5 top tips to ease migraines

Migraines and stress

Written by Heather Deering, Associate Registered Nutritionist

Migraines are one of the most common health complaints worldwide (1). Despite this, the true cause of migraines is largely unknown (2).

Carrying on a normal life often includes taking lots of medication and pain killers which will often simply mask the problem rather than dealing with the cause. However, many genetic and environmental factors associated with abnormal processes in the body are thought to contribute to migraines (3). We take a look at some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle which could result in fewer and less painful migraines.

1. Manage your blood sugar levels

The brain relies on sugar (glucose) to function. A drop in blood sugar levels, known as hypoglycaemia, has been identified as a trigger for migraines (4). Hypoglycaemia can be due to lots of factors such as skipping meals, fasting, or exercising on an empty stomach. 

Eating lots of refined carbohydrate foods such as sweets, biscuits or cakes can also cause ‘reactive hypoglycaemia’, where an initial spike in blood sugar is followed by a rapid fall in blood sugar levels. 

Top tip

Aim to keep blood sugar levels stable over the day. Eat regular low-sugar, high fibre meals and avoid sugary drinks and treats. Try to eat wholefoods rather than heavily processed or refined foods, as these tend to have less added sugar. This means sugar is released into the bloodstream in a slow and sustained manner, avoiding blood sugar spikes and crashes. Don’t skip meals and ensure your body is sufficiently fuelled for exercise.

2. Drink up!

Water makes up around 60% of the human body. Staying hydrated is a crucial aspect of maintaining good health. Dehydration can contribute to the onset of headaches, and evidence indicates that dehydration could be a trigger for prolonged migraines (5).

Conventional wisdom suggests that drinking enough water will prevent headaches. However this has been largely unexplored by scientific research, meaning that though popular, the claim is not actually backed up by evidence. What has been demonstrated is that migraine sufferers who increased their water consumption by 1.5 litres per day noticed a reduction in the intensity and duration of their headaches, though not the frequency of the headache episodes (6).

Top tip

Stay hydrated throughout the day by regularly sipping on water. You could try carrying around a reusable water bottle to help track how much you are drinking – aim for at least 2 litres per day. Pay attention to the signs of dehydration, which include dry lips and mouth, your pee being darker than a pale yellow colour, and feeling thirsty.

3. Maintain a regular exercise routine

NHS guidelines suggest that to maintain health, adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise, plus strength exercises on two or more days each week (7). Aerobic exercise includes walking, running, cycling, dancing, or playing sports. Strength exercises refers to lifting weights, doing bodyweight exercises, yoga, and Pilates.

While many people report exercise as a migraine trigger (8), some evidence suggests that regular exercise may actually help to reduce the severity of migraines (9). One study found that carrying out some form of aerobic exercise for 40 minutes, three times a week over a 3-month period resulted in a reduction in migraine frequency (10).

Exercise is also an effective stress management tool, which may be key for people who find that stress is a migraine trigger (11).

Top tip

Spend time trialling different types of exercise to find some that you enjoy and are able to commit to doing regularly – there’s no one ‘best’ exercise so find what works for you. Ensure you have eaten before starting exercise (ideally 1-2 hours prior) and are sufficiently hydrated. Take the time to warm up properly rather than jumping straight in to your workout.

4. Get enough sleep

It is recommended that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night (12). Lack of sleep is strongly linked with migraine occurrence (13).

However, it’s not just sleep deprivation that can cause migraines. Many different aspects of disturbed sleep are frequently identified as migraine triggers – staying up late or waking earlier than normal, irregular shift patterns, jet lag, poor sleep quality, and even sleeping more than normal (14).

Top Tip

Keep your sleep patterns consistent and aim for 7-9 hours per night. Try setting a bedtime reminder on your phone to remind you to go to sleep at the same time each night. Practice good sleep hygiene by avoiding blue light from screens, caffeine and other stimulants, and vigorous exercise right before bed.

5. Are there foods to avoid for migraines?

Food is one of the most widely-acknowledged triggers of migraines (15). But which foods do you eat when you have a migraine? Is there a specific diet to avoid migraines?

Commonly identified dietary migraine triggers include chocolate, alcohol, and cheese (16). These foods may exacerbate or trigger migraines in some people due to certain chemicals found in these foods. For example, there is some evidence that tyramine (a compound found in aged cheeses and wines, as well as in cured meats and smoked fish) and phenylethylamine (found in cheese, red wine, and chocolates) trigger migraine onset (17).

However, food triggers can vary considerably between individuals. Best practice guidelines for the management of migraines advise keeping a migraine diary (18). In the diary, you can record:

  • The time and date of the migraine
  • Foods you had eaten
  • Any activity you had undertaken
  • Any emotional upset or stress you had experienced
  • The duration and quality of sleep you’d had the previous night

With this information, you can start to identify any trends in the onset of your migraines and work to eliminate any obvious triggers.

Top tip

Following a healthy, balanced diet will support your overall health. Keeping a food diary can help you to identify any dietary causes of your migraines, and this can be extended to other aspects of your lifestyle to provide a holistic picture of your migraine triggers.

If you suffer from migraines, Reset Your Health can help. We’ll create a bespoke meal plan, tailored to your food preferences and medical needs, which will help you to avoid migraine triggers. Simply select ‘Migraines’ under the health condition section when you sign up.

References

1. WHO | Atlas of headache disorders and resources in the world 2011 [Internet]. Who.int. 2020 [cited 17 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.who.int/mental_health/management/atlas_headache_disorders/en/

2. Evans R. Migraine: A Question and Answer Review. Medical Clinics of North America. 2009;93(2):245-262.

3. Salmasi M, Amini L, Haghjoo S, Tajmirriahi M, Saadatnia M, Asadimobarakeh E. Metabolic syndrome and migraine headache: A case control study. Journal of the Neurological Sciences. 2013;333:e503.

4. Hypoglycaemia – The Migraine Trust [Internet]. The Migraine Trust. 2020 [cited 17 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/trigger-factors/hypoglycaemia/

5. Blau J, Kell C, Sperling J. Water-Deprivation Headache: A New Headache With Two Variants. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2004;44(1):79-83.

6. Spigt M, Kuijper E, Schayck C, Troost J, Knipschild P, Linssen V et al. Increasing the daily water intake for the prophylactic treatment of headache: a pilot trial*. European Journal of Neurology. 2005;12(9):715-718.

7. Exercise [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 17 May 2020]. Available from:https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/

8. Kelman L. The Triggers or Precipitants of the Acute Migraine Attack. Cephalalgia. 2007;27(5):394-402.

9. Busch V, Gaul C. Exercise in Migraine Therapy—Is There Any Evidence for Efficacy? A Critical Review. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2008;48(6):890-899.

10. Varkey E, Cider Å, Carlsson J, Linde M. Exercise as migraine prophylaxis: A randomized study using relaxation and topiramate as controls. Cephalalgia. 2011;31(14):1428-1438.

11. Lipton R, Buse D, Hall C, Tennen H, DeFreitas T, Borkowski T et al. Reduction in perceived stress as a migraine trigger: Testing the “let-down headache” hypothesis. Neurology. 2014;82(16):1395-1401.

12. How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? – National Sleep Foundation [Internet]. National Sleep Foundation. 2020 [cited 17 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

13. Sullivan D, Martin P. Sleep and headaches: Relationships between migraine and non-migraine headaches and sleep duration, sleep quality, chronotype, and obstructive sleep apnoea risk. Australian Journal of Psychology. 2016;69(3):210-217.

14. Ahn A, Goadsby P. Migraine and Sleep: New Connections. Cerebrum. 2013;15.

15. Alpay K, Ertaş M, Orhan E, Üstay D, Lieners C, Baykan B. Diet restriction in migraine, based on IgG against foods: A clinical double-blind, randomised, cross-over trial. Cephalalgia. 2010;30(7):829-837.

16. Diamond S, Prager J, Freitag F. Diet and headache. Postgraduate Medicine. 1986;79(4):279-286.

17. Vaughan T. The role of food in the pathogenesis of migraine headache. Clin Rev Allergy. 1994;12(2):167-80.

18. Recommendations | Headaches in over 12s: diagnosis and management | Guidance | NICE [Internet]. Nice.org.uk. 2020 [cited 17 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg150/chapter/Recommendations#management-2