Imagine wearing a football helmet that’s too tight. Add to that upset stomach, blurred vision, and flashing lights. This is a migraine – a type of headache one memoirist described as feeling like “God just punched you in the side of the face.”
In the simplest terms, migraines are caused by the brain’s blood vessels enlarging and stimulating nerve endings. Most migraine sufferers (75 percent are women) experience more than one symptom. And the triggers are just as varied – from bright lights to stress to changes in hormones. Mary Gustafson, 30, of Chicago says that if she sneezes too many times or watches a 3D movie, she can get a migraine.
With that many triggers and symptoms, “it’s a bit of a detective game trying to find the cause,” says Brent Mathieu, ND, of Boise, Idaho. He suggests that patients first remove possible food allergies and emotional stressors. But if migraines persist, he says, they may be the result of more complicated issues: hormonal imbalances, toxins in the body, or inflammation.
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.
Take: 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.
During a migraine, the tissue surrounding the brain becomes inflamed. That’s why Roy Upton, herbalist and executive director
of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, suggests taking omega-3 fatty acids, which lessen cells’ reaction to inflammation.
Take: 4,000 to 6,000 mg of fish oil daily with meals for best absorption. After eight to 12 weeks (if the migraines have stabilized), you can adjust the dose to 1,000 mg per day.
Xiao yao wan (Chinese classic herbal formula)
Kelly Parcell, ND, of NatureMed Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, points to liver qi stagnation – when the liver doesn’t properly clean toxins from the body – as a possible cause of migraines. She suggests xiao yao wan (also called xiao yao san), a blend of plant roots, rhizomes, and mushrooms that is believed to help cleanse the liver.
Take: Use as directed; consult your healthcare practitioner.
Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus)
Many women suffer from menstrual-induced migraines, which is why some healthcare practitioners, including Parcell, see hormones as a possible trigger. If your progesterone level is too low in relation to estrogen, it can cause blood vessels in the brain to dilate, which is a known cause for migraines. Parcell uses the herb chasteberry (as a tea or in concentrated herbal capsules) to boost progesterone levels. “I try to affect hormone change without actually giving the hormone,” she says.
Take: Parcell suggests drinking several cups of chasteberry tea per day. David Riley, MD, Natural Solutions’ medical editor, also suggests 500 mg of chasteberry supplements every morning.
Butterbur root (Petasites)
According to the journal Neurology, the root extract from this daisy plant is one of the best herbs to prevent migraines; patients who took butterbur extract saw migraine frequency decrease by as much as 48 percent.
Take: 100 to 150 mg two to three times per day. Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, suggests looking for extracts with low levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA), which are naturally occurring in the butterbur plant and can be toxic to the liver. He recommends the brand Petadolex.