Migraine Headaches – Reducing Frequency & Pain With Diet & Exercise?
Migraine headaches are brutal. If you suffer from them you know just how debilitating they can be. Sensitivity to light and sound. Insane, pulsating pain. Nausea. Even symptoms such as blurred vision.
Pain from a migraine can last anywhere from several hours to several days. The intensity of this pain can be so disabling that it can make it difficult for an individual to focus, think or perform the smallest of physical tasks. Migraine sufferers often experience their first headache as adolescents or teens.
A migraine headache may be proceeded by an aura. Symptoms of an aura can include blind spots, tingling in the arms or legs, tingling on one side of your face, or flashes of light.
“And then a throb hits you on the left ide of the head so hard that your head bobs to the right… There’s no way that came from inside your head, you think. That’s no metaphysical crisis. God just punched you in the face.” – Andrew Levy
4 Stages of a Migraine Headache
There are four possible stages to a migraine headache:
- Aura (Detailed above)
The prodromal phase can initiate several hours to days before an actual migraine headache. During this phase you may experience:
- Trouble sleeping and yawning
- Difficulty reading and speaking
- Frequent urination and/or increase in thirst
- Hunger cravings
- Muscle stiffness and stiff neck
- Decrease in the ability to concentrate
- Photophobia, or light sensitivity
- Phonophobia, or sound sensitivity
It is not unusual for the migraine sufferer to experience depression or mood issues during the prodrome. It should be noted that these mood changes are even prevalent in individuals with no history of melancholy.
The onset of a migraine disrupts norepinephrine and serotonin; neurotransmitters in the brain that help regulate happiness, focus and mood.
Following a migraine headache, the post-dromal phase kicks in. During this time, perhaps for the next day or two, you are likely to feel:
- Extremely tired
- Head pain that occurs when moving quickly or bending over
- Photophobia, or light sensitivity
- Phonophobia, or sound sensitivity
Migraine Headache Statistics and General Information
Worldwide, one in seven (14.7%) individuals experiences migraine headaches. This makes the condition the third most prevalent human disease or condition. More people suffer from migraine headaches than diabetes, asthma, and epilepsy combined.
Chronic migraines impact 2% of the world population. Those who suffer from chronic migraines experience symptoms or headaches at least 15 days a month. A chronic migraine sufferer must also experience at least 2 of the following symptoms for at least eight days each month:
- Pain is predominantly on one side of the head
- Moderate to severe pain
- You experience a throbbing or pulsation in the side of your head
- Physical activity makes the headache worse
75% of migraines are experienced by women. This is likely hormonally driven.
For every million individuals, 3,000 migraines occur each day. This number adds up to 190,000 migraine attacks in the US each day.
Three out of four that suffer from migraines experience at least one a month. More than half of these individuals suffer from some form of severe impairment during the migraine attack. The majority of migraines occur for persons between the ages of 35 and 45.
For pre-pubertal ages, about 4% of boys and girls experience migraines. After this age there is a strong predominance of migraines among girls.
More migraine stats:
- The 7th most disabling disease in the world
- Responsible for 2.9% of years of life lost due to disability
- The average sufferer spends 5.3% of his/her life with a headache.
- Migraines are the second most frequent cause of short term absence from work for non-manual labor positions
- 20 to 25% of migraines are preceded by auras
The Causes and Triggers of Migraine Headaches
At this time migraine headaches are not completely understood. The causes are believed to be both environmental and genetic.
It is speculated that migraines are potentially triggered by changes in how the brain stem interacts with the pain pathway known as the trigeminal nerve. A serotonin imbalance may also contribute to the development of migraines. Serotonin is responsible for nervous system pain regulation.
During a migraine episode, an individual will experience a decline in serotonin levels. The result: Neuropeptides may be released from the trigeminal nerve. These neuropeptides will then journey to the meninges, which is the brain’s outer covering. This creates the pain associated with migraine headaches.
An older theory speculates that migraine headaches may actually be a blood vessel disease. Modern neuroscience now believes that vascular pathology plays no role in the cause.
Migraines tend to run in family lineages. 2/3rds of those that experience migraines also have other family members who suffer. This hints at a genetic cause.
Migraine headaches may be triggered by:
- Stress and anxiety
- Poor posture
- Overuse and abuse of caffeine
- Salty or spicy food
- Cure meat or cheese – aged foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- MSG, or monosodium glutamate
- Menstrual cycle-triggered hormonal changes
- menopause-related hormonal changes
- Birth control medications
- Vasodilation medications
- Medications for headaches
- Visual stimulation
- Loud music
- Sleep issues
- Shifts in temperature and humidity
- Red wine
- Dairy products
Migraines and Exercise
While exertive exercise may be a trigger, regular exercise may actually be beneficial to longterm relief from migraine pain. Timothy Houle, a PhD and associate professor in the Pain Mechanisms Lab at Wake Forest School of Medicine, states,
“Exercise is a potent stress reliever, and stress is commonly linked to migraine attacks.”
Many studies have been performed on the impact of regular exercise on migraines. The consensus is that exercise helps to reduce both migraine frequency and pain intensity.
Make sure to remain properly hydrated when working out. Dehydration will only amplify the possibility of migraine occurrence. From Noah Rosen, MD,
“Most people are not well-hydrated to begin with, and when you add the stress of exercise, it can push you over the edge.”
One study on water intake and migraines found that those consuming 32 more ounces of water per day experienced 10.5 fewer hours of migraine pain each week, over a two week period of time. That’s wildly substantial.
Also, it’s a good idea to at least eat something small before you exercise. Without food, you may experience a moderate drop in blood sugar levels. This could contribute to a migraine. It’s best to eat a small meal 60 to 90 minutes before resistance training or cardio. Make sure to stay away from junk food and sugar.
If you are new to exercise, you’ll want to start slowly. Don’t go full speed crazy. Ease into things. Slowing increase the intensity and duration as your body allows, and as you feel comfortable. For strength training, lower the weight and increase the reps a bit.
It’s also recommended that you do a light 10 to 15 minute warm-up. Don’t just barge into the gym and start crushing it. An abrupt and urgent demand for oxygen could be enough to trigger a migraine episode.
Finally, if you do get a migraine don’t stop. In the long run exercise is almost always beneficial to long-term relief.
Diet and Migraines
In addition to the above recommendations of avoiding an abundance of salty foods, spicy foods, red wine, chocolate, etc., Here are some other things to consider when structuring a migraine-friendly diet.
What you eat matters. Research has revealed this over and over again.
Coffee is excellent when fighting a migraine. Also, foods rich in complex carbs, magnesium, calcium, and fiber are quality choices. Ginger root may also be of benefit.
A study performed in 1983 used an elimination-style diet approach to try and local foods that triggered migraines.  88 children were studied. Each suffered from severe migraines. At the completion of the study, 78 had recovered completely using only a new diet approach.
This is a complex approach though. Foods were removed from a diet to test if migraine symptoms were relieved. If removal of a food choice helped, it was kept out of the child’s eating plan.
This might be a long and arduous process, but it works. Take time to slowly reduce certain foods and food choices that may be triggers. The following are generally considered migraine trigger foods. They are a good place to start.
- Peanuts and nuts
- Wheat bread and pasta
- Dairy products
- Certain meats
It’s also a good idea to cut out the majority of processed and canned foods, and to avoid:
- Aspartame (NutraSweet)
- Monosodium glutamate
Caffeine can both trigger migraines and help to relieve them. You may want to test it’s impact on your headaches by removing it for several weeks.
Supplements That Relieve Migraine Pain and Frequency
The following three supplement have either been shown to reduce migraine pain or frequency, or more research is being done to study their efficacy. These ingredients are caffeine, feverfew, and pelargonium sidoides.
Caffeine – 200mg of caffeine is seemingly very effective at reducing the intensity of migraine pain. One study in particular reveals that caffeine may slow blood flow to the brain by up to 35%. Have no fear, caffeine does NOT slow blood oxygenation rates. Therefore, you will not experience a decrease in focus or cognitive abilities. 
Feverfew – 300mg of feverfew appears to be effective at reducing the pain and frequency of migraines.  There is no evidence though that when migraines do occur that feverfew reduces the duration.
Some evidence hints that feverfew’s may only work effectively on those with severe migraine issues, rather than mild or moderate.
Pelargonium Sidoides – 900mg of this root extract may dramatically reduce headache symptoms, but primarily only for those with acute bronchitis. It may be worth consideration though for migraines. The jury is still out.
1) Egger J, Carter CM, Wilson J, Turner MW. Is migraine a food allergy? A double-blind controlled trial of oligoantigenic diet treatment. Lancet. 1983;2:865-289.
2) “Feverfew – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects | Examine.com.” Independent Analysis on Supplements & Nutrition | Examine.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
3) “Caffeine – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects | Examine.com.” Independent Analysis on Supplements & Nutrition | Examine.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.