Concerned about drug side effects in treating migraines? Studies show natural options may work just as well.
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, about 36 million Americans suffer from migraines, with more than 27 million of those being women. Most experience an attack once or twice a month, but about 14 million have them daily.
Unfortunately, according to new guidelines from the American Headache Society, less than one-third of sufferers use any sort of treatment for these extremely painful and debilitating headaches.
Could that be because of fear of drug side effects? According to a CBS News article, a lot of patients have been burned by drugs that don’t work, yet cause a myriad of miserable side effects. Fortunately, there’s good news—recent studies have found that some natural treatments actually help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.
What are Migraines?
Migraines are disabling headaches that most likely stem from problems with the nerves and blood vessels in the head. They usually last from 4–72 hours, and involve intense, throbbing pain on one, or sometimes both sides of the head. Most people feel the pain in the temples or behind one eye and ear, though any part of the head can be affected. Sufferers usually also experience nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
Researchers don’t know what causes migraines, but they think it has something to do with abnormal changes in levels of substances naturally produced in the brain. When these levels change, they can trigger inflammation of the blood vessels, which can press on nearby nerves, causing pain.
One thing that seems to be common in all migraine headaches is that something “triggers” them. Common triggers include:
- Lack of sleep
- Bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors
- Skipped meals
- Hormone changes during the menstrual cycle
- Stress or anxiety
- Weather changes
- Alcohol and caffeine
- Foods with nitrates, such as hot dogs and lunch meats
- Foods that contain MSG (monosodium glutamate
- Foods that contain tyramine, such as aged cheeses, soy products, and smoked fish
- Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal)
Triggers vary from person to person. Keeping a “headache diary” can help you determine which events may be triggering your migraines.
Drugs Aren’t Always the Best Answer
Those suffering from frequent migraines are likely to experience such a disruption in their daily lives that they may talk to their doctors about their condition. For some, medications like seizure drugs (divalproex, valproate, and topiramate) may help reduce the frequency of the headaches, but these medications may also create difficult side effects like drowsiness, weakness, liver problems, nausea, dizziness, constipation, trouble sleeping, and the like.
Beta-blockers, which are typically used to treat high blood pressure, may also be used to treat migraines, but again, you may have side effects to deal with. Fortunately, new evidence shows that some natural solutions actually do work at helping to reduce migraines, giving patients more options.
According to a recent release by the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society, based on a review of studies from the past decade, of all the alternative therapies evaluated, the herb butterbur (Petasites hybridus) was the only one “established as effective” in reducing the frequency and severity of migraines.
Butterbur has been used traditionally as an herbal remedy for pain, fever, and spasms. It comes from the root of the butterbur shrub, and grows to about three feet, commonly found in wet, marshy ground. Today it’s commonly used to treat coughs, asthma, hay fever, and stomach ulcers. In its natural state, however, it contains chemicals called “pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs),” which can damage the liver and cause other serious harm, so it’s important to always seek out PA-free extract products.
Scientists aren’t sure how butterbur helps reduce migraines, but human studies have shown that it does. Researchers theorize that “petasin,” the main component in butterbur, may inhibit inflammation and reduce spasms in smooth muscle tissues, relaxing swollen blood vessels and membranes. Human studies have also shown butterbur to act as an antihistamine, making it an exciting natural alternative for treating allergies.
With this recent recommendation by two prominent agencies, it certainly seems worth a try. The typical recommended dosage is from 50-100 mg of butterbur extract twice daily with meals. In one study, researchers found that taking 75 mg daily over 4 months cut the incidence of migraines nearly in half. TV’s Dr. Oz recommends 75 mg twice daily, upping to 100 mg twice daily if needed.
Other Possible Natural Solutions
Though butterbur extract was the only natural solution deemed as an established treatment for migraines, three others were mentioned as “probably effective.” These included the herb feverfew, as well as magnesium and riboflavin. The evidence for omega-3 fatty acids and other herbal or nutrient supplements was inadequate or conflicting. In other words, there may be other natural solutions, but so far we don’t have sufficient evidence behind any of them.
- Feverfew: a member of the sunflower family, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) has been used for centuries as a remedy for headaches, arthritis and fevers. Similar to butterbur, feverfew has a phythochemical called “parthenolide” that helps relieve spasms in smooth muscle tissue. Studies have also found it contains aspirin-like chemicals. Human studies have shown it to be effective in reducing the number of migraine attacks per month. In one study, participants took feverfew, magnesium, and vitamin B2 and experienced a 50 percent decrease in migraines. Those used in studies were standardized to contain at least 0.2% parthenolide. Take 100-300 mg, up to 4 times daily, standardized to contain 0.2-0.4% parthenolides.
- Magnesium: According to the University of Maryland, people with migraines often have lower levels of magnesium than those who don’t have migraines. Studies suggest that magnesium may reduce frequency by over 40 percent, compared to 15 percent in those who took a placebo. Other studies suggest that magnesium may be particularly helpful in women whose migraines are triggered by menstrual periods. Try 200-600 mg per day.
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): Some studies show that this vitamin may also be helpful in reducing the frequency of migraines. Some studies show no effect, however, so more research needs to be done. Check with your doctor, as riboflavin can interfere with some medications like antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, and medications for gout. Try 400 mg per day for migraines.
As noted, some studies combined fevervew with magnesium and riboflavin and had good results. More is not always better, however, so check with your doctor, then consider trying one at a time, and if that doesn’t work, try some combinations. Some health stores may have migraine combination supplements already prepared. As always, make sure you trust the source.
Don’t forget to try lifestyle changes as well. These include avoiding your triggers, creating a standard waking and sleeping routine, eating healthy foods (and not skipping meals), engaging in regular exercise, and limiting caffeine and alcohol intake. In addition, try removing processed foods, diet soda, and anything with MSG from your diet for two weeks to see if you notice any benefits. Bottom line—keep trying! A solution is possible.
Have you tried butterbur, feverfew, or other natural solutions for migraines? What was your experience?
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Ryan Jaslow, “New migraine guidelines tout medications that may prevent symptoms,” CBS News, April 24, 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57419858-10391704/new-migraine-guidelines-tout-medications-that-may-prevent-symptoms/.
“Migraine Fact Sheet,” Women’s Health, May 1, 2008, http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/migraine.cfm.
“Butterbur Extract as an Antihistamine,” Phytotherapy Research, 2005;19:530-7, http://www.bastyrcenter.org/content/view/872/.
“Feverfew,” University of Maryland, 2011, http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/feverfew-000243.htm.
“Migraine Headache,” University of Maryland, 2011, http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/migraine-headache-000072.htm.