Traditional headache specialists have started recommending alternative therapies for migraine sufferers, who often have to soldier through debilitating headaches without much relief.
“There’s clearly a need for better medications to treat migraines,” said Dr. Roger Cady, director of the Headache Care Center in Springfield, Mo.
Even the best medication we have doesn’t work for one-third of sufferers. And pain medications can cause rebound headaches if taken too often. So some frustrated migraine patients have turned to natural remedies for help in preventing migraine attacks or minimizing their pain once a headache hits.
The good news is that a handful of supplements have proven to be effective in a number of small studies. Though supplement makers don’t have the big bucks to do large scale studies, smaller studies have convinced some specialists—and many patients—that some of these alt meds are worth a try, especially since they come with a low risk of side effects. Caveat: Always discuss your treatment with a doctor, and don’t take these supplements without consulting a doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Feverfew and ginger: Feverfew, an herb with a long history of use for migraines, has been combined with ginger, a known anti-nausea therapy, in a sublingual tablet called LipiGesic. A recent study, authored by Cady, found that 63 percent of migraine sufferers using LipiGesic found some relief compared to 39 percent of those taking a placebo. Of those taking LipGesic, 32 oercent were pain free at two hours after the onset of a migraine, compared to 16 percent of those on placebo.
“These are very respectable improvements and certainly worth a try,” Cady said.
Butterbur: Butterbur, another anti-inflammatory herb, has also been fairly well studied, but for preventing migraine attacks. It’s not effective for treating an acute migraine once it starts, said Dr. Frederick Taylor, adjunct professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota. You need to take 75 milligrams twice a day.
Magnesium: When taken daily, magnesium may help reduce the frequency of migraines. The mineral helps to calm nerves, which tend to get overexcited during a migraine. Some studies have found that migraine sufferers tend to be deficient in magnesium. You’ll likely need more than the average multi-vitamin contains or about 400 to 600 milligrams a day. Look for amino acid-chelated magnesium (many brands contain magnesium oxide, which is not absorbed as well). You can also increase your magnesium by eating dark green vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): “We recommend that all our migraine patients take a B complex vitamin,” Cady said. Studies have shown that having adequate vitamin B2 can reduce the frequency of migraines. One theory of migraines is that too many demands are being made on nerve cells, and there’s not enough energy being produced to support the demands. Vitamin B12 (as well as magnesium) play important roles in boosting energy production inside nerve cells, Cady explained. You need about 400 milligrams of riboflavin a day for prevention, which is more than the average multivitamin contains.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency is becoming more common, as people spend more time indoors or avoiding the sun. Whether that is contributing to migraines is unknown, but studies have shown that vitamin D may play a role in the way you perceive pain. Most people can safely take about 2,000 milligrams a day.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.