Some lifestyle changes, including getting adequate sleep, the right diet, exercise, and proper rehydration can help reduce the number of times you get migraines, says Dr. Robert Sheeler, who works at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, USA.
Dr Sheeler adds that even for people who do not get frequent migraines, they can have a major impact on their lives. He suggests trying out some lifestyle changes which most likely will help reduce the number of migraine bouts you experience as well as the severity of each attack. If they still persist, you should seek medical advice on altering your treatment plan.
Migraine typically involves moderate/severe pain, usually on one side of the head. Patients commonly complain of a throbbing (pulsating) and persistent headache which becomes more severe with physical exertion, such as going up the stairs or walking up a steep hill. Other symptoms may including nausea and even vomiting, photophobia (sensitivity to light), and sensitivity and/or smells.
For some patients, the first warning sign of an impending migraine episode comes when they see bright flashes, spots, or some other kind of visual phenomenon – this is known as “aura”. A smaller number also report a feeling of numbness/tingling on one side of the body.
Migraines affect about 1 billion people globally. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), approximately 18% of women and 6% of men experience at least one bout of migraine during a 12-month period – lifetime risk is estimated at 43% and 18% respectively. In Europe, between 6% to 15% of men and 14% to 35% of women experience migraines at least once a year. In Asia and Africa migraine incidence is slightly lower than in Western nations. Between 1.4% and 2.2% of the world’s adult population suffer from chronic migraines.
Experts believe that hormones may influence the risk of migraine. A higher percentage of females have migraines during their reproductive years. Studies have also found that the offspring of people with frequent migraines have a higher risk of developing it themselves, meaning there is probably a genetic link.
Several triggers can bring on a migraine attack:
- Certain foods
- Lack of sleep, too much sleep, irregular sleeping patterns, and restless sleep
- Flickering lights
- Certain smells, especially some perfumes
- Weather – specialists at The New England Center for Headache in Stamford, CT, found that 51% of patients with headache were affected by weather
Many migraine patients avoid doing exercise because physical exertion may be one of their triggers. However, there are certain exercises that can be good for migraine sufferers. Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, developed an exercise program that can safely improve fitness among migraine sufferers without triggering attacks.
Dr. Sheeler believes that exercise can be good at preventing migraine headaches. He adds that yoga, tai chi and other mind/body exercises could be useful in managing migraine. Yoga and meditation have been shown to help reduce stress, a known migraine trigger.
Food and drink
Certain foods and drinks are thought to trigger migraine attacks. Migraine triggers affect sufferers in different ways, and sometimes not at all. You need to find which foods or drinks trigger your attacks and either avoid them or consume them less.
The most common foods/drinks linked to migraines are:
- Alcoholic drinks, especially wine
- Citrus fruit
- Mature cheese – aged protein foods have higher levels of tyramine. Some experts believe tyramine causes migraines in susceptible people. Tyramine is a naturally occurring substance found in foods. If you are taking a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor for your headaches you must avoid foods with high tyramine content.
- Processed foods
- Salty foods
- Some beans and nuts
- Some food additives, such as aspartame
- Some food preservatives, especially monosodium glutamate
Trigger factors regarding migraines are sometimes a mystery. Some patients may eat cheese and chocolate one day and be fine, but come down with migraine symptoms on another day. Experts believe that trigger factors need to build up over time before there is a risk of a migraine attack.
Dr. Sheeler says that susceptible people who have a lot of stress in their lives are more likely to sufferer from frequent headaches. Patients should consider ways to lower that stress, such as taking a weekend off and going away, or having a longer vacation.
Unfortunately, too many Americans are trapped in a vicious cycle of unhealthy measures to manage their high stress levels, which makes it even harder to adopt beneficial behavior or lifestyle changes.
Many healthy or unhealthy lifestyle factors either increase or reduce the number of migraine triggers. If you exercise and follow a healthy diet you will probably sleep better – getting the right amount of sleep is known to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks.
Getting enough sleep is vital for good migraine control. Sleep deprivation has been shown to be closely linked to the frequency and severity of migraine attacks in some patients. Researchers from Missouri State University’s Center for Biomedical & Life Sciences found that lack of sleep leads to changes in the levels of key proteins that increase the likelihood of migraine.
Most people who sleep less than six hours a day are more susceptible to headaches. However, too much sleep, meaning more than eight hours each night, may also make things worse.
Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, even during your non-working days.
Migraine headaches respond well to medications if taken as soon as the warning signs appear. Painkillers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, paracetamol) or ibuprofen are often adequate for mild to moderate symptoms. However, if OTC (over-the-counter) migraine drugs are taken too often or for too long, there is a risk of other complications, such as rebound headaches, ulcers, and gastrointestinal bleeding.
Dr. Sheere advises patients to talk to their doctor about prescription medications. There are some very effective ones for patients with frequent, severe headaches that persists despite the lifestyle changes and OTC drugs mentioned above.
If these strategies do not help, you should see your doctor who may be able to recommend additional lifestyle changes or discuss a treatment plan, which may include medication, to manage your headaches.
Written by Christian Nordqvist