It’s no surprise that headaches and migraines are on the rise, with reports of a 2000% increase of searches on Google for headaches due to everyone working from home, sitting in front of a computer screen all day and feeling increasingly stressed. Jane Clarke, Dietician and Founder of Nourish, is here to answer all your questions about migraines.
What causes a migraine?
Migraines are a complex and multi-factorial condition of the nervous system and, unfortunately, there is no one clear cause or solution. I’ve met hundreds of migraine sufferers in my nutrition practice over the years, and while everyone’s triggers are different, I’ve seen time and again the huge improvement that a few dietary changes can make to their wellbeing. What we eat, what we don’t and when we do it has been proven to impact on symptoms and severity of migraines.
What are common migraine triggers?
It’s believed that migraines are caused by chemical changes in the nerve cells of the brain. For some of us, certain chemicals or compounds in our food can be the culprit. You may be sensitive to MSG, the flavour enhancer found in many processed or Chinese foods. Or keeping a food and migraine diary may reveal that Tyramine, an amino acid found in mature cheese, peanuts, chocolate, broad beans and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, could be your migraine weak spot.
Caffeine is a tricky one. Some people (myself included) find that starting the day with a cup of caffeinated tea or coffee can stop a headache developing later on, or even prevent one. However, drinking a lot of caffeine-rich drinks may make you more prone to migraines if you are particularly sensitive to its effects. If you think that may be the case, reduce the amount of caffeine you drink gradually, as rapid withdrawal can cause its own type of headache.
Alcohol is easier to make a decision about. From my own experience and from treating patients, it’s apparent that drinking alcohol on an empty stomach, when dehydrated, exhausted or stressed, can give you an alarming headache or migraine. You may find red wine or fizz is the worst offender, or (like me) that white wine is worse. It all depends on the type of grape and the additives, such as sulphites, that have been added. Keep a diary (see below) to see if there are certain drinks that affect you most. And if you do plan to have a glass or two, avoid mixing your drinks, drink plenty of water, and eat some food beforehand to help your body process the alcohol more easily.
Can certain foods help with a migraine?
Keeping your blood sugars balanced can make the difference between a migraine and a pain-free day. Avoiding high-GI sweet foods will stop the energy highs and lows that seem to trigger migraines in some people – so skip the cakes, biscuits, sweets and fizzy drinks. If you do crave something sweet, pears, dried apricots, plums, grapes, dates and kiwi fruit seem to be tolerated well. Combining your treat with a hit of protein – a sticky Medjool date with a walnut, or some cheese with slices of fresh apple – will help to slow down the absorption of sugar into your blood stream, meaning it’s less likely to trigger an attack.
Skipping meals is also likely to spark a migraine, especially breakfast. Three balanced meals a day, plus a couple of healthy snacks such as a Nourish Drink, which contains a balance of protein and carbohydrates, should be enough to keep your blood sugar stable. If you feel the pain coming on, nibble on something bland, such as a slice of toast or some rice cakes, and drink some water; it can be just enough to lessen the severity of the migraine.
How should I deal with a migraine?
A little planning may make the difference between managing your migraine and retreating to a darkened room. If you know low blood sugar is your trigger, for example, carry healthy snacks that will give you sustained energy – a mix of protein and carbohydrates is best, so a few nuts and dates, or a Nourish Drink (www.nourisbyjaneclarke.com) is ideal. If dehydration is the cause, always carry a water bottle with you. If it’s caffeine, carry herbal teabags with you.