Its estimated that roughly 5 million Canadians suffer from migraines, with almost 3% of the adult population experiencing chronic migraines. Headaches and migraines will be different from person to person in their severity, the frequency, and the amount of debility each person will experience. Some will face severe pain infrequently while for others, it is a common and very painful reality.
The Common Headache vs Migraine
Tension headaches are the most common. These types of headaches are not always caused by stress, and generally affect adults and teens. They are hardly ever seen in children. The symptoms can include muscle tightness in the scalp, head, or neck, which is unpleasant and usually painful. These headaches can come on at any time and can be caused by such things as clenching the jaw, poor posture, or a hormonal imbalance. Although there is no specific cause linked to tension headaches, it is thought to happen because of an imbalance of specific chemicals in the brain. Most tension headaches happen in the middle of the day for a short length of time, lasting at most for a few days, and can happen when your blood sugar crashes or you skip meals, not getting enough sleep, spikes in your blood pressure, and of course from stress.
A migraine is described as a chronic and recurring headache that usually happens on one side of a person’s head or face and is recognized by its throbbing pain. Migraines usually start with a pounding, nausea and vomiting-inducing headache that sees the patient retreat to a darkened, quiet room to ride it out. Combined with other symptoms such as blurred vision, sensory disturbances, dizziness and lightheadedness, a migraine can be fully debilitating to the sufferer. A migraine is considered a severe neurological condition and affects close to 1 billion people throughout the world. These headaches are viewed as the third most prevalent illness worldwide. Migraines are diagnosed by looking at a list of factors, can vary in their severity, and can last from hours to days. These headaches are thought to be caused by the interaction of the brain stem and the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve is the largest and most complex of the 12 cranial nerves and is responsible for sensations to the face, mucous membranes, and other structures of the head. Migraine triggers can include things as caffeine, drug interactions, food intolerances, additives or colours, changes in sleep patterns, or pollens and other environmental effects.
Suggestions for Managing Headaches and Migraine
- A lot of headaches can be managed with relaxation practices including yoga or meditation- both of which are great for calming and relaxing the mind! Massage therapy and acupuncture can also be great choices for helping to minimize headaches and prevent them from recurring
- Food additives like MSG, sodium, caffeine, colour additives, and alcohol can all trigger headaches. An elimination diet can help you discover which of them are potential sources of your migraines.
- Adding a fish oil supplement daily can help to reduce chronic inflammation and lower the number of headaches you may experience.
- A good quality probiotic is great for improving gut flora and reduce inflammation.
- Consider adding a B complex to your supplement regime. Many B vitamins are involved in the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which may be inadequate in people who suffer from migraines. Many of us come up short on one or more of the B vitamins because of the standard American diet, and this can result in harmful effects on the adrenals, noticeable slumps in energy, brain fog and headache symptoms.
- Many people are also deficient in magnesium and find relief from the severity of their migraines by adding a supplement to help relax their muscles. Magnesium may prevent the messages from your brain that produce the visual and sensory changes that are common when you suffer from a headache, especially a migraine. Magnesium can also work to block the pain-transmitting chemicals in the brain, and is much safer than a pharmaceutical painkiller.
- Drink enough water! Make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day. You can add herbal teas (nettle or lemon balm are great choices!) to help you hit your daily requirements with the added flavour and benefits!
- Find the right amount of sleep that works for you – your body needs proper rest but too much can actually cause headaches, so finding the balance is key.
- If you suffer from frequent headaches, it can be a great idea to keep a headache journal to help with identifying the type of headaches you experience and how you can best approach their management. This is especially important when dealing with more chronic or recurring migraines.
Botanicals for Headache Relief
When I see migraine sufferers in my clinic, it’s a sign to me that there’s more to explore. I need to take a deeper look and determine if what’s causing the headache is hormonal, nutritional, emotional, environmental or behavioral. Herbal migraine relief treatments are great for addressing the underlying cause instead of just treating the symptoms. Here are a few of the herbs I like to use for headache relief:
Butterbur, Petasites hybridus
Butterbur is a perennial shrub found in Europe as well as parts of Asia and North America, whose traditional uses were pain relief and headache prevention. Recent research studies suggest the anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory, or blood vessel opening, properties of butterbur are what make it useful in migraine treatment. Butterbur has been found to relax the blood vessels in the brain and works as a natural beta-blocker to encourage normal blood flow (a beta-blocker will prevent the stimulation of the receptors responsible for increased cardiac action and they are used to control heart rhythm, treat angina, and reduce high blood pressure). Raw, unprocessed butterbur should not be used since it contains liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (which are toxic and can cause lesions in the liver and kidneys as well as ulcerations in the digestive tract or lungs), therefore only use the extract of the root, processed to remove any toxicity. Most often Butterbur comes in capsule form.
Feverfew, Tanacetum parthenium
Possibly the most noted herb and longstanding headache remedy is the European plant Feverfew, also called wild chamomile. This plant is well known to herbalists but has also been accepted for migraine relief by conventional medicine as well. Feverfew is a flowering plant and a member of the Asteraceae family. In herbal preparations, the leaves are used and the plant is known to have vasodilator, emmenagogue (stimulates or increases menstrual flow), and bitter actions. The word feverfew derives from the Latin word febrifugia, or “fever reducer”. It has both analgesic and anti-inflammatory attributes and a slight tranquilizing effect. Feverfew can be taken in capsule form or used dried or fresh in tinctures or teas (although it does have a bitter taste).
Ginger, Zingiber officinale
This herb is a great remedy for instant relief. Ginger is practically a natural pharmacy of its own. Ginger root has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, decreases nausea, calms an upset stomach, and helps with digestion. Ginger has more than 200 substances in its oils, which is why it has so many different uses! Ginger is thought to block prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are one of many hormone-like substances that take part in various functions in the body- including the contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle, the dilation and constriction of blood vessels, control of blood pressure, modulation of inflammation, and impact on some hormones.
The ability of ginger to block the actions of prostaglandins makes it a great choice for preventing or halting migraines. At the first sign of a headache, steep ginger root for a strong tea!
Basil, Ocimum basilicum
An easy-to-grow annual herb, it works as a muscle relaxant making it especially helpful for headaches from tight muscles and tension. Basil is considered a warming herb that helps to promote body processes, as well as providing an analgesic effect to help relieve pain. For mild headaches you can simply chew a few fresh leaves or massage the oil into the temples. For tension headaches, try a tea brewed from fresh basil leaves twice per day.
Catnip, Nepeta cataria
Although entirely intoxicating to my cat, in us humans it is a calming herb that is used to soothe the nerves. The flowering top of this member of the mint family is another great headache remedy. Taken in tea form, catnip is a mild sedative that has been used in traditional herbal medicine for hundreds of years. It has anti-inflammatory characteristics that help reduce stress and anxiety, often the cause of migraine headaches. The (diluted) essential oil or a leaf salve can be used topically on the temples. Use with caution if pregnant.
Peppermint, Mentha piperita
Peppermint is one of the most often used plants in herbal remedies. It contains menthol, thymol, and other volatile oils that enhance the powerhouse punch it packs. Peppermint tea is excellent for migraine relief and a multitude of other complaints including stomach upset, coughs, and colds. A simple infusion of its leaves taken as a drink can help reduce headache pain, as well a cold compress applied to the head with a few drops of diluted (do not use if undiluted) mint oil can bring relief.
Chamomile, Chamaellum nobile
Chamomile comes from the Greek word meaning “earth-apple” and is called so because of the apple-like scent of the plant. A cup of chamomile tea acts as a mild sedative, with anti-inflammatory components that can help reduce muscle spasms. It can also be used in a hot compress on the back to relieve the pain caused by muscle tension. Caution should be used if there is an allergy to ragweed, as well this herb contains coumarin so care should be taken to avoid any potential drug interactions (ie: blood thinners).
Turmeric, Curcuma longa
Turmeric is derived from the plant Curcuma longa that belongs to the family Zingiberaceae. It is a spice used for its colour and flavours and has also been used in traditional medicines for centuries, seen as a valuable ingredient used for pain-relief and wound healing. Turmeric has many biological properties including antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic and immune-modulating effects. While there is no direct evidence available for the use of turmeric in migraine, there are several studies that have been done that show turmeric to be effective in many aspects of specific migraine effects on the body. Turmeric can also act against various major migraine-triggering factors and in addition it can also be used to protect the body against the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs used in migraine treatment. Turmeric has great potential in treatment as well as in the prevention of migraine and should be considered as another option for those who are looking to manage this condition.