Posted on May 16 2022
As challenging as dealing with migraines can be, with a right nutrition plan and sustainable lifestyle changes, you can not only reduce the severity of attacks, but get rid of them all- together.
My clients are often shocked when they see an improvement in the severity of their pain within just a few weeks on making lifestyle changes.
Through this article, I intent to help you understand what some of these nutritional and lifestyle changes can be and how to overcome them.
But first, what exactly is a migraine...
Migraine can be defined as a headache which varies in intensity and is often accompanied by vomiting and sensitivity to sound and light.
However, not every headache can be a migraine. According to the International Headache Society, a patient needs to have at least five headache attacks lasting 4–72 hours and must have any of the two following characteristics:
- Unilateral location
- Pulsating quality
Severe or moderate pain intensity
The Association of Migraine Disorders has recognized migraine headache as a neurological disease. It said the symptoms of migraine are way beyond a headache. Migraines are such severe that they can impact the complete nervous system. This means patients can also experience pain in different parts of the body.
While many may think that these widespread symptoms aren't indicating a migraine attack, in reality, migraine could be the actual cause. Here are some symptoms that are quite common but aren't always associated with migraine attacks:
- Difficulty finding words
- Sinus and ear pressure
- Poor sleep
Migraine attacks are triggered by the inflammation of nerves in and around the brain. This coupled by a drop in the hormone serotonin and impulsive nerve firing of the brain cells.
So in theory, if you can control inflammation, you can control migraine attacks.
Who can get a Migraine attack?
While it is extremely difficult to predict who may get a migraine, some factors make some people more vulnerable to migraine headaches than others which are as follows:
Genetics: About 80% migraine patients also have a family member who suffers from migraine. Now I would argue here that you do take up the nutritional and lifestyle habits of your family, so genes mak=y load the gun, but eventually, it is your lifestyle and nutritional habits that pull the trigger.
Gender: Women are more prone to experience migraine headaches as compared to men. Women between the age of 15 to 55 are most vulnerable because of the influence of hormones. Once again, optimal hormonal balance can be very well achieved with a change in lifestyle.
Stress Level: Stress can often be a major cause of migraine attacks. People suffering from stress are more susceptible to migraine headaches.
Smokers: If you are a smoker, there is another reason to quit it. Smokers have a higher risk of suffering from migraine attacks than those who don't.
What does a migraine attack feel like?
A migraine attack is more severe than a normal headache. It is a neurological disease causing throbbing pain that can force you to be in bed for days.
Light, sound, motion, and other headache triggers can also cause symptoms. These include fatigue, pain, nausea, numbness tingling, visual disturbances, and temporary vision loss.
There are around 150 different headaches divided broadly into two categories. The categories are primary and secondary headaches.
For example, Migraine falls under the category of primary headache. It means that it isn't caused by any external factor or some other medical condition.
What can trigger a migraine attack?
If you are a migraine sufferer, almost anything can trigger a migraine. It means that identifying your potential trigger can be difficult.
It may also be a combination of things that trigger your migraine headaches. There are several migraine triggers, and some of the most common ones are:
Hormonal changes in women: Changes in estrogen before or during pregnancy, menstrual periods and menopause can trigger migraine headaches in women. Hormonal medications like oral contraceptives can also aid migraine attacks. If you struggle with a hormonal disorder like PCOS, it is best to work with an expert and resolve the same first to help with migraine.
Drinks: Alcoholic beverages and soda's like coke/ Pepsi are also common triggers. Excess caffeine can also cause an attack.
Stress: Stress at home, work, or both can be a major migraine trigger for vulnerable people. Developing coping mechanism techniques is a part of sustainable lifestyle changes I suggest clients to make.
Sensory stimuli: Flash or bright lights can trigger migraine headaches and loud sounds. Strong smells like perfume, secondhand smoke, paint thinner can also trigger migraine. Once again, by introducing foods that reduce inflammation can help manage even the worse kind of migraine attacks, irrespective of the number of triggers in the environment.
Sleep changes: Changes in sleeping pattern, less or more sleep can also trigger migraine. These particularly have to do with a bad circadian cycle.
Physical factors: Intense physical exertion, including heavy workouts and sexual activities, might cause migraine. When it comes to exercise, you want to only increase at an intensity of 10% per week and monitor your recovery closely.
Weather changes: Constant changes in the weather or barometric pressure can be a migraine trigger.
Medications: Oral vasodilators and contraceptives like nitroglycerin can cause migraine headaches.
Food: Certain food products like aged cheese and processed food might aggravate Migraine. Foods that lead to inflammation, including dairy products, eggs and meat must be avoided completely.
Food additives: Food additives like sweetener aspartame and preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG) present in many food items can also trigger migraine. Other artificial sweeteners might also be a trigger.
Is there a connection between diet and Migraine?
Migraine attacks can vary widely among patients. These include the associated symptoms and the intensity of the pain.
Additionally, migraine headaches are also associated with several comorbidities. These include psychiatric disorders, sleep disorders, and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.
While the migraine triggers aren't fully understood yet, there is evidence to support that dietary factors may trigger too.
Because inflammation is the root cause to migraine, introducing foods that are anti- inflammatory and anti- oxidants will instantly help you reduce the severity of an attack. on the other hand, eating foods that cause inflammation will make your attack worse.
For example, your diet may affect the modulation of neuropeptides, ion, neuroreceptors channels, and sympathetic nervous system.
Certain foods like meat, dairy, caffeine, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and cheese are common food items triggering migraine headaches. The American Migraine Foundation has identified these food items as migraine triggers in people who have regular migraine headache.
On the other hand, diet interventions like high folate diet, high omega-3, low-fat diet and low omega-6 fatty acid diets have been reported to reduce migraine attacks.
We will discuss nutritional interventions in- depth, but the important factor combining all the above factors is a whole- food plant- based nutritional approach.
Does plant-based diet help with migraine management?
A migraine is more than a headache. Migraine is a complex neurovascular disease with incapacitating symptoms. These symptoms affect one out of seven persons worldwide.
Sufferers usually are confine to bed in excruciating pain. They remain incompetent for the attack, lasting upto three days.
The good news is, researchers in BMJ Case Reports state that, a plant-based diet consisting of dark green leafy vegetables will be beneficial in alleviating migraine symptoms.
Let's explore how a plant- centric meal plan might work...
Another paper in the Journal of Headache & Pain says a plant-based diet eases migraine symptoms.
When individuals ate a plant-based diet, the severity of pain dropped. The reduction in migraine pain may attribute to the absence of inflammatory meat and dairy products.
Patients might experience instant relief in pain by just including the following:
Consuming at least five ounces of raw or cooked dark green leafy vegetables per day.
Consuming one 32-ounce green healthy smoothie per day.
Restricting oils, and animal protein, specifically coming from dairy products.
How exactly does a plant- based diet help?
For decades, scientists assumed that migraine headaches were caused by abnormal dilatation of blood vessels in the brain. However, recent research emphasizes the involvement of inflammation at the onset of a migraine.
Migraine is triggers by inflammation, a plant- based diet is naturally anti- inflammatory. It also cuts down on processed foods, and along with the same, cuts down on sugars, artificial sweeteners and processed meat/ dairy.
In fact, this paper explore that by just switching to a low- fat diet (with less that 30 grams of fat per day, the quantity found in about 2 tbsp of oil), patients experienced a reduction in symptoms, frequency and severity of headaches. This is not surprising, considering we know that saturated and trans fat is the most inflammatory food group.
A plant- based diet is naturally low in fat, thus, not only aiding in fat loss, but also reduced inflammation. Excess fat cells in the body act as a hormone making factory, pumping unwanted hormones in the body. The same acts as a trigger for an attack.
Now think about this, if you are struggling with migraines, how much fat have you had only since morning. Here are a few things that will help jog your memory:
- Eggs for breakfast.
- Ghee in your phulka's.
- Chai (yes, dairy is fat) and chakhna.
- Salad dressing with oil's, mayo and everything fat.
- Paneer and olive oil in the name of health.
All these are triggers! I am not even considering the endless spoonful's of oil on paratha, bhatura's and pakoda's.
But wait, Ghee too? Watch this:
Another reason plant- based diet's work are because they are rich in anti- oxidants.
Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants protects our body from any kind of oxidative stress, which causes inflammation. Berries and leafy green vegetables offer the most antioxidants. Make sure to also include a variety of fruits and vegetables to receive various nutrients.
Whole grains and legumes are high in vitamins and minerals. They are also high in fibre, which aids in inflammation reduction. Read the below article to understand more:
The actual cause and pathology of migraines are unknown. Therefore, researchers find it difficult to discover an effective pharmacological treatment to prevent migraine attacks.
However, following a plant based diet, getting enough sleep, exercising, and engaging in psychological interventions such as "cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, and progressive muscular relaxation" prove to be beneficial.
How do dark green leafy vegetables help with migraine management?
One of the first changes I ask my clients to make for migraine management is to introduce dark leafy green's to their diet.
There are a few ways leafy greens work in migraine management:
Leafy greens are high in magnesium. Participants experience lower pain and frequency when adding magnesium to their diet. Supplemental magnesium however does not show the same effect.
Carotenoids and beta carotene, found in leafy greens, are substances that lowers systemic inflammation and oxidative stress. Both of these have been linked to migraine.
- Compounds in leafy greens bind themselves to a migraine triggering peptide called CGRP, thus, reducing severity and frequency.
Phytonutrients present in leafy greens may also help to alleviate symptoms.
The 2019 and 2020 LIFE diet studies discovered that participants who tried the plant- based, high leafy greens approach, had lower C-reactive protein (CRP) levels. The CRP test, is a test to check the level of inflammation in the body.
The biggest take away you can take from this article, is to introduce a green smoothie as on of your meals every single day. A green soup will also work if you like in a cold area.
Note, I did not say JUICE, it has to be the smoothie with the fiber intact. Same goes foe the soup, make sure NOT to strain the soup and have it whole. Avoid over cooking greens (one reasons smoothies are preferred is because they are made of raw leafy greens).
What foods can trigger Migraine?
There are a lot of migraine triggers, including the food we eat and drink. While everyone's individual triggers can be different, there might be some universal triggers:
Coffee: Having too much caffeine or experiencing caffeine withdrawal can trigger Migraine. However, according to the American Migraine Foundation, caffeine intake occasionally can prevent oncoming migraine attacks and reduce headaches too.
Artificial sweeteners: Most processed food contains artificial sweeteners and sugar alternatives. Artificial sweeteners, and especially Aspartame, can trigger migraine episodes. Avoid using Splenda in your morning coffee and instead try going sugar- free or use a homemade date pulp with the fiber intact.
Alcohol: One of the common food items triggering migraine is alcohol.
According to research, almost 35% of migraine sufferers get migraine attacks after consuming alcohol, especially red wine. Alcohol leads to dehydration, which can be a cause of headaches.
Chocolate: The American Migraine Foundation considered chocolate one of the most common migraine triggers after alcohol. This is because chocolate contains both beta-phenylethylamine and caffeine.
Cured meats: Cured meat, including ham, deli meats, sausages and hot dogs, contain preservatives known as nitrates. The nitrate is used to preserve the flavour and colour. In some cases, these foods release nitro oxide in the bloodstream. It further dilates the blood vessels in the brain and causes migraine.
Aged cheese: They contain a substance known as tyramine, responsible for ageing the cheese. The older the cheese, the higher the level of tyramine. Tyramine is another chemical that can trigger migraine.
Fermented and pickled food: Like aged cheese, fermented and pickled food also contains high levels of tyramine. These foods include pickles, kimchi, kombucha, pickled okra, and pickled jalapeños.
Frozen foods: Consuming frozen foods and drinks like slushies or ice creams can trigger severe headaches. It, simultaneously can lead to migraine attacks. It usually happens if you eat cold food quickly when overheated or just after exercising.
What foods are good for Migraine management?
Like there are foods that trigger migraine, there are also foods that help ease migraine headaches. Following is the food item list that can help you with your chronic migraine pains:
Leafy greens: Like we read above, green leafy vegetables contain different elements contributing to headache relief. According to one study, B6, B12, and folic acid, present in leafy greens can also reduce migraine headaches.
Nuts: Nuts contain magnesium, which acts as a mild vasodilator. They also are abundant in vitamin E, which causes to a reduction in inflamation. Having almonds, walnuts, cashew nuts, and brazil nuts can be extremely helpful too.
Fruits: Fruits rich in potassium and magnesium alleviate migraine headaches. They contribute to healthy nerve functioning. Fruits like Apricots, Avocados, Bananas, Figs, Raspberries, Melon, Cantaloupe, Watermelon and Honeydew can help migraine patients with chronic migraine headaches.
Whole grains: Whole grains contain carbohydrates and amplifies glycogen in the brain. They help in relieving headaches caused by low blood sugar. Whole grains also provide many nutrients, including Vitamin E and B, iron, magnesium, coenzyme Q10 and fibre.
Hot peppers: Hot peppers have capsaicin which can numb the brain's trigeminal nerve. It also inhibits the neurotransmitter that causes migraine headaches.
- Ginger: Ginger is rich in natural oil and chemical compounds. These can help migraine sufferers from chronic migraine headaches. It increases serotonin, which in turn reduces inflammation. One double- blind study compared ginger to sumatriptan, a leading migraine management drug. Turns out, that even using less than 1/2 tsp of ginger powder at the onset of an attack worked just as well as a drug, without any side effects on the liver.
Gut-Brain Axis and Probiotics
The longest of twelve cranial nerves that connect our intestinal nervous system to the central nervous system is the vagus nerve. It connects the brain to the digestive system (CNS).
Most people think of our digestive system as a basic pipe through which our food and drink travel. But it is much more complicated than that. Scientists have, in fact, renamed the intestines "the second brain". Our digestive health is a big predictor of most diseases.
When working with clients for migraine management, the right approach would be to start from the gut. Fixing digestive health reduces inflammatory endotoxins from leaking outside the gut lining and causing more inflammation.
In a sense, you cannot really fix migraine for good till you first fix your gut health.
The most obvious link between the gut microbiome and mental health is the 'fight or flight response'. This response sends people hurrying to the bathroom in stressful situations. However, scientists now realize that there may be far broader health ramifications.
Neuroscientists are working on to establish a role for the gut microbiota in various mental health diseases, from Parkinson's disease to depression. At the same time, researchers also are looking into probiotics to help with social anxiety and other conditions. Migraine attacks are strongly linked to bad gut microbiota. Read this article to understand more:
Research also studied the possibilities of using probiotic microbes to help with depression symptoms. They invented the term "psychobiotics" in 2013 to describe a live organism that provides health benefits to individuals suffering from depressive disorders when consumed in sufficient proportions.
If you're looking for ways to help with mental health symptoms, it appears that maintaining a healthy link between our gut and brain is the key to our general sense of well-being.
Eight lifestyle changes to manage Migraine
The only way disease 'reversal' is possible is through sustainable lifestyle changes. Your current lifestyle is the reason for most of your symptoms. If you have to change the same, you will have to change your lifestyle. Here are specific tips for migraine management.
Avoid a cocktail of medication.
Medications act by blocking your pain receptors from firing up. They do not work on reducing inflammation or working on the cause for your migraine. Besides this, medications and chemicals have to be flushed out of the body by the liver. This means, the liver has to work overtime to just keep you toxin free. Overtime, all this work takes a toll on your liver health.
Get good sleep.
Your circadian cycle is strongly linked to your hormonal health, weight gain, immune system, cell and tissue growth, inflammation and much more. It is not just about getting an eight hour sleep, but to ensure you sleep and wake up as per the sun's cycle.
The circadian health is directly linked to light exposure. Thus, you want to stay away from technology a few hours before bedtime. Instead, include practices of non- doing to help you sleep better.
Working out keeps your health and your head in the right place. It is essential because exercise releases beta-endorphins. These are the feel-good hormones which are comparatively less in people with migraine. Even going for walks or working out for 20 mins can make you feel much better.
Preferable, exercise the first half of the day to sync with your circadian health.
Include leafy greens.
If there is one lifestyle change you want to start implementing right away, it is to start your day with a big glass of green smoothie. Aim to consume atleast 100- 150 grams of cooked and/ or raw leafy greens per day. Omit the use of oil's and dairy products while cooking greens.
Migraine and dehydration are connected. According to a study, migraine sufferers should drink at least 2.5 litres or 84 ounces of water to keep migraine attacks at bay.
While the exact number isn't very clear, the bottom line is that you should stay hydrated all the time. Staying hydrated is also essential to your gut health.
Watch Your Posture.
Migraine patients often have neck problems too. So maintaining a good posture is important to keep your migraine attack away. For example, your hips and shoulders should be straight when you sit. If you spend hours working on your computer, keep your screen at or a little below eye level. This way you won't have to stretch your neck.
Work with a chiropractor or physiotherapist to understand your postural balance better.
Stay in a healthy weight and body fat percentage range.
Watch the below video to understand lifestyle changes for permanent weight loss:
Overweight people are more prone to chronic Migraine. So dropping a few extra kilos will help conquer the constant migraine headaches. Additionally, you can consult a nutritionist to help you work on your weight. Switching to a whole food plant- based diet alone, without calorie counting can help you shed excess body fat.
Adopt stress management techniques.
It is best to work with an expert to understand stress management better. Everyone's coping mechanism and triggers differ when it comes to stress and thus, this part needs to be customised.
But overall, indulging in spiritual activities, making time for a hobby, becoming better at planning, spending time in the nature etc helps with stress management.
Other Migraine Prevention Tips.
You might wish to try one of these to help avoid migraines, apart from the prescription treatment:
- Tapping Meditation
Take professional advice
Reach out to a specialist if it all seems too much to take in or if you feel like you're reacting to everything you consume. A specialist can assist you in identifying your triggers so that you can begin to feel better.
Sample one day meal plan:
The sample meal plan is only to give you an idea about the type of foods to include. A nutrition plan has to be customised for individuals and one plan does not fit all size when it comes to nutrition.
Migraine attacks aren't pleasant and welcoming. Migraine patients can spend days in bed with their heads throbbing with intense pain. But as we saw, a change in nutritional habits and lifestyle is a good place to start to get ahead of your disease.
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