Alternative Medicine Cabinet: Go Against the 'Graine

No drugs, no side effects, no headaches.
By Gina Roberts-Grey

If you suffer from migraines, these debilitating headaches need no introduction. You might feel better, though, knowing that 28 million other Americans—the overwhelming majority of them women—are also searching for something safe to make the pain go away.

Scott Greenberg, MD, a physician at the Magaziner Center for Wellness and Anti-Aging Medicine in New Jersey, says the classic migraine begins with an aura—a warning sign such as blurred vision or lines in your visual field—followed by intense pain across your head. It can also occur without any warning at all, however. “Sensitivities to light and noise set in next,” Greenberg says. “Then come the nausea, vomiting, and pain.”

Migraines can last from two hours to two days, says Greenberg, “with the majority of them passing after six to eight hours.” They occur as infrequently as two to three times a year or as often as four to five times per week.

Common migraine instigators include foods containing tyramine (like chocolate and aged cheeses), changes in the weather, strong odors, and air pollution.

Alternative treatments
Most neurologists prescribe betablockers, triptan prescriptions like Imitrex, or nerve injections for this type of headache. But, Greenberg warns, they all come with serious side effects. “Taking triptans brings an increased risk of heart attack or stroke; beta-blockers cause fatigue, weight gain, and insulin sensitivity; and nerve injections only mask the pain.”

Luckily, many alternative remedies have gained ground in the fight against migraine symptoms. Here are a few natural remedies that may help ease your headache pain.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
This herb treats migraine pain by interrupting its main cause: inflammatory reactions in your head that aggravate nerve endings and cause the blood vessels to expand. When taken daily, feverfew can prevent migraines, according to Gene Bruno, a nutritionist in New York City, as well as “reduce their severity, duration, and frequency.” Be patient: The results can take four to six weeks. But if you stop taking it, your migraines might return.

Dosage: Bruno suggests 500 to 600 mg of standardized feverfew daily to treat or prevent migraines. Take two equal portions of feverfew on an empty stomach in the morning and evening.

GLA (gamma-linoleic acid)
In a study conducted in Berlin, the anti-inflammatory effect of GLA, an omega-6 essential fatty acid, reduced the severity, frequency, and duration of migraines in 86 percent of the participants. By reducing inflammation in the brain, GLA significantly lessened nausea and vomiting, allowing patients to switch from harsh prescriptions to aspirin and acetaminophen.

Dosage: Bruno says a dose of 1,300 to 1,600 mg of GLA from borage oil or evening primrose oil works best. Don’t use GLA if you take an antiseizure prescription. “GLA may interact with these medicines,” he warns. Take it on a full stomach in two divided doses, equally spaced during the day.

A recent Italian study found a strong correlation between migraines and hormonal fluctuations. In fact, 60 percent of the women studied got migraines right before, during, or immediately after their period. Estrogen hormones can block the body’s absorption of magnesium, leading to low blood levels of the mineral.

Dosage: “To treat or prevent a migraine, take 200 mg of magnesium twice a day,” says Bruno. Take with meals to ensure optimal absorption.

Calcium and vitamin D
A calcium deficiency can exacerbate migraine symptoms, says New York City endocrinologist Susan Thys-Jacobs, MD. Scientists speculate that women suffer from migraines more often than men because “women are more prone to calcium deficiencies than men,” says Thys-Jacobs, a leader in hormonal research. Most women experience low calcium levels during the premenstrual or ovulatory phase of their menstrual cycle. “The hormones that regulate calcium react negatively with high levels of estrogen and progesterone, which causes a deficiency that can trigger migraines,” she says.

Dosage: Since vitamin D improves calcium absorption, Thys-Jacobs recommends taking the two supps together. “Take 100 mg of calcium and 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D on a full stomach.”