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Condition - Migraine misery? Foods and herbs may have the answers.

By Debbie Paddington Dip ION

According to the UK charity, Migraine Action, one in seven people suffer from migraines, an intense throbbing headache often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Often the pain is so severe that all the sufferer can think about is finding a dark, quiet place to lie down. Some migraines are preceded, or accompanied, by sensory warning symptoms often called aura, which include flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in your arms or legs.


The exact cause of migraines is unknown, but most researchers think that they are due to abnormal changes in levels of substances that are naturally produced in the brain, such as the feel good neurotransmitter serotonin. When the levels of these substances increase, they can cause inflammation. This inflammation then causes blood vessels in the brain to swell and press on nearby nerves, causing pain. There also seems to be a genetic link to migraine headaches, with over half of all migraine patients being related to another sufferer.


What the experts do know is that that people with migraines react to a variety of factors and events, called triggers. Since the 1930s, both migraine sufferers and scientists have suspected that hidden food allergies and intolerances have been linked to migraines. Compounds in foods and beverages considered as migraine triggers include:


Tyramine, a compound known as an amine, is produced from the natural breakdown of the amino acid, tyrosine. Tyramine can cause blood vessels to dilate, and this may be what starts the migraine chain-reaction in some people. Foods high in tyramine include brie, cheddar, blue cheeses, feta, mozzarella and parmesan; aged, canned, cured or processed meats; onions, olives, pickles, avocadoes, raisins, and nuts; soy sauce, canned soups, soup, tofu, miso, tempeh, and many alcoholic drinks such as red wine and beer – quite a list!


Phenylethylamine is an organic compound produced naturally in your body as a by-product of the amino acid phenylalanine. It is believed that some people who suffer with migraines have difficulty breaking down phenylethylamine. Foods high in phenylalanine include pork, beef, lamb, fish, beans and chocolate.


Histamine is an organic nitrogen compound involved in our immune response. It is also involved in the production of nitric oxide in the body, which causes blood vessels to widen, increasing blood flow. Foods high in histamine include champagne, tofu, beer, red wine, sausages, blue cheese and parmesan cheese.


Phenols are a large group of chemical compounds found in plants, that are responsible for controlling the activity of a range of enzymes and cell receptors, therefore protecting the plant from infections and UV radiation damage. It is thought that migraine sufferers have difficulty breaking down these compounds. Foods that contain phenols include, berries, citrus fruits, apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, grapes, cherries, onions, artichokes, potatoes, red cabbage, gluten grains, rice and soybeans.

Food additives

Preservatives, or additives, such as nitrates dilate blood vessels and may trigger migraines in some people. Foods that contain preservatives or additives include, sausages, bacon, ham and cured or processed meats.

The list of possible triggers is long and it is very individual and therefore many migraine sufferers end up avoiding foods unnecessarily. So where do you start in trying to identify possible food triggers? According to a study published in the Lancet the foods that most commonly cause migraines are wheat, oranges, eggs, tea, coffee, chocolate, milk, beef, corn, cane sugar, and yeast and when these common foods were avoided, there was a dramatic fall in the number of headaches per month. A food elimination diet starting with one common food at a time and monitoring symptoms may therefore be a helpful place to start to identify any possible food triggers. That, however, may be a long process that is difficult for people with busy lives, so alternatively a food intolerance test may be an easier option for many, to help identify any problem foods.

Food intolerance is only one possible cause of migraine and, even when it is implicated, may not be the only factor. Hormones, exercise, stress and changes in the environment can also play a part.

So, are there any other natural aids? The herb Feverfew shows tremendous promise

Feverfew, also known as Tanacetum parthenium, Chrysanthemum parthenium Bernh and Pyrethrum parthenium, has been used for centuries as a traditional remedy for headaches, arthritis, and fevers. The name Feverfew comes from a Latin word meaning “fever reducer.” Feverfew was first documented in the first century (AD) as an anti-inflammatory by the Greek herbalist physician Dioscorides. The plant grows into a small bush up to around 46cm high with citrus-scented leaves, and is covered by flowers reminiscent of daisies. Feverfew products usually contain dried Feverfew leaves, but all parts of the plant that grow above ground may be used. It is thought that Feverfew may inhibit the secretion of serotonin and histamine release and may have anti-inflammatory properties and help to widen blood vessels increasing blood flow. Studies suggest that taking dried leaf capsules of Feverfew daily may reduce the number of migraines in people who have chronic migraines. In one study conducted on 100 Migraine Action members, researchers found that a daily supplement of dried Feverfew leaf may reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks and improve quality of life for the migraine sufferer. After taking the course of capsules, most people found that their headaches became less frequent and milder, with some describing themselves as migraine-free. Sixty-four percent of sufferers stated they would continue to take the supplement. The results of the survey confirm those of previous studies that have documented the ability of dried Feverfew leaf to help stave off the frequency of migraine type headaches.

Research found that a daily supplement of dried Feverfew leaf may reduce frequency and severity of migraine attacks. 

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