Have you ever had a migraine headache? If you have, you know how painful one can be, and if you haven’t, chances are someone you know has. Given how debilitating migraine symptoms can be, anyone affected wants to know how to get rid of a migraine.
Studied indicate that migraines affect more than 10 percent of people worldwide. They occur most commonly among people aged 20 to 50 years, and they are about three times more common in women than in men. In a large U.S. survey, 17.1% of women versus 5.6% of men reported having migraine symptoms.
For many people, migraines start in their teenage years and continue throughout their 20s and 30s. Roughly 10 percent of teenagers experience frequent migraines, especially during puberty due to hormonal changes. “Chronic migraines,” meaning those that cause attacks on more than 15 days per months, affect about 2 percent of the total population and peak in adults between their 30s and 40s.
Although migraine headaches do tend to run in families and have a genetic component, certain lifestyle choices can greatly impact how often and severely someone suffers from attacks. Migraines — and also other common types of tension headaches that affect up to 90 percent of people from time to time — don’t need to become just a “normal” part of life. And even if you’ve had headaches for years, it’s not too late to change things.
Looking for migraine relief? Natural remedies for headaches and migraines include adjusting your diet to avoid trigger foods, preventing nutrient deficiencies and learning to manage stress more effectively.
What Is a Migraine?
A migraine is a type of headache that causes pains that are moderate to severe. Unlike tension headaches, which usually affect the entire head or neck, migraine pain is unique because it tends to occur on only one side of the head (although it can also affect both).
In the past, experts believed that migraine headaches were different than tension headaches and had separate causes. However, today it’s widely accepted that headaches actually fall on a continuum — with some people only experiencing mild pain occasionally and others having severe migraine symptoms often.
All types of headaches are now believed to have similar underlying causes, including high levels of inflammation, increased stress and changes in neurotransmitter levels, such as serotonin. Migraines tend to peak during someone’s 30s, become worse during stressful or transition periods of life, and run in families.
Unfortunately, migraines can take a serious toll on someone’s quality of life, causing anxiety over future attacks and contributing to missed days at work. Many migraine patients report that at least several times per year they aren’t able to attend work or school due to having trouble concentrating and can’t speak or operate normally following an attack for hours.
Doctors and researchers break down migraine symptoms into four stages: prodrome, aura, headache and postdrome. These describe the transition from the first sign of pain and migraine symptoms through the most intense period of pain and then into the stage when pain declines but still lingers.
The most common migraine symptoms include:
- Intense or severe pounding pain on one or both sides of the head — most people have migraine pain on only side of the head at a time, which is a symptom that makes migraines different from tension or cluster headaches
- Nausea, loss of appetite or an upset stomach (sometimes even vomiting)
- Increased sensitivity to sound and light
- Disturbed or blurred vision, seeing flashing lights, or seeing unusual shapes and lines (especially while an attack is just starting)
- Dizziness and shakiness
- Numbness or weakness in the facial or neck muscles, including a stiff neck
- Increased thirst
- Inability to concentrate, speak normally or hold a conversation
Prior to a “migraine attack,” some people have a feeling that a migraine is coming because they start to feel a bit “off” (sensations that experts refer to as “auras” or visual disturbances). Their vision might start to become impaired, their stomaches might start hurting, and then their heads begin to pulsate or throb. Usually within about 30–60 minutes of noticing the first migraine symptoms, a full-blown migraine takes place.
How often do migraines occur on average? Most people have occasional migraines about once or twice a month, but others can have them every week or even for several days in a row at times. The average migraine headache lasts for about four hours all the way up to about three days.
Once the worst stage of pain is over, some feel lingering migraine symptoms for about 24 hours (called the prodrome stage). During this stage, it’s possible to experience ongoing confusion, feel very tired, or struggle with moodiness and mild sensitivity for about one to two days.
It’s also possible to suffer from anxiety related to having migraine headaches. Some people report dealing with fears of having attacks in the future, worries about the consequences of attacks, depression over lost time at work or with family, and other psychological problems related to reduced enjoyment of life. Studies show that this seems to be especially true among women with migraines.
Unfortunately, these negative feelings associated with migraine pain might lead to a vicious cycle, where someone’s stress over the condition actually causes that person to take part in unhelpful behaviors, have worsened symptoms and avoid stress-reducing activities that he or she would normally enjoy.
Migraine headaches are caused by abnormal neurological events that are related to changes in blood flow, nerve signaling and muscle functions. Migraine symptoms are usually triggered by a number of different factors, including:
- Increased inflammation that affects normal blood flow, and the blood vessels, reaching the brain
- Changes in nerve signals and neurotransmitter levels that cause pain. This includes low serotonin levels and changes in the trigeminal nerve, which releases substances called neuropeptides
- Stress (including feeling overly anxious, busy or rushed, and nervous)
- Hormonal changes, sometimes affected by a poor diet or another health condition
- Dysfunction in the brain stem due to injury or past illnesses
- A lack of sleep
- Reactions to medications (including those that affect nerves, hormones and blood pressure)
- Possibly a genetic susceptibility — some research shows that a high percentage of people (70 percent to 90 percent) with migraines have family members that also suffer from intense headaches.
Some experts now believe that people with migraine symptoms have overly sensitive central nervous systems that respond strongly to “triggers” in their environment. Research shows that several things that can trigger headaches in some people, or make a headache even worse, include changes in physical activity, getting poor sleep and being under a lot of emotional stress.
Risk factors and triggers for migraine symptoms include:
- Being a woman, especially if young or middle-aged. Migraines are more common in women than in men.
- Going through hormonal changes, such as during puberty or prior to a woman’s period. Surveys show that young women often have their first migraines once they start having their menstrual cycles.
- Eating a low-nutrient diet and skipping meals (which causes changes in blood sugar levels).
- Being in a highly stressful situation, whether physically or mentally. Stress affects blood flow and can contribute to expansion/contraction of blood vessels that reach the head. Anxiety can cause pain by raising inflammation and affecting hormone levels.
- Exposure to loud noises.
- Overworking the eyes or exposure to glare from the sun and other light-producing stimuli (such as staring into a computer screen for many hours of the day, which can cause eye strain in addition to headaches).
- Consuming certain foods or drinks that contribute to inflammation or sensitivity (examples include wine, artificial additives in packaged foods and caffeine).
- Caffeine, alcohol or drug withdrawal.
- Weather changes, such as humid temperatures and increased pressure.
- Pregnancy. Some women report that migraine attacks start during pregnancy, come and go depending on the trimester, and often return during the postpartum period.
Every person is unique when it comes to migraine triggers. Experts believe that people with migraine symptoms likely have overly sensitive central nervous systems that respond strongly to triggers in their environments. It might help to keep a journal or log of your migraine symptoms so you can draw conclusions about what your personal triggers might be.
- Do certain foods make your migraines worse or better?
- Do you have an attack following exposure to loud noises?
- Might you be overworking your eyes through exposure to glare from the sun and other artificial light-producing stimuli (such computer screens which are tied to headaches)?
- Does caffeine, alcohol or drug withdrawal play a role in your migraines?
- Do you feel better when you sleep in different positions? For example, does sleeping on your back or side help reduce attacks?
- Are symptoms worse when you haven’t slept seven to nine hours per night?
- Is dehydration involved in your headaches?
- Do you notice worsened symptoms following weather changes, such as humid temperatures and increased pressure?
Studies suggest that natural, non-drug strategies can play an important role in managing migraines and also preventing complications. However, migraine symptoms are commonly managed with medications that might work immediately to help reduce pain and inflammation but aren’t dependable long-term.
Drugs used to control migraines include:
- Triptan medications (drugs used almost exclusively for migraines)
- Painkillers, including ibuprofen and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
- Anti-nausea medications
- Anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications, including beta-blockers (used to alter neurotransmitter levels)
- Calcium-channel blockers
- In some cases, anti-seizure medications to control nerve signals
- Sometimes sleep medications if sleep is impaired due to pain
Are these medications always necessary, safe and effective? No, not always. Research shows that holistic, non-drug strategies can also play an important role in managing pain and preventing headaches. The best part is that improving your diet and lifestyle habits also benefits your health in many other ways and doesn’t pose the same risks that drugs do.
There are many options for how to get rid of a migraine, and different things work for different people. Try the following ways for migraine relief.
1. Foods that are Good for Migraines
Foods that can help prevent or relieve migraines include the following:
- Omega-3 Foods: Nuts, seeds and wild-caught fish, such as salmon or sardines, help control blood flow and lower inflammation.
- Organic, Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: These foods are high in magnesium and other key electrolytes, which are especially important for controlling blood flow and muscular functions, along with preventing an electrolyte imbalance. They also provide antioxidants that help decrease inflammation, counteract effects of toxin exposure and balance hormones.
- Foods High in Magnesium: Some of the best sources include spinach, swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, kefir, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, dates, bananas and sweet potatoes.
- Clean, Lean Protein Foods: These include grass-fed beef and poultry, wild-caught fish, beans and legumes.
- Vitamin B Foods: Some research suggests that people with migraines could benefit from consuming more B vitamins, especially vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Sources of riboflavin include organ meats and other meat, certain dairy products, vegetables like green leafy veggies, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds.
2. Foods to Avoid that Make Migraines Worse
Some researchers believe that up to 40 percent of migraines could be avoided if people improved their diets and avoided triggers. A poor diet, high in things like processed grains and sodium, is one of the biggest triggers for migraine symptoms. Foods that may make migraine headache pain worse include:
- Added sugar
- Refined grain products
- Conventional dairy products
- Aged cheeses
- Pickled or cured fish
- Breads or pastries made with gluten and yeast
- Red wine and other types of alcohol (especially when consumed in large amounts)
- Chocolate (contains a chemical called phenylethylamine that sometimes causes blood flow changes that trigger headaches)
- Caffeinated drinks (for some people, about one cup of coffee or tea daily can help headaches, but withdrawal or drinking more are usually problematic)
- Eggs (especially if someone has an unknown allergy)
- Artificial food additives and artificial sweeteners, including aspartame
- Flavor enhancers and preservatives in packaged foods, including MSG
- High amounts of sodium, especially when coupled with low intake of other electrolytes
- Very cold foods
- Nitrates found in processed meats like hot dogs, cold cuts, salami, bacon and ham
- Fried foods and fast foods, especially those made with MSG (such as Chinese food)
- For some people, certain types of beans and legumes (including lima beans and snow peas, which contain natural amine chemicals)
Other dietary tips for how to get rid of a migraine include avoiding extreme dieting or skipping meals, preventing dehydration, avoiding drinking too much caffeine throughout the day, and maintaining normal blood sugar levels by eating something balanced every few hours (especially if you’re diabetic).
3. Supplements for Migraines and Headaches
If you suffer from migraines or other types of headaches often, you may benefit from taking the following supplements:
- Omega-3 fish oils: Some studies have found that omega-3 supplements can help decrease severity and frequency and migraines.
- Magnesium: Studies indicate that insufficient magnesium can cause migraines.
- Vitamin B2: Studies show that B2 or riboflavin appears to help alleviate migraine symptoms.
- 5-HTP: An amino acid that can help improve serotonin levels and lower frequency and severity of pain. One study found that supplementing with 5-HTP daily for six months alleviated migraines in 71 percent of participants.
- Feverfew: This herb’s pain-easing effect is said to come from a biochemical called parthenolides, which combat the widening of blood vessels that occurs in migraines. A systematic review completed by the School of Postgraduate Medicine and Health Science in the U.K. compared the results of six studies. Researchers found that feverfew is effective in the prevention of migraine headaches and doesn’t pose any major safely concerns.
- Kudzu extract: An herbal treatment with over 70 phytochemicals or phytonutrients, one study showed that it potentially can provide migraine relief.
- Melatonin: A 2019 study indicated that it shows potential as an alternative treatment.
- Capsaicin cream: Using topical capsaicin may alleviate migraine symptoms for some patients a study demonstrated.
4. Essential Oils for Treating Headache Pain
Essential oils have a variety of uses, and you can add essential oils to the list for how to get rid of a migraine. They’re natural painkillers, help lower stress or anxiety, reduce inflammation, improve blood flow, help balance hormones, and lower muscular tension.
Essential oils can be applied to the painful side of the head, neck and elsewhere to soothe muscular tension and stress. You can also numb any pain directly by applying several drops of an oil to a heated towel (or simply use a heating pad or ice pack applied to the head and neck for about 15 minutes at a time).
Essential oils for headaches include:
- Peppermint: Reduces pain and inflammation. Works by having a natural cooling effect on the skin, inhibiting muscle contractions and stimulating blood flow around the head when applied topically.
- Lavender: Soothes stress and anxiety. Can improve sleep quality, decrease muscular tension, and has natural antidepressant and sedative qualities.
- Eucalyptus: Improves blood flow, is uplifting, helps cleanse the body of toxins and harmful substances, and reduces high blood pressure and pain.
- Frankincense: Lowers inflammation and has numerous benefits for improving overall immune function, anxiety and hormonal balance.
- Rosemary: Reduces pain through regulating blood flow, helps decrease withdrawal symptoms of caffeine or medications, aids digestion, and soothes an upset stomach.
5. Reduce Stress
Research shows that several things that can trigger migraines or make headache pains even worse include physical stress placed on the body (such as overtraining or suddenly increasing physical activity too much), getting poor sleep and being under a lot of emotional stress.
Being in a highly stressful situation, whether physically or mentally, affects blood flow and can contribute to expansion/contraction of blood vessels that reach the head. Try natural stress relievers to help reduce stress.
6. Try Mind-Body Practices
Biofeedback therapy, meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, massage therapy and other relaxation techniques that link the body and mind are beneficial for any sort of headache pains. These can help reduce muscular tension, improve blood flow, control blood pressure and manage the body’s “fight or flight” stress response.
Use these practices to scan your body and check yourself for signs of clenched muscles, including in your neck, jaw or shoulders.
7. Get Enough Sleep
A lack of sleep and anxiety are capable of triggering migraines by raising inflammation and affecting hormone levels. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but be careful not to overdo it since research shows that sleeping too much might make migraines worse, especially if you don’t stick to a usual sleep/wake schedule.
8. Balance Hormones
Research suggests that one risk factor for migraine attacks is going through hormonal changes, such as puberty, prior to a woman’s period, pregnancy or menopause. Surveys show that young women often have their first migraines once they start having their menstrual cycles. Migraines are also common during the first trimester of pregnancy and when a woman is dealing with PMS.
Ways to help balance hormones naturally include eating a healthy diet, using adaptogen herbs, exercising in a moderate way, getting enough rest and avoiding chemical toxins.
In general, exercise is helpful for preventing headaches because it lowers stress, helps balance hormones, improves sleep quality and helps lower inflammation. However, because some people find that increasing activity suddenly can worsen migraines, track your own biofeedback and symptoms.
Aim to keep up with a regular exercise schedule that includes a combination of at least 30–60 minutes of aerobic and resistance training or yoga five days a week. Keep in mind, however, that it’s best not to try and exercise during a migraine or beforehand if you feel an attack coming.
10. Limit Screen Time or Lots of Light Exposure
If you notice that migraines are triggered from blue light exposure being omitted from electronic devices, limit the amount of time you spend using these devices or consider wearing blue light-blocking glasses.
If sunlight seems to worsen headaches, wear sunglasses when outdoors (especially those that are tinted blue or green to block UV rays reaching your eyes).
If you’ve been struggling with severe headaches for some time, look out for changes in how often and how severely you have symptoms to check for patterns and changes (especially if you’re over 40).
Sometimes severe migraines that come on suddenly can point to a worsening or underlying health condition, so always talk to a professional if you notice any of the following symptoms for the first time:
- Headaches that are very sudden and intense, stopping you in your tracks.
- Very stiff neck, fever, mental confusion and dizziness.
- Headaches accompanying mild seizures, double vision or fainting.
- Severe headaches after trauma or an injury.
- Headaches that last more than several days and are unexplained. If your migraines don’t seem to coincide with any triggers or other health conditions, especially if you’re older 50, seek professional help.
- Migraines are severely painful headaches caused from a series of neurological events that trigger head pains, sensitivity to light and sound, vision changes, and sometimes digestive upset.
- Causes of migraines include inflammation, high amounts of stress, nutrient deficiencies, nerve damage, hormonal changes and genetic susceptibility.
- If you’re wondering how to get rid of a migraine naturally, try managing stress, altering your diet, getting enough sleep and rest, avoiding triggers, and dulling pain with essential oils and/or heat and ice.