraines at about 18% for men and 43% for women. In Europe, says Wikipedia, migraines affect 12–28% of the population at some point in many people's lives.
Wikipedia also reports that about four to five percent of children under twelve suffer from migraines. That would definitely include me; quite a few decades ago, my migraines began approximately when I was several years younger than ten. A few times, I'd get one after a movie, and as I came home on a bus, the exhaust fumes would make the migraine's nausea much worse.
MedicineNet explains that a migraine headache is a type of vascular headache, caused by vasodilatation (the enlargement of blood vessels in the brain). This in turn triggers the release of chemicals from nerve fibers that coil around the large arteries of the brain.
When these blood vessels enlarge, this stretches the nerves that coil around them and in turn causes the nerves to release chemicals. These chemicals then cause inflammation, intense pain, and further enlargement of the artery. A classic vicious cycle: the increasing enlargement of the arteries magnifies the pain.
But that's not all. As MedicineNet goes on to explain, migraine attacks "commonly activate the sympathetic nervous system in the body" — and that triggers a cascade of problems that intensify the vicious-cycle effect:
The sympathetic nervous system is often thought of as the part of the nervous system that controls primitive responses to stress and pain, the so-called "fight or flight" response, and this activation causes many of the symptoms associated with migraine attacks; for example, the increased sympathetic nervous activity in the intestine causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The implications of this are not pleasant. As MedicineNet further explains. All that sympathetic nervous system activity impedes your stomach from emptying into your small intestine, "and thereby prevents oral medications from entering the intestine and being absorbed. ... The impaired absorption of oral medications is a common reason for the ineffectiveness of medications taken to treat migraine headaches."
So you can't take oral medication to relieve the headache — very little will be absorbed, and, from my experience, the meds just make you more nauseous!
There are other results from sympathetic nervous response as well. Blood circulation is impaired, causing very pallid skin and making your hands and feet cold (you tend to stay under covers and shiver).
Now, it's good to know these physiological details, I think, because if your brain understands what's happening, it can (probably subconsciously) play some role in helping your own body deal with the problem. More on that in a bit...
The intensified sympathetic nervous system activity also contributes to painful sensitivity to light (and sound, to some extent), plus blurred vision (but with almost any light tending to seem blinding, you generally just want to keep your eyes shut, anyway).
My own migraine ordeal
A phenomenon called aura (involving effects such as vision distortion, odd smells, etc.) often precedes the onset of migraine pain and nausea. For me, pre-migraine aura usually took the form of sparkling light effects—I'd be looking off in the distance and see what appeared to be little sparklers in the sky, sort of like fireworks.
Quickly I got to know that I'd better rush home and load up on the strongest pain medication I had on hand—not that it would do me much good. I'd then slap a cold rag over my eyes and lie down as the pain began to mount in my head.
This pain would, of course, reach excruciating levels, and stay that way for hours, subsiding to merely unbearably painful for a while, then intensifying again, in cycles. Often it would feel as if a sledgehammer were being pounded against my brain from inside my skull; or perhaps as if someone were driving a nail into my skull, either through my forehead or the side of my head. Perhaps the pain would vary, back and forth between sledge-hammering and nail-driving. Meanwhile, I would be terribly nauseous, but the convulsions of vomiting would only make it all much worse.
If this sounds akin to torture, it definitely is. On occasions, at the height of an attack, I would start thinking that death had to be preferable to this intense physical misery.
And this would go on often for several days at a time—all day, then all night, then all the next day and night, and so on. I was starting to average a migraine (one-day or multi-day variety) about once a week. Needless to say, my work productivity was plummeting.
Remedies that have worked for me
Obviously, something dramatically different had to be tried. I needed to regain control of my life.
A close friend insisted I explore other potential solutions to seize control of my problem, rather than my familiar approach based just on (futile) pain medication. I should point out that this was in the early 1980s, before the Internet. So, rather than being able to search online, one had to just bumble along through trial and error to find solutions and remedies for medical and similar problems.
So here are some remedies that have been particularly successful for me. Only one of them does involve pain medication, but that's something I just happened to discover (nevertheless it seemed to work, so I'm including it here).
• Biofeedback — A turning point occurred when my friend recommended this therapy. This was the first "alternative" therapy I tried ... and it has worked. At last I was able to take control of my problem. The Relieve-Migraine-Headache website has a helpful definition:
Biofeedback is a way to learn how to control things that your body normally does automatically, such as heart rate, muscle tension, breathing patterns and skin temperature. Often this is done using an electronic device that measures your success .... A device is often hooked up to your skin to measure changes in your pulse or other patterns. With the help of your therapist, and these measurements, you will learn how to control these functions to some extent.
This is basically how I received the therapy, which focused on teaching me how to control both skin temperature and blood pressure. Why skin temperature? The idea is to redirect blood flow away from that over-dilated vascular system in your skull (see earlier explanation), and over to your extremities, such as hands and feet, thus relieving the pressure on your brain. Blood pressure is also implicated in stress, and lowering it thus helps in migraine relief.
And learning to reduce your blood pressure is a good thing in itself, of course—especially if, like me, you also have concerns about heart disease.
Away from the therapy couch, I didn't have the biofeedback electrodes and monitors, of course, but I used a small digital thermometer monitor temperature in, say, my hand—the goal being to raise the temperature there and, hopefully, lower it in my brain, by diverting blood flow.
I found that biofeedback, just used routinely, is a way of alleviating ongoing stress and thus reducing one of the major migraine triggers. However, I found that, even at the onset of a migraine event, I could also use the technique of manipulating my own blood flow to reduce the severity of the episode. In other words, biofeedback taught me how to divert some of my blood away from dilating the vascular system in my skull, and into other, harmless places like my fingers (which would get slightly warmer). Amazing!
• DL Phenylalanine (DLPA) — Commonly labeled as DLPA, this nutrient is a 50-50 blend of the D and L forms of this essential amino acid (amino acids, of course, are the "building blocks" of protein). As the SmartBodyz Nutrition website explains, "The structure of the D form is used to help combat pain. The structure of the L form is used as a stimulant, appetite suppressant, and mood enhancer."
According to the Relieve-Migraine-Headache website, DLPA has recently been receiving attention among medical professionals for its ability to mitigate chronic pain and depression. Specifically, it appears, what DLPA does is to stimulate the production of endorphins—neurotransmitters found in your brain. The website describes these as "your body's natural painkillers that work similar to morphine or codeine."
A neurotransmitter called norepinephrine (a form of adrenaline in our brains) tends to be depleted by factors such as stress, pollution, excessive caffeine, nicotine, and even certain drugs, recounts SmartBodyz Nutrition. DLPA helps to replenish norepinephrine, as well as dopamine, another important neurotransmitter.
I take DLPA (500 mg) daily as a preventive measure—it's not intended to help you much after the onset of a migraine attack. SmartBodyz Nutrition (and other nutritional experts) note that DLPA competes with other amino acids, which must be able to pass through the stomach and blood-brain barrier without competition. (The blood-brain barrier is created by the very tiny diameter of the capillaries servicing the brain, thus constraining agents such as nutrients trying to flow through.)
Generally, experts recommend taking DLPA on an empty stomach (or at least not with food), about 15-20 minutes before eating. I definitely avoid taking DLPA with other amino acids, so that it can be effectively absorbed..
SmartBodyz also recommends that you should have "significant amounts" of vitamin B-6 and vitamin C in your bloodstream in order for DLPA to be most effective. The website recommends a daily dosage of 150-200 mg of Vitamin B-6 and 3,000-4,000 mg of vitamin C throughout the day. (I routinely take 2,000 mg of vitamin C per day, but not just because of DLPA; it's also essential to enhance immune function — but that's a story for another time.)
• Migraleve — This medication package, produced by Pfizer, was introduced to me back in the 1980s by a very kind chemist (pharmacist) in London when I found myself suddenly overcome by a migraine attack and had lurched desperately into the chemist's shop/pharmacy. Migraleve consists of two portions, yellow and pink, which, according to Wikipedia, both contain the analgesics paracetamol and codeine. "The yellow variant is designed to address the symptoms of headache and discomfort, whilst the pink variant also addresses symptoms of nausea and vomiting."
Migraleve is definitely intended to be taken at the earliest onset of migraine symptoms, hopefully to prevent a full attack. One is supposed to take the pink tablet before the yellow tablet.
In other words, the pink version suppresses nausea, preparing your stomach so it can effectively process and absorb the yellow version, which delivers the full measure of pain medication. Thus Migraleve, for me, represented a major breakthrough compared with my previous practice of just trying to hold down and absorb strong pain tablets.
Recently, reports the Wikipedia entry, "a third Migraleve variant was released, Migraleve Ultra, which contains sumatriptan." I've long since ceased to need Migraleve, and so I've never tried the Ultra version. While Migraleve is available OTC (over-the-counter, i.e., non-prescription) in the UK, I haven't been able to ascertain its availability in the USA.
As the preventive measures (especially the blood-flow-manipulation techniques I learned from biofeedback, and the onging daily use of DLPA) gradually diminished the recurrence of migraine attacks, I was eventually able to phase out the actual use of Migraleve. However, on now very rare occasions I'm susceptible to severe tension or cluster headaches, and in those instances I typically take a mega-dose of ibuprofen, and extremely rarely, perhaps hydrocodone.
I get such headaches now at most only about 2-3 times a year, and a more severe one perhaps once in several years. However, they're far shorter in duration and of much less intensity than migraines. At least having Migraleve or one of these other medications on hand (even if I don't need to take them) as a fallback provides a kind of psychological therapy that helps in relieving these more minor headaches.
It should be noted that there is now a wide array of migraine medications available in the U.S. (see for example the handy listing on the WebMD website). Unfortunately, the vast majority of these require a medical professional's prescription; very few are OTC.
• Lifestyle modification — My litany of remedies would be incomplete if I didn't mention the lifestyle alterations that have also helped me in virtually eliminating migraine events. Intense hunger is a trigger, so I've had to adjust to carrying around some kind of reasonably healthy nibble food (such as nuts) when I'm on the move, and eating healthy snacks when at home. In compensation, I'm not as ravenous at mealtime, so I've been able to substantially reduce my food portions. Thirst is also a trigger, so I carry water bottles around with me. I should note here that nuts, including peanuts, act as migraine trigger foods for some victims, but fortunately not for me.
Drowsiness is also a major trigger, so I've tried to arrange my lifestyle as much as possible to accommodate brief "power naps". Naturally, I also try to get adequate sleep at night (but this can often be difficult).
I do have to be a lot more careful than the average person to avoid even very mild headaches, because these can morph into a far worse and more painful attack (and there's always the threat of migraine recurrence). So I tend to take small amounts of OTC analgesics on average a few times a week, usually in the evening (ibuprofen or naproxen sodium work well for me) if I sense a very mild headache or even a pre-headache condition.
Migraines will be overcome
Migraines attack their victims in many different ways, and every individual's triggers, symptoms, response, and remedies will be unique. Hopefully, some of my experience will be helpful for some of you who suffer from this debilitating affliction.
Advances are, of course, being made. New medications are available that are inhaled as nasal sprays, thus circumventing that vicious nausea dilemma. More effective new agents for combating migraines, including in terms of prevention, continue to emerge.
Also, additional alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, and the use of the nutritional supplement CoQ10 (which I also take daily), are worth investigating. In an article titled A Better Route to Migraine Relief Dr. Andrew Weil discusses a variety of alternative therapies. Alternatives are also discussed at the Complementary and Alternative Therapies website.
For fellow migraine victims, my advice is: Hang in there. Your own effective remedies are almost certainly out there ... you just need to find what will work for you. In any case, I hope my own experience will help renew your hope and your efforts to conquer your own migraine problems.