When your migraine prescription fails, what can you do about your disabling migraine attacks? Here are 6 natural migraine treatments that will help you prevent more attacks and reduce the number of migraines you get without needing a prescription.
The best thing about these treatments is the side effects are usually minimal and most of these can be taken to complement your existing prescription(s), unlike strong medications.
It’s important to note that each individual is different, so ensure you speak with your medical professional before making any changes to your migraine treatment regime. Sources are numbered at the end of the article and referenced throughout the article as (1), (2) etc.
Why it works: we are only scraping the surface on benefits of exercise for the body and, in particular, for the brain.
What we do know is that exercise releases endorphins which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. These are neurotransmitters and they are surprisingly potent.
It may not be new news to you that endorphins are released when exercising. But did you know that endorphins are also an endogenous opioid? That means they are a naturally originating opioid that is spread around the brain, as nature intended, after exercise. These opioids make you feel good and reduce the sensation of pain.
Other man-made opioids are Morphine and Codeine which can easily lead to medication overuse or withdrawal headaches if not used in moderation. These may be prescribed to those with migraine who aren’t responding to first-line treatment options.
Results: A study of over 46,000 participants found that low levels of physical activity were associated with a higher prevalence of migraine headache. There was also a strong correlation between the level of inactivity and migraine frequency. (1)
Another study compared exercise to one of the most commonly used preventative migraine drugs (topiramate). Participants were divided into 3 groups:
- Exercised for 40 mins, 3 times a week.
- Another group was prescribed topiramate.
- Another group took relaxation training.
The results found that all 3 treatments were equally effective. Only topiramate caused side effects in 33% of patients. (2)
Interestingly exercise and relaxation training are natural alternatives freely available to a migraine patient.
2) Meditation/ Relaxation Training
Why it works: I can hear a groan already. Yes, I know what you may be thinking. I thought the same thing too.
I remember thinking to myself how is “thinking happy thoughts or behaving like a Buddhist monk going to help migraine attacks?”
For thousands of years meditators have claimed surprising benefits from their practice. Again modern medicine is still playing catchup and new benefits are being revealed all the time from scientists studying meditation.
Migraines are intimately linked to our nervous system. The nervous system is a network of cells and fibres in our body which communicate via nerve signals to other part of the body. Our central nervous system is the part which looks after the brain and spinal cord. (3)
In migraine, it is thought that a disorder in our nervous system causes hypersensitivity to otherwise normal stimuli. (3)
Meditation soothes our nervous system. According to neuroscientists, as you continue to meditate your brain changes physically. Using brain imaging, they’ve observed undeniable changes in the brain. Studies from Stanford (4) and Harvard (5) showed that meditators had greater control over emotions, lowered stress levels and higher neuron activity in the prefrontal cortex.
This is only the beginning. In addition to migraines and stress, other studies found significant improvements to:
- anxiety (6)
- depression (6)
- focus (7)
- creativity (8)
- relationships (9)
Results: A single intervention of meditation treatment delivered a 33% decrease in pain and 43% in emotional tension. (10) Another randomized controlled trial for meditation in migraine found significant improvements in disability and other measures.
In the previously mentioned study from exercise, patients who underwent relaxation training found the result as effective as one of the most commonly prescribed preventative medications – topiramate (2).
Why it works: Magnesium deficiencies can be caused by a range of factors including:
- low dietary intake
- genetic absorption & renal excretion
- gastro-intestinal disorders (IBS, colitis, celiac etc)
- chronic illness
You might have already noticed that many of these factors are involved in migraine. It’s perhaps not surprising that this may be significant in migraine prevention.
The best way to test if magnesium helps you or not is to try it. Dr. Mauskop from the New York Headache Centre suggests starting with 400mg of chelated magnesium (diglycinate, aspartate etc.) or magnesium oxide. Once per day. If ineffective then he suggests taking another dose at night time or even taking 3 doses throughout the day. But always with food.
Results: Low brain magnesium levels are found in people who are having a migraine. (12)
A separate double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that those taking a high dose of magnesium each day (600mg of water-soluble granular powder) for the study period had a 52% reduction in migraine frequency after 2 months. This was 30% above the placebo group. (13)
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Why it works: Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) is an essential vitamin involved in many different biological processes and is essential for maintaining good health.
In relation to migraine it is thought that those with migraine have low brain energy levels caused by a deficit in mitochondrial energy metabolism. (14) Those with migraine have shown decreased brain mitochondrial energy reserves between attacks. (14)
Increasing Riboflavin through diet or supplementation can enhance mitochondrial energy efficiency.
Results: A randomized control trial of Riboflavin compared 3 months of 400mg a day to a placebo. The results found that the number of people whose migraine frequency reduced by half was 15% in the placebo group and an impressive 59% in the Riboflavin group. (14)
Another separate study compared Riboflavin to other abortive treatments and found that Riboflavin was effective in migraine prevention with a significant number of patients experiencing a 50% reduction in headache frequency. (15)
5) Addressing headache-causing genetic mutations
Why it works: A gene called the MTHFR (C677T) has been found to be a genetic risk factor for migraine.
Migraineurs are twice as likely to have the homozygous mutation than the general population. Within migraineurs, the frequency of the genetic mutation for those had migraine with aura was 4 times higher than the general population (40.9% versus 9.6%). (16)
Elevated homocysteine levels were also found to be significant in those who had the mutation. A simple blood test for the MTHFR genes can tell an individual whether this genetic mutation is present or not.
Results: In individuals where the genetic mutation was present daily supplementation for 6 months reduced homocysteine levels by 39%, prevalence of disability from 60% to 30% and reduced headache frequency and pain severity. (18)
Daily dosage was:
- 2mg of folic acid
- 25mg Vitamin B6
- 400mcg of Vitamin 12
Note: In some cases people may have trouble converting folic acid into its usable form – a process called methylation. You may consider getting tested as folic acid can accumulate in the body. To avoid this, supplements that have methylated folate in it help do what the body can’t on its own.
Why it works: The efficacy of acupuncture for migraine has been debated for years but the fact of the matter is it does help, scientists just aren’t how.
From personal experience, taking 30-60 minutes out to lie down in a quiet, calming environment with mild scents and music to relax every inch of your body is a good thing for migraineurs.
The exact science of acupuncture is yet to be proven for migraines, but practitioners claim a wide range of benefits involving thin needles placed at specific body sites. They claim that by targeting these sites they are able to clear energy blockages and encourage the normal flow of Qi (energy) through an individual.
Results: There are at least 22 trials have investigated acupuncture in treating migraine headache. 6 trials have looked at adding acupuncture to an existing treatment regime. The findings showed those who had acupuncture had significantly fewer headaches. (19)
14 trials compared true acupuncture to placebo or fake acupuncture treatments where needles were inserted superficially and did not penetrate the skin or at incorrect points. In these trials both groups had fewer headaches than before treatment, but there was no difference between the effects of these two treatments. Strange but true.
In 4 trials where acupuncture was compared to a proven medicinal treatment, participants receiving the acupuncture treatment reported a noticeable improvement in their condition and fewer side effects. (19)
These 6 treatments are great options for anyone not getting results with their current medicinal treatment.
With medical supervision these treatments can be combined to help deliver a powerful treatment strategy to help prevent future migraine attacks. They can generally be taken even whilst continuing your medicinal treatment, but it’s a good idea to check first with a health professional who knows your history.
In reality it is unlikely you’ll find one single silver bullet treatment that dramatically reduces your migraines. Instead, combine several of these options into your treatment strategy to help tip the scales in your favor.
Questions or comments? Let me know in the comments section below.
Get a list of 11 natural and proven treatments from medically published studies sent to you.
1) Varkey, Emma, et al. “Physical activity and headache: results from the Nord‐Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT).” Cephalalgia 28.12 (2008): 1292-1297.
2) Varkey, Emma, et al. “Exercise as migraine prophylaxis: a randomized study using relaxation and topiramate as controls.” Cephalalgia 31.14 (2011): 1428-1438.
3) Peroutka, Stephen J. “Migraine: a chronic sympathetic nervous system disorder.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 44.1 (2004): 53-64.
4) Goldin, P. & Gross, J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion. 10, 1. 83-91.
5) Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. & Lazar, S. (2011) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Neuroimaging. 191. 36-43.
6)Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L. G., Fletcher, K., Pbert, L., Lenderking, W. & Santorelli, S. (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry. 149. 936-943.
7) Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion. 10, 1. 54-64.
8) Greenberg, J., Reiner, K. & Meiran, N. (2012). “Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. 7, 5.
9) Barnes, S. et al., (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 33, 4. 482-500.
10) Tonelli, Makenzie E., and Amy B. Wachholtz. “Meditation-based treatment yielding immediate relief for meditation-naïve migraineurs.” Pain Management Nursing 15.1 (2014): 36-40.
11) Wells, Rebecca Erwin, et al. “Meditation for migraines: a pilot randomized controlled trial.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 54.9 (2014): 1484-1495.
12) Ramadan, N. M., et al. “Low brain magnesium in migraine.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 29.7 (1989): 416-419.
13) Peikert, A., C. Wilimzig, and R. Köhne-Volland. “Prophylaxis of migraine with oral magnesium: results from a prospective, multi-center, placebo-controlled and double-blind randomized study.” Cephalalgia 16.4 (1996): 257-263.
14) Schoenen, Jean, Jean Jacquy, and M. Lenaerts. “Effectiveness of high‐dose riboflavin in migraine prophylaxis A randomized controlled trial.” Neurology 50.2 (1998): 466-470.
15) Boehnke, C., et al. “High‐dose riboflavin treatment is efficacious in migraine prophylaxis: an open study in a tertiary care centre.” European Journal of Neurology 11.7 (2004): 475-477.
16) Kowa, Hisanori, et al. “The homozygous C677T mutation in the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene is a genetic risk factor for migraine.” American journal of medical genetics 96.6 (2000): 762-764.
17) Lea, Rod, et al. “The effects of vitamin supplementation and MTHFR (C677T) genotype on homocysteine-lowering and migraine disability.” Pharmacogenetics and genomics 19.6 (2009): 422-428.
18) Lea, Rod, et al. “The effects of vitamin supplementation and MTHFR (C677T) genotype on homocysteine-lowering and migraine disability.” Pharmacogenetics and genomics 19.6 (2009): 422-428.
19) Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Manheimer E, Vickers A, White AR. “Acupuncture For Migraine Prophylaxis”. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD001218. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub2