We take head pain very seriously. If you are experiencing chronic or severe headaches, you should waste no time getting to a doctor or headache specialist. Pain in the head can signal a variety of extremely serious conditions. That being said, headaches are a common affliction, and, statistically speaking, far more often than not they’re simply a painful nuisance rather than a medical emergency. The first thing to know about run-of-the-mill headaches is that medicine taken to alleviate pain might actually be causing the symptoms. Medication-overuse headaches often occur in people who pop painkillers two or more times a week, as their brain receptors become sensitized and trigger more and more severe headaches. The way to break out of the cycle is to stop taking the medication (under a physician’s supervision) and to go through an adjustment period. Lots of other things can cause headaches as well. For example, gluten can trigger headaches in people suffering from celiac disease. Forgoing that morning cup of joe can literally be painful for folks addicted to caffeine. And as anyone who’s ever had a hangover knows, overindulging in alcohol can lead to a rude awakening the next morning.
I know that red wine can cause migraines. But I have also heard that there is something you can drink to alleviate a migraine. Do you have any idea what it could be?
This will sound bizarre, but one person told us that drinking a beer at the very first sign of a migraine could prevent the attack from progressing. She learned this approach from an old country doctor and has used it successfully for decades. We can’t explain why beer might work against migraines, but we have heard from others that it can be helpful.
I suffered from migraines for years. Then I started taking magnesium and practicing yoga. I also eat a low-carbohydrate diet—low in yeast, sugars, and grains. I no longer suffer. It’s a blessing.
We’re glad to hear these changes made such a difference for you. We’ve also heard from those who have changed their diets in other ways, including adding supplements like magnesium, vitamin B complex and B2 (riboflavin), coenzyme Q10, melatonin, feverfew, and butterbur.
I suffer from classic migraines. I’ve been able to cut way down on their frequency by avoiding my food and beverage triggers and taking blood thinners such as aspirin, vitamin E, and omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids. This has stopped my migraines almost completely.
There are, unfortunately, a lot of foods and drinks—such as caffeine, chocolate, red wine, aged cheese, or too much of any kind of alcoholic beverage—that may trigger migraines in some unlucky folks. Frequent culprits also include foods containing aspartame, MSG, sulfites, nitrates, and tyramine. But there are also foods and beverages that may help alleviate headache or migraine symptoms.
I sometimes make a tea of mint, chamomile, sassafras (which one grandmother called “headache bark”), some cinnamon sticks, cloves, and a bit of valerian. I add grated fresh ginger when preparing the tea. It’s not a cure, but it helps, as do ginger beer; a warmed, buckwheat-filled pack along my back and shoulders; and ice packs on my temples and forehead. (I wish Imitrex and its relatives worked for me, but they don’t.)
Studies have documented ginger as a migraine treatment for decades.1 A small study testing a combination product (GelStat Migraine) containing ginger and the herb feverfew indicated that the product could help alleviate migraines.2
I suffered from migraine headaches for more than ten years. I saw several neurologists, but my intense headaches forced me to take early retirement. In fall 2002, I went from three headaches a week to almost nonstop. That November, I had only three days without headaches. I took migraine meds like Frova, Maxalt, and Imitrex, but mostly I lay in bed in a dark room. I was at my wit’s end. Then my family doctor suggested a gluten-free diet. Gradually my headaches became less frequent, and after several months I was 98 percent headache free. I feel I was given a new life! Please share my story so others can benefit.
One commonsense approach to headache relief is keeping a journal in which you record the food and drink you consume and times when you experience headaches. This will help you discern any patterns.
HOT AND SPICY SOUP
I read in your column that gumbo soup could help some people with migraine headaches. I started to come down with a migraine while I was on a trip and ordered some gumbo soup. The discomfort was gone within a few hours, but I don’t want to eat out every time I get a headache. How do you make gumbo soup?
There are many recipes for great gumbo, and you can select any that tickle your taste buds. Common ingredients include okra, onion, garlic, celery, green pepper, tomatoes, shrimp, and most important, chili peppers. We think the key ingredient against migraines is capsaicin (the “hot” in hot peppers). About a year ago, one man wrote to tell us about his experience with gumbo as a treatment for occasional migraines that disturb his vision. They generally occur in clusters over a period of several days: “In my town, there is a restaurant that serves very good, very spicy seafood gumbo. While waiting for my gumbo to be served one day, I noticed the onset of a migraine. My vision had deteriorated, so I could barely read just as my gumbo was served. As I sipped my soup (it was both very hot and very spicy), my vision cleared and the headache disappeared. There was no recurrence.”
We have heard from others who have also had good results with a hot and spicy soup relieving migraine symptoms. While it may not work for everyone, there is some research to support the value of capsaicin for this condition.
Joe Graedon & Terry Graedon, The People’s Pharmacy: Quick & Handy Home Remedies, published by National Geographic