One in seven people are thought to suffer from migraines, three times as many women as men
Health & Nutrition with Rosie Shelley
ONE in seven people are thought to suffer from migraines, three times as many women as men. There’s no one definitive cause, 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 60% of female sufferers, 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, fermented/cured/aged foods and even tea.
Coffee: friend and foe
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 cup or two. But research out this month shows that any more than two cups a day raises the risk of an attack, on that day, by 40% (the risk rose by a shocking 161% with five cups).
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 studies showing that sufferers are often deficient in Vitamin B2, the vitamin like compound co-enzyme Q10 (supplementation with both can halve the number of attacks), and vitamin D. A new trial suggests that taking vitamin D3 every day can also halve them. 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.
What the experts say
Headache specialist Dr Andrew Dowson says: ‘There is definitely evidence that it works as a preventative; we think the magnesium works at a cellular level, changing the metabolism within blood cells.’
He adds that it’s particularly useful for those who experience the aura symptoms of migraine (zig zag lines across the vision). Magnesium Citrate is the best absorbed version, and nutritionist Cassandra Barns says: ‘An increased magnesium uptake can reduce attacks by up to 41.6%’.
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.
Research has 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.
Dr Marilyn Glenville says that omega 3s ‘help to decrease the duration and severity of attacks.’ And happily also an excellent source of the B2, B12, and D, magnesium and calcium (and a little co-enzyme Q-10) already mentioned.
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, as is turmeric. And small amounts of seaweeds, along with the more nutritious wholegrains such as quinoa and oats, will supply many of the nutrients needed here.
An Italian study found that following a diet low in animal fats 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, herbal teas and so on, 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, reflexology or acupuncture. And Cassandra Barns concludes with ‘Migraines are often caused by a poor night’s sleep. Get to bed early.’
Best Low risk foods include: fish (especially oily); oats, quinoa, millet, rye and barley; beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas; nuts and seeds; 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, ginger and turmeric.
Best Supplements include: magnesium citrate, calcium, high strength vitamin B complex, vitamin D3, co-enzyme Q10; feverfew, ginger and (for symptoms relating to menstruation) agnus castus.