Year: 2019

Home / 2019
How to tackle the issue of migraine

How to tackle the issue of migraine

What is migraine?

This is a complex neurological condition which affects the whole body and can be both debilitating and disruptive to the day-to-day life of sufferers.  The cause is not fully understood and as of yet there is no diagnostic test of cure for the condition.

What do we know about the cause of migraine?

What we do know is that migraine starts deep in the brain and that a glitch in the release of neurotransmitters (chemical substances released at the end of a nerve fibre) set in place a chain reaction which causes a number of symptoms.  These symptoms can differ between individuals and include visual disturbances (flashing lights, blind spots in the vision, zig zag patterns and many more), nausea, vomiting, debilitating head pain, pins and needles, numbness in the limbs and even paralysis.

Key facts about migraine

  • 1 in 7 people in the UK suffer from migraine.
  • Migraine costs the UK around £2.25 billion every year.
  • The World Health Organisation has classified headache as a major health disorder and found it to be the sixth highest cause worldwide of years lost due to disability.
  • Migraine affects twice as many women as men.
  • Migraine affects people from all age groups (even young children).
  • A migraine attack can last for between 4 and 72 hours.
  • Sufferers experience an average of 13 attacks each year.

What triggers migraine?

Migraine can be triggered by many different factors and these are specific to the individual.  The onset of a migraine is normally the result of several factors which individually can be tolerated but when occur together or accumulate can pass a threshold at which an attack is triggered.

Common triggers are related to lifestyle, environment and diet.  Whilst some of these triggers are easily recognised you may be unaware of other that could be making your migraines worse.

There is no definitive list of triggers but some of the more common ones are listed below.

Emotional stress Anger Tension Worry Shock Depression
  Excitement
Physical stress Over-exertion Tiredness and fatigue Late night Irregular sleep pattern Tension
  Travel
Foods Caffeine MSG Citrus fruits Marmite Cheese
  Red wine Onions Chocolate Pork Seafood
  Wheat Aspartame
Environment Flickering lights Bright lights Loud noise Change in climate Intense smells
  Smoking Stuffy atmosphere
Hormones Menstruation Puberty Pregnancy Contraceptive pill HRT
Others Eye strain Medication Congestion Toothache

Keep a diary

Keeping a dairy can help you to identify any triggers that are causing symptoms. Once these have been identified you can start to remove them one at a time to see if there is any improvement in the intensity and frequency of your migraine.  Whilst this may seem simple, don’t be disheartened if you cannot identify any specific triggers as they are often difficult to pinpoint.

You can download a migraine diary from Migraine Action.

How does diet affect migraine?

Dietary triggers only occur in a small percentage of migraine sufferers and it’s advisable to start cutting out large swathes of food groups from your diet unnecessarily. Interestingly, sweet cravings can occur in people before the onset of migraine so don’t automatically assume that foods such as chocolate are a trigger.

What affect does blood sugar have on migraine?

It may not be what you eat but the time between meals that could be triggering your migraine as fasting (more than five hours between meals during the day or 13 hours overnight) has been identified as a major factor for sufferers.

The body uses glucose to supply energy to all the major organs including the brain whose function is impacted on when blood sugar levels are low.  One response to low blood sugar is an increase in the flow of blood to the brain, which is thought to contribute to the pain of headaches and migraine as nerve tissues become more sensitive to the dilated blood vessels.

Try to eat every 4 hours during the day and no more than 12 hours overnight.  If you have a very active lifestyle that also includes vigorous exercise, then you may want to introduce small healthy snacks between meals to account for the energy used and to help keep blood sugar levels balanced.

What should you eat to keep blood sugar levels balanced?

Plan your meals around foods rich in protein (lean meat, poultry, Quorn, tofu, beans and pulses) alongside wholegrains (brown rice, wholemeal pasta, oats, wholemeal bread), healthy fats (oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado) and plenty of vegetables.  This combination of protein, healthy fats and foods rich in fibre can help to maintain steady blood sugar levels and keep you feeling full between meals.  Try to avoid sugary snacks and drinks as these can cause rapid spikes and dips in blood sugar levels.

Are there any alternative remedies?

Herbal remedies such as Feverfew have traditionally been used to help tackle migraine as have supplements such as vitamin B2 and magnesium (low levels of which have been associated with migraine).  These offer a natural alternative that may work for some and if you want to explore these options then take for a few months to establish whether they have any effect.

Migraine can seriously impact on the day-to-day life of sufferers and whilst there is no definitive cure, there may be areas of your lifestyle that can be addressed to help tackle the condition.  There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to treating migraines as the factors that encourage the onset of an attack can differ between individuals.  Understanding what the common triggers are and taking the time to monitor your lifestyle may be a useful approach to proactively dealing with the condition.

My essential curry formula

My essential curry formula

I have been interested in food and cooking since my early teens and Indian cuisine has always been a favourite.  Early recipes involved a simple cook-in-sauce with the addition of meat and veggies.  This evolved into an exploration of ready prepared pastes and powders.  Since then I have perfected my own personal formula to make ‘curry-in-a-hurry’, whether made with meat, fish or an alternative protein such as beans, pulses, tofu, Quorn or paneer.

Health benefits of curry

Whilst some people may view curry as somewhat of an unhealthy food synonymous with boozy nights out or take-away nights in, I actually think they can be hugely healthy if prepared in the right way.  Dried spices have been shown to be beneficial to heath in many ways including their ability to help reduce inflammation.  Spices are also a rich source of minerals such as iron.  Using spices in foods such as curries also helps with the bioavailability of certain compounds found in spices – fat helps the body to absorb the active compound in turmeric called curcumin. 

(You can find out more on the health benefits of curry here

My curry preference

This is my take on what makes a good curry and once you get to grips with the formula you can whip up a curry in no time at all.  Everyone’s tastes differ but for me this basic formula works every time and delivers on what I want to get out of a curry.

My preference is a recipe that delivers on freshness and has a rich umami taste that satisfies the savoury flavour I desire from a curry.  You can enhance this richness of flavour by cooking the curry down for longer time before adding the yoghurt.

The basic elements

The basics are onion, garlic, chilli and ginger.  My favoured blend of spices is a good curry powder, ground cardamom and turmeric.  I like to add blitzed cherry tomatoes (these add to the umami flavour).  After that it’s up to you.  Chuck in a protein which may be meat, fish, beans, pulses, Quorn, tofu or paneer.  Add plenty of vegetables – those that work best for me are peppers, okra, cauliflower, potato and squash.  I like to thicken the curry with spinach and add a subtle creamy texture with Greek yoghurt.  Coriander is my herb of choice for any curry.

My fancy ingredient!

My fancy ingredient is always fresh curry leaves, which are available in larger supermarkets or health food stores.  To get the best out of curry leaves I like to fry them in oil at the very beginning of the recipe before adding the onions, garlic, chilli and ginger.  You only need to add a handful of curry leaves to a recipe and any left over can be placed in a container and frozen.

 

My basic curry formula

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 onions (peeled)

2 large garlic cloves (peeled)

250g cherry tomatoes

1 tbsp oil (light olive, coconut or groundnut)

1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin strips

1 fresh chilli (chopped)

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp ground cardamom

½ tsp turmeric

400g protein (meat, fish or veggie alternative)

500g chopped vegetables such as peppers, cauliflower, squash, sweet potato or green beans

500ml stock (meat or veggie)

100g spinach leaves

1 heaped tbsp Greek yoghurt

1 handful fresh coriander, chopped

Sea salt

 

Method

  1. Blitz the onions and garlic in a food processor. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
  2. Blitz the cherry tomatoes in the same food processor.
  3. Heat the oil in a large, deep-sided frying pan set over a medium heat.
  4. Add the onion and garlic then fry gently for 5 minutes until soft and translucent.
  5. Add the ginger and chilli then fry for a further 2 minutes.
  6. Add the processed cherry tomatoes and fry for another 3 minutes.
  7. Add the spices and cook for 2 minutes as they become fragrant.
  8. Now add your protein of choice and cook for 3 minutes, stirring regularly.
  9. Add the chopped vegetables and then pour in the stock. Cover and cook over a medium heat for 15 minutes.
  10. Remove the lid from the pan, add the spinach leaves and turn up the heat then cook for another 5 minutes to reduce down (you can decide how ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ you prefer your curry).
  11. Take the pan off the heat and stir through the yoghurt and coriander.
  12. Check for seasoning and add salt if needed.
  13. Serve with wholegrain rice, quinoa or wholemeal pitta bread.

 

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Addicted to sugar? Learn more about how you can ditch the sweet stuff!

Sugar is the villain in the world of nutrition and most significantly those added to foods, which are referred to as being ‘free’.  We all eat too much of it and it’s supposedly more addictive than class A drugs.  So, what’s the deal with sugar and how can we start to cut it out of our diet?

This month we’ve been challenged by Cancer Research UK to ditch the white stuff in the name of charity but why is it so bad for our health, how much are we eating and how can we reduce it?

What are free sugars?

Free sugars are considered to be the ‘bad guys’ and have been defined by Public Health England as all added sugars in any form which include (1):

  • All sugars naturally present in fruit and vegetable juices, purées and pastes
  • All sugars in drinks
  • All sweeteners including table sugar, honey, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup

Other sugars found naturally in foods such as whole fruits, cereals and dairy foods (not flavoured milks) are not as damaging to health.  Blood glucose levels are less affected by the sugars in these foods as their fibre, fat and protein content slows down its release into the bloodstream.  Foods containing these sugars are also much more nutritious and contain many other nutrients which are beneficial to health.

How much free sugar should we be eating?

Sugar is high on the health agenda with both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) urging us to reduce free sugars to just 5% of our daily calorie intake.  Guidance from Public Health England is to limit free sugar intake to no more than 30g (6 tsp) per day.

How much free sugar are we eating in the UK?

Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2018) have shown that most of us consume too much free sugar (2).  The greatest contributors come from the sweeteners we add to food and drinks, soft drinks and then the usual suspects of confectionary and other sweet treats.

Sugar and heart disease

The relationship between sugar and heart disease has been widely researched and a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a high-sugar diet was associated with a greater risk of dying from the condition.  Researchers not only found a strong association between sugar intake and heart disease but that the higher your intake of sugar the greater your risk of disease (3).

It’s not fully clear how sugar and heart disease are related but several indirect pathways have been implicated. The liver converts excess sugar into fat and when overloaded this may increase the likelihood of fatty liver disease, which contributes to diabetes risk (a key factor in the aetiology of heart disease).  Other risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and inflammation have also been associated with diets high in sugar (3)

Sugar and cancer?

Sugar is often talked about with respect to cancer but according to Cancer Research UK, there’s no direct link between the two.  Saying that, the two may be indirectly associated with one another, which has more to do with the impact of obesity.  An unhealthy diet, which may include an excess of sugar in the diet has the potential to cause weight gain and evidence from research has shown that being overweight or obese can increase the risk of many different types of cancer including breast, bowel, oesophageal and pancreatic (4).

Beyond smoking, obesity is one of the greatest preventable risk factors in the development of cancer.  It’s been predicted that by 2035 almost three quarters of the UK population will be overweight or obese, which may cause a further 670,000 new cases of cancer over the next 20 years.

Exactly how being overweight or obese causes cells to become cancerous is not yet fully understood but is thought to be triggered by chemical signals released from excess body fat. We need some fat for the body to function properly, but excess may be harmful as it releases hormones and growth-promoting signals in the body, which encourage inflammation and influence how often our cells divide. These changes in cell division are thought to be one of the most likely reasons why carrying excess fat increases the risk of cancer (5).

How to start cutting free sugars out of your diet

Food surveys have shown we all eat too much of the white stuff and yet most of us find it impossible to cut it out of our diet.  Ditching free sugars for good is probably an unrealistic goal for the majority of people, but this current campaign led by Cancer Research UK offers an opportunity to kick-start new eating habits and explore ways to reduce them from your diet.

Top tips to tackling sugar in your diet

Try and make simple changes to your diet that involve cutting down on the amount of free sugars you consume.  The tips below can help you to reduce the amount of free sugars in your diet and beat the cravings that act as a key barrier to change.

Understand sugar on the label

Many of the foods typically high in free sugars are obvious to spot, but a significant amount of those we consume are hidden in salad dressings, condiments, breakfast cereals, soups, cook-in-sauces and ready meals.

The front of pack labelling highlights the amount of sugar in a food product so opt for green or amber traffic lights. This labelling can be misleading as it represents all the sugars so also refer to the ingredient list.  To identify free sugars, look for anything that ends in ‘ose’ (sucrose, glucose, fructose) as well as any healthier sounding alternatives, such as raw sugar, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup.  These are all classed as free sugars.

Switch to sweet snacks lower in free-sugars

To reduce the amount of free sugar you add to food you can opt for dried fruits or homemade compotes.  If you’re looking for something sweet to snack on, then try fresh or dried fruits alone or topped onto plain yoghurt.  You can also control the amount of sugar you add to homemade fruit breads, which can be topped with nut butters.

Include plenty of protein in your diet

Protein helps to keep you feeling full and can lessen the desire to snack between meals.  Structure your meals by teaming proteins with healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), fibre (wholegrains) and plenty of vegetables.  If you need to snack between meals then something protein-based such as boiled eggs, pulse-based dips (hummus) or lean meat proteins are a great option.

Get a little spicy!

Sweet spices such as ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon can make a great substitute for sugar.  These spices can be added to hot beverages and smoothies or sprinkled over porridge and yoghurt in place of sweeteners such as sugar or honey.

Ditch sugary drinks

Soft drinks are one of the biggest contributors to sugar in the diet and even so-called health drinks can be loaded with sugar in one of its many forms.  Try flavouring sparkling water with fruits, vegetables and herbs such as lemons, limes, strawberries, mint, cucumber, rosemary, fresh ginger and basil. Herbal teas are also lovely when brewed, chilled and sweetened with a little honey.

Keep occupied

Research shows that the desire for something sweet after you have eaten is more likely to stem from habits formed during childhood as opposed to anything more biological (6). Evenings are the downfall of most people when it comes to snacking, so the first step is to keep sweet treats out of the house.  The next step is to find ways to occupy your time such as going out for a walk, doing something around the house or having a nice bath with a good book rather than flopping in front of the TV with a family pack of minstrels.  There’s some truth in the saying, “Idle hands make for the devil’s work”.

Gum

Research findings are mixed but have shown that chewing gum may help overcome sweet cravings in some people (7). Make sure you opt for sugar-free varieties!

Learn to chill

We’re more likely to seek out sweet treats and comfort foods when under stress.  Try to adopt other ways to manage your stress rather than relying on food. Magnesium helps to relax the body and can be found in foods such as nuts, seeds and even a little high-cocoa dark chocolate, which is also rich in the compounds phenylethylamine that acts as mild mood booster.

Try chromium

This mineral has been shown to help manage blood glucose (sugar) as part of something called the glucose tolerance factor (GTF).  This factor increases the effectiveness of insulin, which is a hormone that helps to control blood sugar levels by transporting glucose into cells.  Chromium also helps the body to process the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the foods we eat.  Whilst not conclusive, research has suggested that chromium supplements may help with cravings (8) and anecdotally, some people find these a useful way to reduce sugar cravings by taking with meals.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29587886
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24493081
  4. https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2017/05/15/sugar-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/obesity-fact-sheet
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17118491
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16184071