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Can Magnesium Prevent Migraines

November 4, 2011 (Updated: August 4, 2021)
Lily Moran

I prefer a non-toxic approach to healing. That means starting with gentle solutions like nutrients or herbs, instead of harsh prescription medication. So, I recommended that my patient, Grace take a few nutritional supplements that have successfully tamed the migraine monster for other patients. Reluctantly, she agreed.

Then came the hard part. Based on her history, I suspected Grace was suffering from “medication overuse headaches” (MOH), sometimes called “rebound headaches.” These headaches can happen when an individual takes migraine medication for more than 10-to-15 days each month. The resulting headache may not seem as severe as a migraine because it’s not accompanied by nausea and other symptoms. But it is still a bad headache, and it can be avoided. MOH is now the third most common type of headache, after ordinary tension headaches and migraines. But treating it means getting patients off medication, a frightening prospect for some people.

In Grace’s case, I suggested tapering off one prescription drug at a time to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Meanwhile, this would give nutritional supplements time to reach therapeutic levels in her body.

The next few weeks were challenging for Grace. But with Hal’s support, she quit taking the prescription meds. Even better, Grace followed through by taking the supplements I recommended. Within a month, her migraine frequency dropped from two to three per week to one every two weeks. Now, six months later, she’s migraine-free. In fact, she just made an appointment to discuss alternatives to the osteoporosis medication she’s on. In other words, it looks like that voodoo medicine is working!

Migraine Nation

Migraines are so common that even if you don’t have them yourself, you probably know someone who does. An estimated 28 million Americans suffer from migraines, costing our economy $13 billion annually in lost productivity and work time. Migraines can strike men, women, or children, although approximately three times more women than men suffer from these headaches.

The jury is still out on the exact causes of migraines. At one time, these excruciating headaches were thought to be caused by narrowing and then widening of arteries that provide blood for the brain. Now, experts suspect inflammation of the neurotransmitter serotonin may be involved. I’ve found migraines are often caused by sensitivity or allergy to specific foods, or a condition like Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder involving gluten, a protein found in wheat.

On the food front, a number of “triggers” have been linked to migraines, including but not limited to:

  • caffeine
  • artificial sweeteners
  • chocolate
  • aged cheeses
  • fermented foods
  • alcohol, particularly red wine
  • nuts
  • preservatives like nitrates and nitrites, often found in processed meats
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)

For women, hormonal fluctuations are another factor. Stress is frequently involved as well, and so is heredity. Other possible triggers include changes in weather, bright light, intense odors, fatigue, and loud noises. With so many suspects, even Sherlock Holmes would have a difficult time sorting out the cause of an individual’s migraine attacks.

Minimizing Migraines

Although migraines are common, diagnosing them is not easy. There is no definitive test, so your physician has to rely on the symptoms you describe.

If you are diagnosed with migraines, there are two treatment approaches: take medications to prevent headaches and others to reduce pain during an attack. For prevention, many physicians prescribe antidepressants, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, or anti-seizure medications. Treating pain once a headache has begun usually involves some type of NSAID (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug), such as ibuprofen, or a separate class of drugs known as triptans. Like all medications, these drugs have side effects, and they can be serious. In addition, migraine drugs can be very expensive, costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars each month.

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Don’t Pull Your Triggers

Although I suggest seeing a doctor for migraine treatment, there is only so much a physician can do. It’s up to each patient to take steps to reduce migraines. For example, avoiding “triggers” — food, beverages, or events that initiate a migraine — is essential. Grace already knew that chocolate triggered her headaches because her first doctor asked her to keep a “headache diary.”

I can’t stress the importance of headache diaries enough. Sometimes food and drink triggers are consumed a day or two before the actual headache. Without a diary recording what you ate and when, it’s easy to miss an important clue in migraine prevention. Headache diaries are not complicated. Just buy a small notebook and write down what you eat and drink each day, as well as any stressful events or other possible triggers, like changes in weather.

Supplements that Help Migraines

The key to dealing with migraines is preventing them in the first place. Fortunately, several nutrients have made a huge difference in prevention for my patients.

My first choice is vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin. B2 is a water-soluble member of the B complex family. In one clinical trial, B2 reduced the frequency and severity of migraines by more than two-thirds. In another trial, the reduction was at least 50 percent.

Good food sources of vitamin B2 include mushrooms, most leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, low-fat milk, and yogurt. As a supplement, vitamin B2 is virtually free of side effects and very reasonably priced. I recommend a daily dose of 400 mg of B2.

The mineral magnesium is another good migraine preventative. Several studies have shown that migraine sufferers tend to be low in magnesium, so supplements can be very helpful.

Magnesium is found in Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, artichokes, cooked spinach, and buckwheat flour. For supplements, I recommend 500 mg of magnesium malate or lactate daily. Magnesium can sometimes cause loose stools or diarrhea, but starting with a half-dose twice daily and working up to a full dose once a day is a good way to avoid that. Finally, individuals with kidney disease should consult a physician before taking magnesium supplements, since excess amounts of the nutrient may overload already compromised kidneys.

Herbal Helper

Feverfew — which you may know by its more common garden name of bachelor’s buttons — has been used for more than 2,000 years to treat headaches without serious side effects.

I recommend 100 to 150 mg daily of a product standardized to contain at least 0.2 percent parthenolides, the active ingredient. Since natural remedies are gentler than prescription medications, it may take four to six weeks to see results. However, research has shown that using feverfew consistently leads to a reduction in the severity, duration, and frequency of migraine headaches.

Migraines are a painful, but treatable, condition that respond well to a one, two punch of trigger avoidance and simple supplement solutions. If you’re suffering from migraine headaches, I urge you to take back your life by starting with the suggestions above.

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