05/03/2011 Mind-Body Health
For many years I have suffered from migraine headaches. Sometimes I have to miss work because the pain is so debilitating. I’ve tried conventional medical treatment, but it hasn’t helped very much. I’m wondering what alternative and complementary approaches you could suggest.
The Doctors Respond
Headaches are an extremely common problem for human beings. Studies have estimated that about 90 percent of men and 95 percent of women have at least one headache each year, and in the U.S. more than 1 in 10 people experience migraine headaches. Migraine headaches are distinguished from the more common tension headache by their throbbing sensations often associated with nausea and visual disturbances.
What Triggers Migraines?
Despite their prevalence, the cause of migraines is not well understood. Current research suggests that a center in the nervous system deep in the brain stem seems to lose its equilibrium, triggering the pain and blood vessel changes. Many things can trigger a migraine, including certain foods, activities, medications, emotions, hormones, and the sensory input, such as bright lights or noise. For about one-quarter of migraine patients, eating particular food items can provoke a headache. The most common foods that have been associated with migraines include alcohol, aged cheeses, chocolate, cured meats, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and caffeine.
Addressing Underlying Imbalances
Every person has a favored physiological system that expresses the accumulation of stresses and imbalances. For some, it may be the digestive system; for others, the immune system is where the dis-ease of accumulated stresses manifests. For people with migraines, their nervous systems are vulnerable. You can use your headache as a “canary in the mine shaft.” Ask yourself, Which aspects of my life need some attention? and see what answers occur to you.
Look at your sleeping patterns, look at your diet, look at your work environment, and look at your core relationships. Make the commitment to eliminate what is not nourishing you and bring in more of what will. If you are not already meditating, we recommend that you develop a daily practice. Meditation quiets your mind and settles your body, allowing you to become less prone to the reactivity and stress that can trigger migraine headaches. Learn more about meditation here. Also be sure to get enough rest and establish a regular daily routine (early to bed, early to rise), even on the weekends.
One herb that has been scientifically studied for the treatment of migraine is feverfew (tanacetum parthenium). Feverfew was traditionally used to help normalize menstruation and facilitate childbirth, as well as to alleviate joint and muscle pains. Its name refers to its use as a fever-reducing herb. In two separate studies published in the mid-1980s, patients who took feverfew on a daily basis had significantly fewer headaches than those taking a placebo control. Feverfew can be taken in the form of capsules or brewed as a cup of tea once or twice each day. The active ingredient is a chemical called parthenolide.
Butterbur (petasites hybridus), an herb native to Europe and Asia, has been shown to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches by more than two-thirds. The ayurvedic herbs ashwagandha and brahmi have traditionally been used to balance the nervous system. They have been shown to reduce reactivity to stressful events and may raise the threshold at which the headaches you experience are triggered.
An Ayurvedic Approach
In terms of Ayurvedic medicine, migraine headaches are largely considered an imbalance in the Pitta dosha, which combines the elements of fire and water. According to Ayurveda, when too much heat builds up in the blood vessels, they can dilate and create pressure on the nervous system, leading to migraines.
Following a Pitta-pacifying diet and lifestyle may help you reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines. You can find more information on balancing Pitta here.
Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, fitness, or other health program.