About two years ago, I started getting nasty headaches. I had gotten headaches before, but they were usually associated with food poisoning or the flu. These were different. I usually felt a little dizzy and my vision got slightly blurry, with most of the pain on the right side of my head behind my eye. Whenever I got one of these headaches, I had trouble thinking and just wanted to curl up and sleep. They would last all day and sometimes into the next. The worst part was that over time, they seemed to come a bit more frequently until I was getting one every week or so. Because of the increasing frequency and the intensity, I went to see a neurologist. After his examination, he assured me I didn’t have a tumor. He told me I was probably experiencing migraines. He said that medical science doesn’t have very satisfactory ways of treating migraines. The best way to deal with them is to prevent them by discovering what triggers them. I decided to look for migraine natural remedies because I wasn’t satisfied with just living with it.
How can you tell if your headache is a migraine headache?
A migraine is unique. It has certain characteristics associated with it that distinguish it from other types of headaches. My neurologist said that it has one or more of these qualities: you feel nauseous or vomit, you have sensitivity to light, and/or have sensitivity to sound. If the migraine has an “aura” (perceptual disturbance), you will also see spots or flickering lights, have numbness or tingling in your limbs, and/or will have difficulty with speech. These were exactly the symptoms I was experiencing.
What are triggers for migraines?
As I mentioned above, my doctor told me that one of the best treatments is prevention. Well, isn’t that always the best treatment? He gave me a handout that mentioned the following triggers: dairy products, especially aged and cultured; aged, cured, or processed meats, especially those with additives like nitrites or MSG (monosodium glutamate, a salty flavoring); certain fruits and vegetables, such as raisins or citrus; legumes; red wine or beer; caffeine, including chocolate; and products made with yeast, such as breads and donuts. Non-food triggers can include: too much or too little sleep, over exertion, stress, menstrual cycle, oral contraceptives, changes in weather, bright lights, and/or unusual fumes. I found it interesting that many of these triggers involve toxins and micro-organisms like yeast (that also produce toxins as their waste products). The Paleo diet I am now on, automatically eliminates many of these triggers, such as most dairy, caffeine, and alcoholic beverages; and all processed meat, legumes, and products made with yeast. For me, cane sugar is also a trigger, and that is not allowed either on a Paleo diet. Too little sleep, certain smells, and changes in weather can also be triggers for me. These things are harder to control, and several of the triggers I mentioned cannot be controlled at all. What if the person in front of me at church is wearing a perfume or hairspray that triggers a migraine? What if I got a migraine every month when I had my period as well as every time it rained or I pumped gas in my car? I needed better migraine natural remedies than just prevention.
What causes migraines?
Being a person who likes to understand the “why” behind everything, I wanted to know what was happening in my brain when I got a migraine, so that I could better help myself. While the exact cause is not really known, it involves changes that occur deep in the brain that include brain chemicals, blood vessels, and the nerves of the brain. Basically, something triggers the brain to send electrical signals that activate the main nerve of the face, the “trigeminal nerve“, to release chemicals that cause inflammation and irritate nerve cells. This activation spreads along the nerves that branch out from the trigeminal nerve, causing the pulsing, nasty migraine headaches and other symptoms. At the same time, there can be changes in blood flow to other parts of the brain, including the parts that affect basic body functions, vision, and the ability to think and act. These changes explain why migraine sufferers often experience tingling in their limbs, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and visual disturbances.
Earlier, I mentioned the triggers for the above cascade of brain events that result in migraine headaches. Now, let me tell you about my journey to finding migraine natural remedies.
My journey to relief
When I first started getting migraines, I broke from my usual avoidance of conventional treatments because I didn’t know if any of the herbal remedies that I usually used would be strong enough to combat my headaches. My previous experience using herbal remedies with other types of headaches wasn’t encouraging, and I didn’t want to experiment when my head was hurting so bad. The first thing I tried that helped was regular ibuprofen over the counter medicine. After a few times, it didn’t help anymore. I decided to try an ibuprofen medication that was specially formulated for migraine and it took the edge off, but that was it. Then, my mom recommended a pill that combined aspirin, acetaminophen (another non-prescription medication for pain) and caffeine, but that didn’t do anything for me. (Looking back and knowing now that coffee can be a trigger for me, it’s no wonder that it didn’t help.) By this time, I had gone to see the doctor. But I didn’t do anything for a while and just suffered with the migraines when they came. Then I learned that migraines can cause permanent changes to brain structure and this alarmed me. It gave me the motivation I needed to do the experimenting that I had avoided when I first started getting migraines. The alternative was prescription medication for the rest of my life, and there was no guarantee that would work either.
I was discouraged by my initial efforts to try natural remedies because I didn’t get relief. The first thing I tried was an herbal supplement of turmeric because I knew that it was a powerful anti-inflammatory and pain reducing herb. Some studies reported that it was more effective than aspirin or ibuprofen. Unfortunately, it was not effective for me. That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective for you though. The next time, I tried a combination of curcumin (the active chemical in the spice, turmeric) and boswellia serrata (Indian frankincense, made from the sap of the frankincense tree). Boswellia is also known for its anti-inflammatory effects. However, this supplement didn’t help me either. I began to think that because I was taking these supplements as powdered herbs in pill form, perhaps they weren’t strong enough for me. So I turned to essential oils.
The essential oil of Boswellia concentrates the benefits of the plant, as the process of producing essential oils distills all the medicinal qualities out of the Frankincense tree resin. I had heard stories about how folks had used this essential oil to treat cancer, so I thought that certainly, if the oil can kill cancer, it can kill my migraine pain even though it didn’t help in the powdered herb form. I was right. The first time I tried it, I mixed a few drops with some coconut oil. I rubbed it on the back of my neck and on the side of my face where the pain was the worst. After about ten minutes, the pain was gone. In retrospect, it wasn’t that the herbal supplements were ineffective, it was more that I needed such a large dose to achieve relief that it was an impractical solution. Maybe that won’t be the case for you. Because of the cost of frankincense essential oil, if I could go back, I would have still tried the herbal supplements first. Also, because of the cost of frankincense, I don’t carry it around with me. I carry a different blend of essential oils with me in my purse, and while not as effective, it works well enough that I can function normally. This blend contains the essential oils of basil, marjoram (an herb), lavender, Roman chamomile, and two species of Helichrysum (a daisy-like plant found mostly in southern Europe).
I have been successful in reducing the number of migraines I get by following a Paleo diet and adopting tenets of the Paleo lifestyle, which include getting enough sleep, managing stress, getting outdoors, exercising, and being part of a positive community. These non-diet tips help increase the amount of brain chemicals that your body makes to decrease inflammation all by itself. When I do get a migraine because of factors outside my control, I reach for my essential oils—concentrated natural remedies that have given me my life back.