Migraines 101: What You Need to Know About Them and How Not to “Go Mental” Over Them

Ian Wahl, DAc, LAc, CH

A minor headache can make it hard to concentrate for a while, but for most people, a couple of over-the-counter remedies can usually get them under control. However, if you are suffering from migraine headaches, it can be outright debilitating.

According to the American Migraine Association, 12% to 16% of the U.S. population suffers from migraines. That is about 39 to 50 million Americans who experience migraines. In the United States, 3 in 10 teenagers and 1 in 10 young children suffer from migraines. More Americans experience migraine headaches than suffer with asthma and diabetes combined. Migraines sabotage their ability to perform their jobs and, for those in school, their ability to learn. According to the World Health Organization, there are about 1 billion migraine sufferers worldwide.

Symptoms of Migraines
If you have noticed any of the following symptoms surrounding your headaches, or those of your loved ones, it is possible that it is due to a medical condition called Migraine Disorder. Here are the common symptoms associated with Migraine Disorder:

  • Light sensitivity and/or auras around lights
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Vomiting
  • Seeing spots
  • Pain on one side of your head or behind one eye
  • Sound sensitivity

Migraine Disorder, Who Suffers from It, and Why
Migraines are defined as “an inherited neurological disorder that is characterized by over-excitability of specific areas of the brain” (American Migraine Foundation). That sounds pretty scary, but what does it really mean? First, it simply means that some people are more susceptible to migraines than others and that an individual who suffers from migraines has a different biochemical brain make-up than those who don’t have the disorder. In addition, the disorder tends to run in families, which means you are more likely to have the disorder if other family members have it. There are also two different types of migraines, migraines with aura (visual disturbances) and migraines without aura. Usually, a migraine diagnosis is given when one has a combination of symptoms listed above and doctors have ruled out other possible disorders or conditions.

Unfortunately, when it comes to migraine triggers, there are many making it difficult to determine how to identify the specific cause(s). Here is a quick breakdown of some that could be causing you, or someone you know, a great deal of pain:

  • Change in Routine
  • The Weekend—especially Sunday evenings (before returning to work or school)
  • Stress
  • Hormonal Changes
  • Environment including Weather and/or Temperature Changes
  • Screen Time
  • Food Sensitivities
  • Unhealthy Foods
  • Food Additives
  • Alcohol
  • Medications including over-the-counter
  • Oral Contraceptives
  • Exercise
  • Cheese
  • Caffeine
  • Teeth Grinding at Night
  • Concussion
  • Sleep—too much or too little
  • Having a Family Member who Suffered with Migraines
  • Physical or Medical Conditions and Comorbidities

If you suffer from a chronic medical condition or autoimmune disease, you are more likely to have migraines. When two medical conditions often occur together it is called a comorbidity. It is common for people living with migraine headaches to experience at least one comorbidity. 

Unfortunately, according to the American Migraine Association, there is no medical cure for migraines. The list that can lead to triggering a migraine is long but there is hope. Some triggers are genetic, some are difficult to change, but luckily some you have control over. In other words, if the migraine is triggered by food or environmental sensitivities, there is hope for the sufferer.

Migraine Triggers You Can Control 
Caffeine: People tend to experience caffeine related migraines for one of two reasons—either they are consuming too much of it, or they go from high consumption to none instantly (causing caffeine withdrawal). The best thing is to limit yourself to less than 4 cups of coffee (or one Starbucks Grande) worth of caffeine each day, if you must have a daily dose of caffeine. To reduce your caffeine consumption, gradually work your way down to this by slowly reducing the amount consumed each day. Then work on lowering it further. This advice goes for all caffeinated beverages including teas, sodas or carbonated soft drinks with caffeine and many Energy drinks. Again, reduce the amount you consume gradually to prevent “rebound migraines”. 

Screens: In today’s world, many jobs and schools require people to sit in front of computer screens for hours on end. Once they do get a break or leave work for the day, they go from staring at their computers to the various other screens in their lives such as phones, tablets, and TV’s just to name a few. To prevent triggering a migraine this way, take regular breaks allowing your eyes to focus on something else. Make sure the lighting is satisfactory, so you are not squinting. Also, you can investigate downloading a blue blocking filter. These are available on most computers, tablets, and phones today in your settings application and do not cost anything additional to download. This filters harmful blue light and reduces the chances of triggering a migraine as well as eye strain. If this is not possible, you can invest (for a few dollars) in blue blocker glasses or have a blue blocker coating put on your glasses.

Food: In our busy day to day world, it can be difficult to ensure that you are eating a healthy snack or meal each time you eat. However, chronic migraine sufferers risk triggering a migraine whether you grab a candy bar instead of having lunch or skip a meal altogether. To avoid this type of trigger, make sure you always have healthy meals and snacks with you. Consider meal prepping that you can bring with you. This will also save money. Eat small, nutritious meals and/or snacks at regular intervals throughout the day. In addition, avoid additives such as aspartame, nitrates, artificial coloring, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) as best as you can as they too have been linked to migraines.

Food Allergies and Sensitivities: For some people, even eating healthy foods can trigger migraines if they suffer from sensitivities to those foods or to the unavoidable common components that are in most foods. While you can attempt an elimination diet, it is not the most accurate diagnostic tool. It is often easier and more successful to see a holistic allergist for a painless and non-invasive food sensitivity assessment and treatment for those food sensitivities and allergies.

Exercise: While exercise is good for you, for migraine sufferers, jumping full throttle into an intensive regimen can do more harm than good. If you are just beginning your movement journey, start slowly. It is best to ease yourself into it and work your way up to your comfort level to avoid triggering a migraine.

Mild dehydration: This is important! Carbonated, as well as caffeinated, drinks can cause mild dehydration leading to a migraine. They often contain aspartame, coloring, caffeine, or other migraine triggering chemicals and supplements. Water is your best choice for hydration. Splurging occasionally on carbonated, caffeinated drinks needs to be balanced by regularly drinking eight 8-oz glasses of water every day.

Weather Changes: According to the Mayo Clinic, many people suffer from weather-related migraines. Their triggers include:

  • Bright sunlight
  • Extreme heat or cold
  • Sun glare
  • High humidity
  • Dry air
  • Windy or stormy weather
  • Barometric pressure changes

Although you cannot control the weather, a holistic allergist can successfully treat you for many of these sensitivities. See The Healthy Planet article, https://thehealthyplanet.com/2021/01/how-changes-in-weather-affect-allergy-symptoms-headaches-and-pain/ 

Sleep: Both getting too much sleep and not getting enough sleep can trigger a migraine. If you notice this is a trigger for you, try sticking to a sleep schedule. By going to bed and getting up at the same time each day you can reduce your chance of getting a migraine. If you snore or experience sleep apnea, it is important to see a sleep specialist and undergo a sleep study. These conditions can lead to migraines as well as other health issues if left untreated.

As you can see, migraine disorder is not simple. Even though each person might experience it in a different way, one thing is for sure, they are excruciating. The good news for many migraine sufferers is that there are things you can do to lead a healthy, normal, migraine-free life. 

If you suffer from migraines that may be triggered by environmental, food, or chemical sensitivities, Dr. Ian Wahl and St. Louis Allergy Relief Center specialize in holistic, natural treatments. They provide a detailed treatment plan after completing comprehensive testing to determine the seasonal, food, chemical, or environmental stressors that may be triggering your migraines. Visit their website https://stlouisallergyrelief.com/ to learn more or call 314-384-9304 and speak with Beverly.