My Aching Head! The Migraine Prevention Lifestyle
I love food! Especially Filipino comfort foods which remind me of home. Unfortunately many of our recipes include a generous seasoning of MSG. I will never forget the day a delicious dish of mongo guisado (mung bean soup) landed me with one of the worst headaches of my life. It ended up being my first migraine. That was the first time I became aware of how processed food additives can trigger an aching head. Several years and migraines later, as a chiropractic student, I learned that my late night study sessions would also trigger a migraine. Luckily for me, I had a chiropractic intern that could provide me, at a moment’s notice, with a gentle upper cervical (neck) adjustment to thwart a potential attack.
I also knew I needed to supplement my chiropractic care with other lifestyle changes to manage my chronic migraines. I learned that by understanding the causes and self-managing the triggers, migraine sufferers such as myself can make great strides in the healing process.
In migraine sufferers, there is an increased sensitivity of the trigeminal pain neurons, which irritates the brainstem and instigates the headache. This irritation of nerves in the brainstem causes the “premonitory” symptoms such as nausea, vertigo, or sensitivity to light, sound or smell.
Chiropractors know that there is a neuromechanical linkage between the trigeminal nerve and the upper cervical area. Therefore when chiropractors consider a patient dealing with migraines, they look at the alignment of the upper cervical area, including the temporalmandibular joint (TMJ), to see if chronic subluxation (spinal misalignment) might be a causative factor in the increased sensitivity of this neurological loop. Although this premise is only theoretical; and in fact, the cause for migraines in research circles has yet to be convincingly revealed, several clinical trials indicate that chiropractic may indeed help treat migraines.
Possible triggers of these inflammatory conditions that create the migraine include: emotional stress, food allergen exposure, food additive exposure, alcohol, caffeine, exposures to toxic fumes such as perfume and smoke, rapid hormonal changes, excessive heat exposure, sleeping too much or too little, prescription medicines or rapid blood sugar changes such as waiting too long in between meals or binging on a sugary pastry.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
To help decrease irritation and inflammation and promote healing, identify what your specific triggers might be. Make a food/drink/chemical exposure diary, take stock of your eating frequency and your sleeping habits, and track your menstrual cycle. Visit your chiropractor (who practices an upper cervical approach) regularly to ensure continued alignment of your upper cervical spine.
The most common headache food triggers are wheat, sugar and yeast, beef, corn, oranges, avocado, banana, eggs, tea and coffee, chocolate, milk, red wine, aged cheeses, sardines, foods containing nitrates such as sausage, bacon and deli meats, foods containing artificial colors, and foods containing MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and aspartame.
You can try to self-identify triggers by avoiding the above foods, then adding them back one by one every 3 days to see whether it triggers a headache. Or you can work with your vitalistic health provider to find out your specific food allergies.
Managing an acute attack: Migraine 911
- See your chiropractor at the earliest signs of an attack.
- Try migraine homeopathics at the onset of symptoms.
- Apply heat or a take a hot bath prior to the attack to abort the headache. Or, try a cold pack (20 minutes maximum every 2 hours) to the neck and scalp during the attack while soaking your feet in a hot bath.
- Make a chrysanthemum or ginger tea. Boil 1 tbsp each of dried chrysanthemum flowers, peppermint, and decaf green tea in 3 1/2 cups water for 20 minutes. Or simmer 3 quarter size slices of fresh ginger in 2 cups of water for 30 minutes. Drink throughout the day to lessen the symptoms.
- Massage the temples in a circular motion for 5 minutes. Use thyme or rosemary oil for added relief.
- Apply steady pressure to the web between your right thumb and index finger. Hold for 2 minutes. Repeat on left hand. Continue until pain is diminished.
Create new habits
- Don’t miss meals and carry healthy snacks to keep your blood sugar levels on an even keel.
- Maintain a regular, healthy sleep pattern. Sleep before 10pm and try not to get too much or too little. Getting too little sleep during the week and then sleeping in on the weekend may trigger an attack.
- Sleep on your side using a supportive pillow, and avoid sleeping on your stomach, to maintain your upper cervical alignment.
- Breathe! Deep diaphragmatic breathing soothes the nervous system and helps release unnecessary tension in the head and neck.
Emotional balance and mindful movement
- Try reiki, meditation, yoga, tai chi and other mind-body approaches to relieve accumulated tension in the head and neck area. Ground yourself by making contact with the earth through gardening, sitting on the grass, walking on the sand, or swimming in the ocean.
- Techniques such as Neuroemotional Technique, Emotional Freedom Technique or Thought Field Therapy can help you decrease stress triggered by underlying emotional trauma.
- Maintain a posture of the head sitting squarely over the shoulders during computer use, reading, doing the crossword puzzle to avoid irritating the nerves in your upper neck and tiring your neck muscles.
- See a therapist or life coach to assist you in managing stress, worry and anxiety.
Work closely with your health provider to support your nutritional supplementation and dosing needs. Some things to consider:
- Magnesium deficiency is common among headache patients.
- Vitamin D deficiency in the US has now been called an epidemic, and vitamin D has been shown not only to help bone health, immunity and inflammation, but also to help treat and prevent migraines. Find out times the UVB rays are shining in your geographical location and get your regular dose of free Vitamin D! During the winter months, consider Vitamin D3 supplementation.
- Supplement with fish oil to help reduce the intensity, frequency and duration of migraines.
- Nutrients involved in cellular energy production have also helped in the treatment and prevention of migraines. These include Niacin, CoQ10, Riboflavin (B2), Lipoic acid, Carnitine, and Melatonin.
- It has been observed that headache patients have altered serotonin metabolism, so supplementing with 5-HTP may help increase serotonin levels naturally.
Migraines are a great way for your body to get your attention and to force you to rest and take stock of what’s not working in your life. But as you can see, there are many ways to make changes and get the support that you need from your chiropractor or other vitalistic health practitioner so that you can rebuild your resilience, adjust your thinking, and become better aligned to expressing who you are in this world.
Who knew that healing could be so transformative?
Yours in Health,
Dr. Christine T. Lipat, DC, Niu Health Chiropractic, Honolulu, HI
Murphy, “Upper Cervical Concepts,” American Journal of Clinical Chiropractic, July 2012.
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“Migraine Headache,” accessed Sept 11, 2012 Universitiy of Maryland Medical Center website.
Vasquez A. Chiropractic and Naturopathic Mastery of Common Clinical Disorders. Fort Worth, TX: Integrative and Biological Medicine Research and Consulting, LLC: 2009. Pp. 166-181.
Ni M. Secrets of Self Healing. New York, NY: Avery, 2008. Pp. 408-413.
More on alternative approaches to migraines, see Dr. Mark Hyman on symptoms and treatment.