An excruciating headache is how I would describe a migraine. It feels like a bomb implanted in your brain that will blow your head off at any time. Every time you see flashes of light, blind spots in your sight or any visual disturbance, it means your clock is ticking. At any moment you will feel the blast of a migraine attack. That is why every affected individual is on an endless search for an effective migraine relief, because sometimes one remedy isn’t enough.
How Will You Know if You Have a Migraine Attack?
Migraine is not the typical headache. Sometimes people may use the term migraine to refer to any severe form of headache. However, migraine differs in terms of frequency, intensity, characteristics of pain and accompanying symptoms.
Moreover, 1-2 days before a migraine attack, some people may experience certain symptoms such as food cravings, persistent yawning, irritability, constipation, and sudden feelings of sadness. Other migraine sufferers, but not all, have auras prior to or during an episode of migraine. Auras are visual disturbances where an affected individual may see flashing lights, halos or sometimes blind spots. Auras can also be disturbances in your sensations, movement and speech. You may experience muscle stiffness, numbness or weakness, particularly in the neck, shoulders or limbs. You may become highly sensitive to bright lights, sounds and unpleasant smells. Some people have slurred speech, difficulty understanding words or other speech problems. After the migraine attack, you may feel weak and drained.
What Triggers Migraine Attacks?
In data available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2007-2008), it was reported that around 1.2 million Australians have suffered from chronic migraine. Some of these individuals knew what triggered their migraine, while the majority didn’t have a clue.
In general, the mechanism of migraine and its exact causes are not fully understood. However, family history, age, gender and hormonal imbalance are considered risk factors.
People who have a family history of migraine problems are more likely to experience migraine attacks. Migraine may affect any age group, but it’s more prevalent between ages 15-55. Moreover, several studies noted that women are more prone to having migraines than men: these migraines are often associated with the hormonal imbalance that accompanies menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.
According to various studies, brain chemical imbalances can be the cause of migraines. In particular, serotonin levels in the brain are noted to drop during a migraine. It is believed that the decreasing amount of serotonin may trigger the trigeminal system, a primary pain pathway, to release neuropeptides. The neuropeptides may cause swelling of the meninges, the membranes that cover and protect the brain and the spinal cord, resulting in migraine headaches.
There are factors contributing to migraine attacks. To help you track down your migraine triggers, answer the following questions:
Question #1: Do you have existing hormonal imbalance problems?
Hormonal imbalance plays an important role in migraine attacks. Several women experience migraine headaches before menstruation due to low oestrogen levels. Oestrogen is the female hormone responsible for women’s sexual characteristics, menstrual cycle and reproductive process. This hormone is present in men’s systems in minute amounts as well.
Moreover, migraine attack related to hormonal problems does not only occur due to low hormonal levels. Even pregnant women whose oestrogen levels are increased have reported episodes of migraine. Thus, medical experts looked into the fluctuation of hormone levels as the primary factor. Migraine is also common among women who are taking oral contraceptives and hormonal supplements, which can also cause hormonal fluctuations.
Question #2: What foods or drinks did you have before your migraine episode?
Based on study findings, salty and processed foods can trigger migraines. Other foods that migraine sufferers should avoid are aged cheese, foods with aspartame and monosodium glutamate. Caffeinated food and drinks as well as drinks that contain alcohol are also migraine triggers. For alcoholic beverages, most migraine sufferers have commonly pointed out wine as a trigger. On the other hand, fasting or skipping any meal and dehydration have been noted to trigger migraines as well.
Question #3: How is your sleeping habit?
Sleep deprivation is another trigger for a migraine attack. Lack of sleep can decrease or cause fluctuations of your serotonin level, which was mentioned previously as the primary triggering factor of migraines.
Question #4: Are you often stressed out?
Observe your daily activities. Be mindful of what happens before your migraine attack. Strenuous activities and too much physical exertion cause migraines. Some individuals even complained about having a migraine attack during sexual activity.
Stressful events can trigger migraine: whether physical, mental, emotional or any other form of stress. When you are stressed out, stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – are released to help you fight or move away from the stressful phenomenon. These stress hormones expand the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart and large muscles, which are thought to initiate the release of neuropeptides causing inflammation to the meninges and eventually migraine attack.
In my experience, migraines are also connected with psychological and emotional needs that were not met. Often there is a constant fear of failing. Other than this, here are some more indications that you should be aware of:
- Repressing completely anger and rage that would eventually cause nervous tension and frustration
- Perfectionist tendencies that wants to control spontaneity or natural expression of emotions – held back sexual drive to the point of being uncontrollable
- Inner stress caused by having too much expectations/anticipation
- Unfulfilled plans causing deep disappointment of being let down
- A great desire of wanting to be loved – deep need of attention
- Fear of failing others
- Fear of getting involved, as well as, fear of being asked by others to get involved.
Overall, knowing your triggers is one of the best ways to prevent future migraine attacks. Don’t you think it is better to be pain-free than freaking out trying to find an instant pain relief? As the classic saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Documenting your migraine triggers can help you know what to avoid and how to deal with your migraine.
Here are 7 tips to relieve your migraine attack:
7 Tips to Relieve Migraine Attack
There are proven and tested over-the-counter and prescription medications for migraine. However, developing a healthier lifestyle is still the best long-term solution to help reduce the frequency of your migraine attacks.
Tip to relieve migraine attack #1: Have adequate sleep with a regular pattern.
How many hours of sleep do you have each night? Eight hours is the safest sleep duration whether you have a migraine or not. Some health practitioners say that 6-7 hours is still acceptable. Remember that both too much sleeping and sleep deprivation can cause brain chemical imbalance, which triggers migraine.
It is highly recommended to establish a regular sleeping pattern as well. For instance, you could go to bed by 9PM and wake up at 5AM. This pattern needs to be consistent every day, including weekends.
To ensure a good night sleep, REMEMBER the following:
- Daytime naps should not be more than 30 minutes.
- Avoid foods and drinks containing caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bedtime.
- Your bedroom must be exclusively for resting or sleeping. Distractions such as television, computer or work stuff must be off limits in your bedroom.
Tip to relieve migraine attack #2: Eat smart and avoid food triggers.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. However, it is also the meal most taken for granted. Everybody is on the go every morning, and we often use this as an excuse to skip breakfast. Make it a habit to eat your breakfast.
Protein-rich foods would be ideal, as the brain needs essential amino acids that come from protein for proper functioning. Likewise, studies reveal that there is a reduced frequency of migraine attack among individuals who eat protein sources such as lean meat, poultry and fish in the morning. On the other hand, green peas, quinoa, beans, tofu, soybeans, spinach, broccoli and other leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, seitan and soymilk are vegetarian choices for protein rich foods.
Aside from breakfast, you should endeavour to avoid skipping any other meal. The brain’s primary source of energy is glucose (simple sugar). When fasting or skipping meals, your blood sugar level will drop, affecting your brain’s supply for glucose that might trigger migraines. Stress hormones are also released when you are fasting, another migraine trigger. To ensure that you have a long-lasting energy supply for your brain, choose high fibre foods, particularly whole grains (whole wheat and grain cereals), fruits and vegetables.
Moreover, some research findings show that most individuals suffering from migraines have low Magnesium levels and that Magnesium supplement can decrease the frequency of migraine attacks. Safe sources of magnesium are dark leafy green vegetables, squash, mackerel, beans and lentils, whole grains, avocados, bananas and dried fruits.
For migraine food triggers, always remember to check the product label for aspartame, monosodium glutamate, alcohol, and caffeine content. These are the substances that often trigger a migraine attack. On the other hand, there are new study findings that a small amount of caffeine can help relieve migraine and even boost the pain-killing effects of pain relievers such as aspirin and acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol).
Products that often contain aspartame are cereals, sugar-free products, drink powders, flavoured water, cooking sauce, chewing gum, diet sodas and yogurts. Don’t forget to check the label.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is commonly found in processed foods. It is also naturally present in soy extracts, tomatoes and cheeses, and yeast extracts. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers MSG as safe for consumption. However, there are several reports that eating foods containing MSG provokes migraine.
Furthermore, the mechanism of how alcoholic beverages cause migraines is not that clear yet, but many migraine sufferers report red wine as one of their migraine triggers.
Other triggers you should avoid are foods and drinks containing caffeine including coffee, chocolates and chocolate flavoured products, tea, sodas, and energy drinks.
Tip to relieve migraine attack #3: Engage in moderate exercise regularly.
Did you know that mild to moderate exercise can help reduce the frequency of migraine attacks?
In previous studies, exercise was reported to be a migraine trigger. However, according to The Migraine Trust, a health and medical research charity for migraine in the United Kingdom, moderate exercise reduces both the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, the natural pain regulating chemicals in the body.
The best exercises for migraine sufferers based on studies are mild aerobics, jogging, swimming, brisk walking, yoga or Tai qi gong. Do any of these three times a week, with at least 30 minutes duration for each session. Make sure to do a proper warm up.
However, exercise can become a trigger with the following conditions:
- The exercise is strenuous and is infrequently done. This causes muscle pain and stiffness that triggers migraine.
- You missed eating properly before the exercise, which resulted in low blood sugar levels.
- You became dehydrated during exercise due to inadequate fluid intake.
Tip to relieve migraine attack #4: Manage stress and use some relaxation techniques.
Stress is one of the primary triggering factors of migraine. You need to relieve stress to address your migraine problem. One of the best ways to relieve stress is indulging in relaxation activities and techniques.
During a migraine attack, you need to reduce environmental stimuli such as light and sound. You may need to find a quiet room where it is possible to turn the lights off while you rest. If you’re at home, find time to sleep as much as possible.
Moreover, you can prevent future migraine attacks. Think of activities that relax both mind and body. Some feel relaxed after meditation, Tai qi gong or yoga. Other people prefer going to a spa for a full body massage. Some may feel relieved by just reading a book or playing the piano. It’s a matter of what works best for you. Just be consistent in relieving your daily tensions and you will be fine. However, make sure that your means of relaxation are not listed among the migraine triggers. Some people find bar hopping and drinking some great wine, vodka or any alcoholic beverage to be relaxing. Remember that the loud sound in the bar and intake of alcohol can trigger a migraine.
Tip to relieve migraine attack #5: Apply cold and warm compresses.
Warm and cold compress application can also help. Apply heating pads to your neck or shoulder. The hot temperature usually relaxes the muscles and relieves tension. On the other hand, a cold compress is helpful in decreasing the pain sensation by causing numbness to the affected site.
Tip to relieve migraine attack #6: Drink plenty of water
Dehydration triggers migraine attack. The general recommendation is drinking at least 8 glasses of water a day. However, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), adult women are required to take a total of 2 ½ litres (10 glasses) of water each day, while men need to consume 3 ½ litres (14 glasses). This amount refers to the total fluid intake, and includes other drinks (i.e. juice, tea, milk, etc.), as well as water from foods. However, you need to drink more fluids if you engage in more physical activities and other special conditions, such as if you are pregnant.
To make sure that you have the daily requirement of fluid intake, make it a habit to:
- Have one glass of water on your bedside table or anywhere that is easily visible in the bedroom and drink it first thing in the morning.
- Drink a glass of water before taking the first bite of your meal.
- Every time you crave sweet drinks like soda, grab a glass of water.
- Record your fluid intake to check what time you should next take a sip of more water.
- Have a standby refillable water container on your desk so you can take sips during work. Otherwise, take a bottle of water with you when travelling or while you’re on the go if the nature of your job is different.
Tip to relieve migraine attack #7: Try some natural remedies
Feverfew is an ornamental plant from the daisy family. Some people eat the raw leaves of this plant, while others make tea out of its leaves. Feverfew contains parthenolide, a natural substance that alleviates migraine headache.
Another natural remedy for a migraine attack is peppermint leaf. Its aroma has a soothing and pain-killing effect, unlike other scents that can trigger migraines. If you don’t have peppermint plant in your backyard, you can sniff anything with peppermint flavour: toothpaste, or tea, among others. Peppermint is also available in oil form.I hope you find these tips helpful. Moreover, like in any other health condition, awareness and understanding is very helpful in order to initiate any healing process. Headaches or migraines are merely a symptom of an underlying dysfunction that needs to be addressed, whether they be physical, mental or emotional. They are merely a wakeup call for you to take the steps to transform the disharmonies in your life. Through awareness and understanding, you can correct the parts in your life that have gone out of balance.
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Neurotransmittesr and Neuropeptides in Headache ( 1996). Retrieved 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8839612
Stress Effects on the Body. Retrieved 2014, from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
Alcohol and Migraine: Trigger factor, Consumption, Mechanisms. Retrieved 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18231712
Questions and Answers on Monosodium Glutamate (2012). Retrieved 2014, from http://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm328728.htm
Feverfew. Retrieved 2014, from http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-933-feverfew.aspx?activeingredientid=933&activeingredientname=feverfew