A bad headache can temporarily stop you in your tracks. Chronic migraines or tension headaches can be debilitating. But you don’t always have to reach for ibuprofen to get relief.
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According to integrative medicine specialist Melissa Young, MD, there are more natural ways to manage and prevent these types of headaches – therapies you can use and control outside the doctor’s office.
“From my perspective, an integrative, functional medicine approach should start with the basics,” Dr. Young says. “We need to assess diet, nutrient levels, sleep, hydration, and stress, all of which are common triggers for migraine and headache.
Here are four ways Dr. Young suggests to combat chronic migraine headaches:
1. Eat frequently
Eat small, frequent meals to keep your blood sugar stable. Dr. Young says this helps control migraines. She recommends following a mainly Mediterranean diet – one high in fruits, vegetables, beans, lean proteins, such as free-range chicken and turkey, and healthy fats, such as wild salmon, nuts and seeds and olive oil.
2. Watch for dietary triggers
Consume caffeine in moderation, including regular and decaffeinated coffee, over-the-counter medicines and prescription medications.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) commonly found in Chinese food
- Nitrates found in deli meats, pepperoni and hot dogs
- Sulfites in salad bars, wine and dried fruit
- Artificial sweeteners
Watch for any reactions to aged cheeses, fermented and pickled foods, chocolate and alcohol, which are also common dietary triggers, Dr. Young says. Your doctor may recommend a therapeutic elimination diet to determine if you have delayed food sensitivities, including gluten.
3. Get enough nutrients
Your doctor should also check for nutritional deficiencies, Dr. Young says.
“There appears to be a link between the mitochondrial energy production in your cells and migraines,” she says.
“Making sure you have the right levels of CoQ-10, riboflavin and magnesium, in particular, is helpful in the prevention and treatment of migraine.”
Dr. Young says it’s important to discuss any supplements you may take with your doctor. She may recommend a 400mg daily riboflavin (vitamin B2) dose, as well as a three 100mg CoQ-10 doses daily to reduce symptoms. She also suggests a 400mg-1,200mg magnesium glycinate daily dose.
In addition to migraines, she says, low magnesium levels can lead to constipation, muscle cramps, fibromyalgia, fatigue and anxiety.
Herbal therapies, such as butterbur and feverfew, can also help prevent migraines. For some patients, Dr. Young recommends taking 50mg-100mg twice daily with food to relax blood vessels and fight inflammation. Butterbur is also very beneficial for seasonal allergy symptoms.
She may also suggest a 100mg-150mg daily dose of feverfew, an herb that prevents blood vessel dilation to combat migraines.
Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy can trigger migraines, she says. Lifestyle measures like diet, exercise, weight loss, as well as herbs in some cases, support hormone balance and lessens this particular trigger for migraines.
4. Manage your stress
Making lifestyle changes to manage stress can also decrease the number and severity of your migraines and tension headaches.
“I teach meditation to my patients, including mindfulness and mantra meditation,” Dr. Young says. “Diaphragmatic breathing and Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breath technique are powerful tools to decreased the impact of stress on the body.
Chiropractic, acupuncture and massage therapy can also offer migraine relief. Consult with a trained integrative functional medicine physician who can create a personalized treatment plan based on your health history and a physical exam, she says.
To get the maximum benefit, find a provider who is experienced in searching for and identifying the root causes for migraines, Dr. Young says.
“From my perspective, functional integrative medicine assesses the underlying causes for each individual patient and personalized their treatment”, she says.
“There is often an underlying genetic predisposition for migraine but when we identify and treat each person’s unique environmental triggers, we see improvements in the severity and frequency of their headaches.”