So why are no-Rx-required treatments so effective? According to Alexander Mauskop, MD, neurologist and director of the New York Headache Center, genetics and stress are two of the most common migraine causes. Of course, you can't do anything about your family tree. But on the stress front, it makes sense that many tried-and-tested relaxation remedies—like exercise and meditation—can also be helpful for migraine sufferers. “We have good scientific proof that these methods do, indeed, prevent migraines," Dr. Mauskop says.
With this in mind, I spoke with a number of migraine experts and holistic health practitioners about some of the best options we have for managing severe headaches. As it turns out, there are a lot of treatments out there and they’re often risk-free. So if, like me, you’ve thrown your hands in the air and wanted to give up more than once, there’s nothing to lose by giving these fixes a try. (Except for, you know, excruciating pain, nausea, blurred vision...)
Keep scrolling for 7 drug-free remedies that can help with migraine headaches
Acupuncture, if you’ve never tried it, is a form of traditional Chinese medicine. It works by moving blood and qi—the body's life-force energy—around the body, often from an area of excess or stagnation to other areas where the blood and qi aren't spreading. “Acupuncture can increase the flow of blood and lymph in the system, activate nerve roots, [reduce] pain, calm the nervous system, improve digestion, and balance hormones,” says New York City-based acupuncturist Sarah Sadjak, DAOM, L.Ac.
For me, acupuncture has been a game changer. I attended my first session with serious, lifelong needle-phobia, but the effects of this ancient practice have been undeniably worth it in managing the pain and muscle tightness that go hand-in-hand with chronic migraines.
Since headaches aren't one-size-fits-all, neither are the acupuncture sessions designed to relieve them. Sadjak customizes her treatments based on the symptoms a client reports. “When someone suffers from migraines, I differentiate between different types of migraines, location of the migraine pain, and the various signs and symptoms migraines can coincide with or include—such as nausea, tunnel vision, throbbing, neck tension, and fatigue.”
The problem is that while acupuncture can effectively help manage pain and even decrease the frequency of migraines—as it has for me!—its results are not long-lasting. That means you'll have to carve out time from your busy schedule to make room for these appointments.
We also have Chinese medicine to thank for the celeb-approved practice of cupping—which works to “release five of the six possible energetic stagnations [as identified in traditional Chinese medicine],” says NYC acupuncturist Ioana Boambes, L.Ac. While acupuncture works to rebalance the body’s energetic flow, cupping is designed to address pain rooted at the deeper tissue level. This involves manually releasing adhesions and spasms and helping to address compromised circulation that results from these issues.
So how does this translate to migraines? No, you won't leave with big red splotches all over your head. Boambes applies the heated glass bulbs (aka cups) to other sites on the body where tension accumulates—primarily the upper back, neck, and shoulders—to remove stagnation that can cause headaches.“Migraines are considered an upsurge of Yang energy,” Boambes explains, noting that this energy “has no pathway to return down from the head. Cupping works to release stuck pressure valves to reestablish healthy blood flow.” Plus, it'll give you a conversation-starting photo op for Instagram, if that's your thing.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, regular exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines. “When one exercises, the body releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers,” they explain. “Exercise reduces stress and helps individuals to sleep at night. Stress and inadequate sleep are two migraine triggers." (Obesity's another one, the organization notes.)
For migraineurs—the fancy term for those of us who suffer from migraines—it’s even more important to hydrate before, during, and after a workout. You should also eat a substantial, protein-filled snack about 90 minutes prior to exercising, and warm up thoroughly before your sweat sesh.
A recent study showed that a group of meditators had 1.4 fewer migraines a month than non-meditators, and that their headaches lasted about three hours less, on average. While this is a great—and free!—option to try, there's another form of relaxation training that you can turn to if sitting in silence isn't your jam: biofeedback. Essentially, this practice uses technology to monitor what's going on inside our bodies, and teaches us to shift our physical states accordingly.
Here's how it works: During or preceding a migraine, the body often enters the "fight-or-flight" state, which involves the “activation of the sympathetic nervous system,” explains Brian Grosberg, MD, FAHS, and director of Hartford Healthcare Headache Center. Digital biofeedback systems track subtle signs that a migraine's coming on—like reduced circulation to your fingers—and convert them into a signal you can see or hear, so you're aware of what's happening internally.
“Patients develop increased awareness of physiologic functions associated with migraine and stress, and learn to control their physiologic states [through methods like deep breathing or visualization],” Dr. Grosberg says. In other words, biofeedback procedures help reduce sympathetic nervous system activity, which in turn reduces anxiety and stress—again, a common migraine trigger. Think of it like taking your brain to the gym.
Medical marijuana (currently legal in 29 states and Washington D.C.) is, for some migraineurs, a true lifesaver. One major reason? Research suggests it can be useful as both a preventative method of treatment and to cut an attack short. The biggest thing you’ll need to sort out is getting your license, as many states still have pretty strict rules about who gets access. Talk to your neurologist about that.
Once you’ve got your card, it’s a matter of figuring out what kind of cannabis will be most effective. As you may know, there are two main components—THC (the one that gets you high) and CBD (which tends to make you feel chill, but not high). It's a process of trial and error, so don't get discouraged if you don't find the right match instantly. “Finding the right combination of the two main ingredients can take some time," Dr. Mauskop explains. "Some patients need one type for prevention—often low THC and high CBD—and another for acute therapy, often a 1:1 ratio of THC and CBD.”
Migraine trigger foods vary widely amongst patients, making it hard to give dietary recommendations that'll help everyone. But there are a few key supplements known to benefit a wide range of people. Many of them, Dr. Grosberg explains, relate to the observation that migraines are related to dysfunctional mitochondria (the powerhouses of our cells).
A common recommendation for migraine patients is magnesium. “Magnesium deficiency is present in up to half of migraine sufferers,” Dr. Mauskop notes. Assuming you've spoken with your own doctor first, Dr. Mauskop recommends a magnesium glycinate supplement starting at 400 mg per day. A happy side effect? The nutrient can also help soothe muscle tension, stress, and sleep issues.
If your body alerts you every time it's going to rain, you haven't watched Mean Girls one too many times—there's a scientific reason behind this weird phenomenon. “Weather changes such as an approaching storm cause a drop in barometric pressure," explains Susan Hutchinson, MD, medical advisor at MigraineX and a practicing migraine physician. "The change in pressure affects the external environment, including the air in the external canal.”
Subsequently, the inner ear, sinuses, and Eustachian tubes (a part of the middle of the ear) become imbalanced, and this can trigger a migraine. And it doesn’t take a drastic shakeup in the air to make this happen. “A change in barometric pressure as little as .20 millibars can impact the pressure in the ear canal and lead to a migraine,” Dr. Hutchinson explains.
For this subset of migraine sufferers, MigraineX ear plugs could be one solution. Although there's no clinical data to back up their efficacy, they're said to help regulate the rate of barometric pressure change in the ear canal adjacent to the eardrum. You simply wear them if a drop in pressure is predicted or has already occurred. There’s even a companion app to help alert you to these shifts. Headache forecast: looking brighter.
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