Migraines affect an astounding 15% of the population – and despite research centres around the world being dedicated to understanding this centuries-old puzzle, far too little is known about it today.
But we know enough to be able to help manage the problem. While we take a look at its triggers, theorised causes and outcomes, let’s also explore the role nutrition plays in preventing/alleviating a migraine.
As little as we know about migraines, there’s one thing that’s been widely acknowledged: certain aspects of our lifestyle can act as triggers of migraine attacks.
These include bright lights, mental stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, and food allergies – basically anything that can cause distress can lead to a migraine.
Migraines should not be taken lightly because, over time, they may lead to permanent damage in the brain. For anyone who experiences it 8 times a month or more, it’s highly recommended that they see a doctor.1, 2
Understanding How They Occur
Many people get warning signs of an impending migraine, in the form of visual disruptions or tingling sensations called an ‘aura’. This happens because the starting point of a migraine is the sensitive membranes that cover the brain (called meninges), particularly in the visual and other sensory centres.
It is believed that migraines may be caused due to blood clots that block blood supply to parts of the brain, or by some sort of electrical disruption (of the brain waves).3 The latter seems likely because the pain starts from the back of the head and spreads like a ripple in water.
A recent theory is that it might actually be a metabolic problem, drawn by the fact that an excess number of free radicals, a by-product of metabolic processes, has been observed in the brains of migraine patients.
Albeit different in themselves, each of these possible causes would eventually lead to the same result: inflammation, which is what leads to the permanent damage.5
Interestingly, recent studies have found a link between migraines and gastrointestinal disorders.7 This could possibly be explained by a theory called the gut-brain axis, which postulates that, when our gut’s friendly bacteria can’t keep toxins from being released into the blood, these toxic substances can travel to the brain, creating problems.
Some people’s systems could go through any of the malfunctions mentioned above due to their genetics, while in others, it may simply be due to nutritional deficiencies.6 A migraine might even be a combination of all these factors, which is why the drugs targeting migraines don’t work for all cases.
All of this ambiguity makes experts believe that treatment for migraines should be multimodal: a combination of therapy, nutrition and medicine.6 While the research on drugs for migraines is currently underway,3 and may take years more to complete, several of the processes listed above can be improved with nutrition: a treatment which happens to be the only one within our reach.
Nutrition for Migraine Prevention
Here’s a list of things that have been shown to help those who suffer from migraine attacks –
1] Omega-3 fatty acids
Given the close association between migraines and inflammation, omega-3 fatty acids would definitely play a role in cutting down the frequency of attacks because of their ability to reduce chronic inflammation. Also, since an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA is used to build several structures in the brain (including the meninges, where the pain is believed to start), it can help maintain the integrity of these brain structures, which may eliminate or lessen the problem.
The role that free radicals play in the development of inflammation in the body has long been established. Plant pigments (phytonutrients) found in plant foods act as antioxidants, neutralising these free radicals.
A group of phytonutrients found in red-orange and green fruits and vegetables called carotenoids (specifically beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin) filter harmful wavelengths of light, and act as antioxidants in the eyes, potentially helping protect against light as a migraine trigger.7
This fatty acid (found in eggs, fish, chicken, milk, cauliflower and spinach) helps build the membranes of the brain and its cells.8 It is also essential for maintaining a covering on nerve fibres that allows for the efficient transmission of electrical brain signals.
4] Other Nutrients
Certain vitamins and nutrients that cells require for normal metabolic functioning have been shown to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks (although not necessarily the duration or severity).
Magnesium, for example, has been reported by some studies to have a higher deficiency in those who experience migraines. Magnesium helps relax blood vessels and is also required for cell metabolism. Supplementation with magnesium has shown to alleviate, both, the frequency and intensity of migraines.9 Other nutrients are vitamin B2, vitamin B3, coenzyme Q10, carnitine, topiramate, and lipoic acid.
However, having too many of some of these nutrients may cause undesired effects, so it’s best to consult your doctor to find out about dosage.
Certain bacteria found in food can help increase the number of good bacteria in our gut, which eventually help keep a healthy gut and, according to the gut-brain axis theory, prevent toxins from reaching the brain.10 Food with live bacteria, called ‘probiotic’ food (like yogurt), or probiotic supplements can help those who experience a migraine, if theirs is associated with gut problems.
While tacking the underlying cause of migraine-susceptibility may not be very feasible right at this moment, we can still do our part in preventing or alleviating the pain. A better diet and lifestyle is, as always, a great start to a healthier and happier frame of mind.
1. Noseda R, Burstein R. Pain 2013, 154 Suppl 1: S44-53.
2. Forde G, et al. Med Clin North Am 2016, 100(1): 117-141.
3. Russo AF. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol 2015, 55: 533-552.
4. Yorns WR, Jr., Hardison HH. Semin Pediatr Neurol 2013, 20(3): 188-193.
5. Borkum JM. Headache 2016, 56(1): 12-35.
6. Dzugan SA, Dzugan KS. Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2015, 36(5): 421-429.
7. Alvarez R, et al. Chem Rev 2014, 114(1): 1-125.
8. de Belleroche J, et al. PAIN 1985, 21(2): 205.
9. Chiu HY, et al. Pain Physician 2016, 19(1): E97-e112.
10. Arck P, et al. Experimental dermatology 2010, 19(5): 401-405.