TOMORROW marks the beginning of Migraine Awareness Week, bringing our attention to a condition that affects between twelve and seventeen percent of people here, with women being three times as likely to be diagnosed as men. And autumn brings fluctuations in air pressure, which migraine sufferers are especially sensitive to.
There’s no one definitive cause for migraine, though there are often environmental or lifestyle triggers such as upset eating or sleeping routines, shock or excitement, travel or weather changes. Central triggers are stress, hormonal imbalance, dietary factors, blood sugar imbalance and dehydration.
This being an inflammatory condition, excess body fat (which creates inflammation) will exacerbate attacks. Hormonal factors are reported by around fifty percent of females, with symptoms worsening as oestrogen levels drop and inflammatory prostaglandins are released before menstruation and also at peri-menopause and menopause. In better news, female sufferers are 25% less likely to develop breast cancer, and in both sexes the attacks usually taper off with age.
Some experts continue to feel that the idea of food triggers is unfounded, but at least half of all patients would disagree with them. The fact that they are so individualised means that a comprehensive list would be impossible, but common culprits include additives (especially MSG and artificial sweeteners), dairy (especially cheese), chocolate, alcohol (especially red wine), vinegar, sugar and white grains, wheat, corn, onions, soya, pork, poultry, eggs, citrus fruits, dried fruits, avocadoes, tomatoes, bananas, broad beans, nuts and seeds, fermented-cured-aged foods and even tea.
Coffee can be a trigger for some, but others find it provides immediate relief. It may well be that if you’re a habitual coffee drinker, then going without will trigger a migraine which will be relieved by a strong cup or two. The best plan is to keep a detailed diary, recording symptoms alongside your cycle, everything you ate and drank, took and did.
Avoiding food triggers has been variously shown to be effective in anything from 30% to 90% of cases but as ever, don’t cut out whole food groups without the supervision of a qualified professional.
The latest research has been focusing on the role of various nutrients, with a study out this June suggesting that sufferers are often deficient in Vitamins D and B2, and the vitamin like compound co-enzyme Q10. Other studies have shown marked deficiencies in crucial magnesium, which regulates stress hormones and all hormones, relaxes blood vessels and maintains their tone, and helps balance blood sugar and levels of serotonin, the feelgood brain chemical.
Interestingly feverfew, the herb that has long been used for migraines and has now been shown to be effective as a preventative measure, also has the ability to regulate serotonin levels.
And also interesting, to me, is further research showing deficiencies in vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid; these just happen to be the very vitamins used to lower levels of a compound in the body called homocysteine--scientists are only now beginning to look at the link.
Supplementation with vitamin B2 can cut the number of attacks in half, as can taking co-enzyme Q-10. Good results have also come from calcium and vitamin D, both of which work together with magnesium. A study out last year concluded that the most helpful diet is plant-based, but including oily fish, which is of course the best source of potently anti-inflammatory omega-3. And happily also an excellent source of the B2, B12, and D, magnesium and calcium (and a little co-enzyme Q-10) already mentioned.
If you’re not eating much animal produce, my feeling is that you really need to eat fish and take a vitamin B12 supplement, which is simply only accessible from animal products. Furthermore, fish is a great source of tryptophan, which is converted in the body into serotonin.
Ginger is another powerful anti-inflammatory, which will also help with nausea. And seaweeds, along with the more nutritious wholegrains such as quinoa and oats, will supply many of the nutrients needed here.
A recent Italian study found that following a low fat diet (no longer advised for those who don’t have migraines) can halve the number of attacks, and lessen the pain of attacks. Probably because animal fats have a pro-inflammatory action, while the fibre in plant foods expels excess hormones and has been proven useful.
Since blood sugar imbalances are so often a trigger, eat protein with every meal and avoid sugars and other refined/white carbohydrates (which also use up existing stores of vital nutrients). It’s important to get plenty of water, enough sleep and some gentle exercise. It helps relieve that central issue of stress, and the endorphins it releases are nature’s own painkillers and anti-depressants—which may be why 50% of women find sex or orgasm very helpful.
Something like yoga would be a really good option, while many people swear by massage, biofeedback, reflexology or acupuncture.
•The Migraine Association of Ireland is at www.migraine.ie. Helpline 1850 200 378.
Low risk Foods
Best Low risk foods include : fish (especially oily); oats, quinoa, millet, rye and barley; beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas; all green veg (especially broccoli and brussels sprouts), asparagus, yellow and orange veg and fruit (except citrus, apple and banana), potatoes and all root veg.
Best Supplements include : magnesium, calcium, high strength vitamin B complex, vitamin D, omega-3 (if you can’t eat oily fish), co-enzyme Q10; feverfew, ginger and (for symptoms relating to menstruation) agnus castus.