Titas Khan, 25, a sports journalist from Howrah, West Bengal, recalls a debilitating headache during his college fest, a few years ago. Fuelled by the excitement of the festivities, Khan powered through the discomfort.
Over time, the headaches became more frequent, making it challenging to concentrate during all-night study sessions before exams, compared to his peers. “Coffee, which I thought would help, made the condition worse for me,” recalls Khan.
Khan had a tough time getting a good night’s sleep between his busy schedules. Erratic sleep, coupled with dehydration aggravated the pain. Unable to manage the condition by himself, he decided to seek help. Upon receiving a migraine diagnosis a few years ago, Khan started taking medication prescribed by his physician.
“The medications made me drowsy and dysfunctional. I was unable to focus and do my job,” says Khan.
However, with time he has identified his migraine triggers – sleep deprivation, dehydration, and caffeine. Ensuring a minimum of eight hours of sleep and being well hydrated has helped him manage his condition better.
Migraine – a brain teaser
A throbbing pain in the head, a feeling that the eyes might pop out of their sockets, nausea and sensitivity to light and sound, are the most common descriptions of a migraine attack. The mechanism and triggers are just as bewildering as its manifestation. The headaches are sometimes episodic, and other times chronic, with the pain lasting several days.
Read more about migraine here.
Early bench-based research suggests that the pain arises due to the expansion and contraction of the blood vessels in the brain (also known as vasodilation). Recent studies, however, have dismissed the idea, linking the symptoms to a more complex phenomenon.
According to a 2015 review published in the Journal of Neuroscience, these recurrent headaches occur when our nerves behave in a certain way that causes hyperexcitability of neurons (hyperactivity of neurons) in certain brain areas. The pain attests to the failure of the brain to detect this neuronal abnormality.
Read more about natural ways to relieve migraine headaches here.
Janani GV, a nutritionist from Puducherry, says that there are several factors involved when a person suffers a migraine attack. “Triggers such as tyramines (a food chemical found in aged cheeses, fermented foods, and certain meats, excess sodium, and nitrates from food, dehydration, sleeplessness, and stress are some of the factors one should be mindful of,” she adds.
“Maintaining a food diary and specific serological (antibody) testing to find out unique triggers are helpful in managing and avoiding migraines,” says Divya Naik, a bariatric nutritionist from Bengaluru.
Read more about holistic ways to manage migraine here.
No tricks, just mindful treats
When it comes to managing migraine, diet can play an important role. Identifying the triggers and adding simple changes can make a big difference.
Naik says that there is a significant connection between the gut and our brain. Therefore, anything that affects the microbiome in our gut eventually leaves a footprint in our brain. “The food that we eat is indirectly food for the microbes in our gut. These microorganisms digest the dietary fibres and produce chemicals that influence our brain function,” she explains.
Read more about the homoeopathic approach towards migraine here.
Different foods ‘fan the flames’ in the brain differently, tripping off headaches. “While tyramine-containing foods trigger the release of norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter), which increases the blood pressure and heart rate, nitrates and sodium from foods could tip off the electrolyte balance,” explains Janani.
The good news is that apart from identifying the stimulants, some food and lifestyle habits can also help manage the condition.
Here is a list of dos and don’ts from the experts:
- Include foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, flaxseed, olive oil, and walnuts, which help in reducing inflammation in the body
- Foods rich in magnesium like green leafy vegetables aid in reducing migraine
- A diet low in tyramine and nitrates (present in red and processed meats) is a great way to reduce migraine episodes
- Avoid excessive intake of caffeine
- Avoid skipping meals or taking prolonged intervals between meals
- Avoid foods that have added MSG (monosodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer)
- Avoid consuming meat and milk together to avoid indigestion
- Take a balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates like whole grains, millet, vegetables and pulses
- Include prebiotics and probiotics like curd, flax seeds, barley, buttermilk, cheese and oats
Food aside, Janani says that adequate sleep is also important to managing migraine. It can help mitigate mental and physical stress, thereby minimising the triggers for headaches. Naik agrees and says that when people do not get enough sleep, their health risks rise. “Symptoms of depression, seizures, and high blood pressure can worsen episodes of migraines,” she explains.
While exercising during an episode is not recommended, Janani suggests that regular exercises, along with a balanced diet, can help improve the condition in the long run.