For the estimated 10% of men and 20% of women who suffer from migraines, there's good news: new research that certain supplements may be as effective as conventional medicine in the prevention and treatment of these debilitating headaches – or even more so.

What is it?

A migraine is a severe, throbbing headache that usually begins on one side of the head (hence the name 'migraine' – from the Greek hemikrania, or 'half skull') but may affect the whole head. Attacks can last for hours or days and may be preceded by warning signs.

What causes it?

The precise underlying cause of migraines is unknown. The prevailing theory is that they are sparked by spasms of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. Some researchers believe a low level of the brain chemical serotonin is the reason the blood vessels constrict and widen abnormally.

A variety of triggers can precipitate an attack in those susceptible to migraines. These initiators include certain foods, stress, lack of sleep, changes in the weather, bright light, fluctuations in blood sugar levels, liver problems, dental pain, hormonal swings that occur with the menstrual cycle or the use of birth control pills, environmental chemicals and exposure to cigarette smoke. Migraines run in families, and women are more susceptible than men.

What are the symptoms?

  • Intense, throbbing pain, first near one eye or temple, then throughout one or both sides of the head.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Painful aversion to light.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Early warning signs include visual disturbances (flashing lights or wavy lines) called an aura; tingling sensations, dizziness and ringing in te ears; sweating, chills, fatigue; swelling of the face; and irritability.

Are there any natural therapies?

Everyone who gets migraines should take magnesium and calcium long term. These minerals help to maintain healthy blood vessels, and low levels of magnesium are common in people who have migraines.

In addition, two natural remedies are beneficial in preventing some migraines. Widely used in Europe, the herb feverfew can reduce the intensity and frequency of migraines when taken over several months. Another herb, rosemary, can also prevent migraines – particularly the type relieved by heat – as well as reducing nausea and stomach pain. But women in the first trimester of pregnancy should not take rosemary in therapeutic doses (such as this), as it is also an emmenagogue, meaning it brings on menstruation. (Occasionally eating food, such as lamb, flavoured with rosemary is not a problem.) Several weeks of therapy may be needed to derive the maximum benefit.

If your migraines are ongoing, the B vitamin riboflavin may reduce their frequency more effectively than feverfew or rosemary. At high doses, riboflavin seems to increase energy reserves in brain cells. If none of these work, consider adding vitamin C and pantothenic acid. Both boost the production of hormones that assist the body in dealing ith the adverse effects of stress; pantothenic acid is also important for serotonin production.

What else can I do?

  • Identify and eliminate your migraine triggers.
  • Try biofeedback or relaxation training to help you cope with stress.
  • Drink at least 1.5 litres of water a day, and exercise regularly.

Did you know?

Eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fresh salmon and tuna, may help to prevent migraines. Omega-3s seem to alter blood chemicals, reducing the risk of the blood vessel spasms associated with migraines.