How to tackle the issue of migraine

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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.

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