Although they’re less common than “ordinary” headaches (mostly thought of as tension headaches), migraines are a significant problem for millions of people. Estimates show that about 35 million Americans have frequent migraines and migraine symptoms, with a high proportion (about two-thirds) being middle-aged women. (1)
Migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world, and now nearly one in four U.S. households includes someone who has at least occasional migraines.
Because they can lead to pounding pain, sensitivity to noise or light, and even digestive problems, migraines can take a big hit on someone’s overall quality on life. How can you find migraine headache relief naturally or overcome other types of chronic headaches? Natural treatments for migraine symptoms include learning to manage stress more effectively, reducing exposure to triggers, such as lots of artificial light, and resolving nutrient deficiencies.
What Are Migraine Headaches?
Migraines are a type of intense headache, especially those that are recurring and cause throbbing on one side of the head. 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. Because most types of headaches are related, natural headaches remedies like managing stress and improving your diet can help keep both mild and severe migraine symptoms at bay.
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. (2)
The most common migraine symptoms include: (3)
- 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
- 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. (4) 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.
Psychological Distress Over Migraines
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. This seems to be especially coming among women with migraines. (5) 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.
What Causes Migraines?
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.
Risk Factors for Migraines
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: (6)
- 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.
Conventional Treatment for Migraines
Migraine symptoms are commonly managed with medications that help reduce pain and inflammation. Drugs used to control migraines include: (7)
- 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.
Natural Treatments for Migraines
1. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
A poor diet, high in things like processed foods and sodium, is one of the biggest triggers for migraine symptoms. Foods that can make migraine headache pain worse include added sugar, refined grain products, conventional dairy products, aged cheese, red wine, chocolate, eggs, artificial food additives (such as the sweetener aspartame), flavor enhancers, high amounts of sodium, very cold foods or nitrates in processed meat. (8)
Foods that can help prevent or treat migraines include those with omega-3 fatty acids (like nuts, seeds and wild-caught fish), fresh fruits and vegetables, foods high in magnesium, and healthy, lean proteins.
2. Manage Stress and Get Enough Sleep
Sleeping too much or too little can both increase migraine symptoms. (9) Stress can also cause sleep trouble, muscle tension and changes in blood flow. Make an effort to stick to a regular sleeping, exercise and eating schedule to keep blood sugar stable and hormones balanced throughout the day. Build in time to relieve stress throughout the day using things like exercise, reading, acupuncture, going outdoors and meditation. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of psychotherapy might also be helpful to deal with chronic pain, negative thoughts and unhelpful behavior.
3. Keep a “Migraine Journal” to Track Symptoms
Not sure what’s causing your migraine symptoms? It could be your diet, nutrient deficiencies (such as magnesium deficiency), exercise routine or other factors. Some people find it very helpful to keep a log of their symptoms along with possible triggers, including dietary patterns, stress levels, time and type of exercise performed, and amount of sleep. This can help you draw connections and narrow down factors that might cause migraine attacks.
4. 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).
5. Use Essential Oils and Heat
Essential oils for headaches include peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, frankincense and rosemary. These can be applied to the painful side of the head, neck and elsewhere to soothe tension and stress. You can also numb the pain with a heated towel, heating pad or ice pack applied to the head, upper back or neck for about 15 minutes at a time.
Statistics and Facts About Migraines
- Estimates show that 6 percent to 18 percent of the adult population suffers from recurring migraines (about 6 percent of men and up to 18 percent of women).
- Women get migraines more often; studies show more than one in four women will have at least one severe migraine attack at some time in her life.
- Roughly 10 percent of teenagers experience frequent migraines, especially during the time of puberty when experiencing hormonal changes.
- About 2 percent of the adult population has “chronic migraines,” meaning those that cause attacks on more than 15 days per month.
- People between the ages of 35 and 55, those in the lowest income groups, and Caucasian people all have higher risks for migraines. (10)
- 15 percent to 20 percent of people with migraines experience vision disturbances before or during attacks.
- The most common symptoms of migraines are throbbing head pains, light sensitivity and sound sensitivity, occurring in 75 percent to 85 percent of migraine patients.
- People with migraines report using twice the amount of prescription drugs and visiting the doctor or ER twice as much as those without migraines.
- Up to 90 percent of people have to skip work and social events during migraine attacks because they can’t function properly.
- 60 percent to 70 percent of people with migraines report having at least one attack per month, and around 30 percent have missed at least one day of work or school in past three months.
“Normal” Headaches (Tension Headaches) vs. Migraine Headaches
- Compared to cluster or tension headaches, migraine symptoms tend to last longer, be more severe and are usually harder to treat.
- Migraine symptoms differ from “normal” tension headache symptoms because they tend to occur on only one side of the head and cause severe throbbing or sharp pains.
- Tension headaches often cause steady pain or tightness around the entire head, especially the forehead and near the neck.
- Tension headaches are usually duller than migraines and go away more easily, although they can develop more often in response to triggers. Some people have tension headaches several times per week for a short duration, while this type of chronic condition is rarer with migraines.
- Cluster headaches are another type of headache that involve intense and relentless pain in or around one eye on one side of the head. The symptoms can sometimes be confused with a migraine but are different because they occur in patterns (cluster periods) and generally last from six to 12 weeks.
Precautions When Treating Migraines and Headaches
For many people, headaches become just a “normal” part of their lives that they never seek out help for or look for ways to proactively reduce symptoms. If you’ve had headaches for years, perhaps starting when you were a teenager, it’s not too late to change things. It’s also important to always look out for changes in how often and how severely you have headache symptoms, since this can sometimes point to a worsening or underlying health condition.
Talk to a professional if your headaches suddenly become worse or you notice any of the following symptoms for the first time:
- Headaches that are very sudden and intense, stopping you in your tracks.
- A very stiff neck, fever, mental confusion and migraine pains occurring at once.
- 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 (especially if you’re older than 50).
Final Thoughts on Migraine Symptoms
- Migraines are an extremely painful series of neurological symptoms that cause intense headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, vision changes, and sometimes digestive upset.
- Compared to other headaches, migraines cause more recurring pains, usually only on one side of the head.
- Causes of migraines include inflammation, high amounts of stress, nutrient deficiencies, nerve damage, hormonal changes and genetic susceptibility.
- Natural treatments for migraine symptoms include managing stress, altering your diet, getting enough sleep and rest, avoiding triggers, and dulling pain with essential oils and/or heat and ice.