Major Anne Matthews,* a 34-year-old army officer, is the picture of efficiency and authority—except when she’s in the clutches of a migraine. On those days, performing even the simplest tasks becomes difficult. She spends days in pain, unable to go out, eat or work.
For those who suffer from this debilitating condition it can change the way they live, leave them incapable of functioning normally and rob them of peace, joy and health. Lasting from a few hours to a few days, a migraine can cause throbbing, nausea, vomiting, distorted vision, inability to concentrate and sensitivity to light, sound or smell. More common in women than in men, migraines can happen as frequently as a few times a week or as rarely as a couple of times a year.
The causes of migraines vary from person to person and may involve a combination of factors. Common triggers include allergies or sensitivities to foods, bright light, certain odors, loud noises, stress, irregular sleep, missed meals, exposure to smoke and changes in estrogen levels.
Migraines are commonly treated with over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs. However, through some simple steps you can harness your body’s healing powers to prevent them. Embrace the wisdom of these lifestyle strategies one at a time, waiting a week or so before the next. This lets you develop them as habits and allows your body to get used to the changes.
Eat more whole foods and fewer refined foods.
Whole foods are rich in nutrients, unlike refined foods, which are often high in calories and stripped of nutrition. Add more healthy choices to your pantry. Greens, lentils and beans, whole-grain products and fresh fruits and vegetables add goodness to your meals, balance your hormones and keep you emotionally and physically well.
Eat at regular intervals.
Do you skip meals, eat at irregular times or gobble your food in a hurry? Try eating three meals and a healthy snack or two at regular times. Keep a food diary for a week, recording what you eat and when. You’ll see a pattern and can use this information to create a meal plan.
Drink more water.
As important as water is for our well-being, many of us drink it only when we’re very thirsty. Not drinking enough water can cause health problems, including headaches. To stay hydrated, take a bottle of water with you wherever you go and sip regularly.
Create an exercise routine.
Exercise not only fires up endorphins and blocks pain signals, it also keeps you fit and fills your body with oxygen. Research has shown that moderate exercise can prevent migraines or reduce their severity for some sufferers. Incorporate activities that you enjoy into your routine so you’ll be motivated to exercise regularly.
Go to bed on time.
Sleep is often the first thing we scrimp on as we get busy. Lack of sleep can burn us out and trigger migraines and other headaches. As tempting as it might be to binge on late-night television or stay up working, make it a priority to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night (and a short nap, if you can). Unwind by listening to soothing music, turning off your gadgets, reading a book or taking a warm bath and then turn in early.
Write it out.
Bottled-up stress and anxiety, at the core of many health problems, can make our lives toxic. Writing down your thoughts can help unclog that emotional buildup. Every morning when you wake up—or before going to bed, if stress keeps you awake at night—reach for your journal and write two to three pages in longhand. These pages aren’t meant to be shared, so write out your frustrations, worries and stress, letting go of the clutter.
Most of us have a “monkey brain”—our minds constantly chatter and refuse to stay still. Studies show that meditation and mindfulness can reduce chronic pain, slow your heart and breathing rates and lower blood pressure. Meditating can be a challenge at first, but you’ll find it easier over time, and even five minutes a day allows you to experience its healing power.
If you’re still suffering after trying these steps, keep a headache diary to see if you can identify the triggers of your migraines. Anne Matthews discovered that irregular meal times and inadequate rest caused many of hers. By eating complete meals at regular times and going to bed earlier, she’s drastically reduced their frequency.
As you incorporate these simple steps into your life, your body will heal through its own power. Listen to your body and give it what it needs.
*Name changed for privacy.
Chandana Banerjee is a writer, yoga teacher-in-training and certified holistic health coach trained at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. She helps women reach their health goals by harnessing the wisdom of their bodies. You can learn more about her health coaching work at www.luscious-health.com and about her life as a mom and military wife on her blog, www.chandanabanerjee.com.