Migraines without drugs? Is it even possible? If you had asked me this 10 years ago, I would have scoffed. Throughout my migraine battles, I have tried almost every drug prescribed for the treatment of migraines, with varying degrees of success. Every drug had its side effects and limitations, and often the drug itself would cause rebound headaches. A few years ago, I was caught in a spiral of terrible migraines, prescription drugs, and rebound headaches.
I had to try something else. Over the past two years, I have stopped taking all prescription drugs for migraines, and instead, I manage them with diet and lifestyle.
That may sound completely ridiculous to you – and I am not here to tell you that it’s a cure. There is no cure, and I am immediately suspicious of anyone who tells me that they can cure my migraines with X (fill in the blank with acupuncture, Chinese herbs, energy, etc). I’ve been there and heard it all and I know how frustrating it is to have well-meaning people telling you their cure or solution to your migraines (or other conditions). No gimmicks or weird therapies here.
Instead, I’ve learned to listen to my body, know my triggers, and take care of myself as best I can. This attention to prevention has greatly reduced the frequency and severity of my migraines. I get fewer migraines, and when they do occur, they are shorter and not as terrible.
When I do get them, I manage my migraines without drugs and instead using my own toolkit, which I’ve detailed here. *Please note that I am not a doctor and I do not play one on the internet! Check with your doctor before stopping or starting any new medication or treatment for migraines or any other conditions*
Here’s the shortlist – scroll down to read my notes on how/why this works for me.
- Lots of water
- Cold brew coffee
- Magnesium threonate
- Epsom salt baths and magnesium lotion or magnesium oil
- Stretching, foam rolling, and yin yoga
- Ginger juice in sparkling water or ginger tea
- Peppermint oil and peppermint tea
- Umeboshi plums
- Cool fresh air (either via a walk or a fan)
- Breathing exercises
Now read on for the details on each tool in my migraine toolkit.
- Lots of water – migraines can be triggered by dehydration, and I always try to make sure I’m drinking plenty of water throughout the day. But sometimes on a busy day, I realize I haven’t had enough. So when I start to feel like a migraine might be coming, I drink several glasses of water. Sometimes that’s all I need to keep it away.
- Cold brew coffee with no sugar or dairy – caffeine can be a trigger, but it can also help stop a migraine. In these cases, I like to use cold brew coffee, which is far less acidic and therefore less likely to make me feel nauseous. If I wake up with a migraine, or feel one coming on early in the day, cold brew coffee is my go-to beverage (along with a ton of water). Sugar and dairy can both be migraine triggers, so I drink it black, or else I add cashew milk (I like Malk brand of cashew milk – it’s just cashews, water and sea salt – you can find it at Whole Foods).
- Cryoderm – this stuff is a lifesaver. I use it not only for migraines, but also for sore neck and shoulder muscles. It’s gel format, but in a roll-on dispenser which makes it super convenient. It also comes in a pump or spray, but I prefer the roll-on for less mess. I keep one in my bag, one next to my bed, and one in the shower. I find it really helpful to apply the Cryoderm and then get into a hot shower or Epsom salt bath. There’s something about the contrasting cold Cyroderm and hot water that offers significant pain relief.
- Magnesium – studies have shown magnesium can help with migraines. I found some relief from high doses of magnesium given through an IV by my doctor, so I did some research and started taking it daily with my other regular vitamins & supplements, as well as a larger dose when I have a migraine or feel one coming. I use Life Extension Neuro-Mag which is magnesium threonate (also known as Magtein), which has been shown to improve cognitive function – I usually take three of these Magtein capsules when I feel a migraine coming. Magnesium has the added benefit of helping with sleep as well. Talk to your doctor before taking magnesium or any other supplement. Click here to read about the other daily vitamins & supplements I take.
- Epsom salt baths – another way to get your magnesium. I use Epsom salts almost every time I take a bath, but when I have a migraine or feel one coming, I use a lot more (3-4 cups) and sit in a hot bath as long as I can stand it (preferably with Cryoderm on my head, neck and shoulders). I recommend buying your Epsom salts in bulk, because those tiny bags from the drugstore really only last for 1 or 2 baths. This bag from Amazon is a good price. I have also found the Dr. Teal’s brand at Costco for around the same price per pound and the salts are packaged in smaller bags. I also recommend applying magnesium lotion or magnesium oil after you get out of the bath. I like the Ancient Minerals brand.
- Massage – most of the time it’s not easy to get an appointment with a massage therapist on short notice, and I don’t know about you, but my migraines aren’t scheduled in advance. However, there is a chair massage cubicle at my Whole Foods and this has helped me on many occasions. The therapists who work there are usually very good and know about treating migraines with massage.
- Yin or restorative yoga or light stretching – My body feels so stiff and achy all over when I have a migraine – regular practice of yoga is one of my top ways to prevent a migraine as well as treating it. if I’m feeling well enough to go out, I will often go to a restorative or yin yoga class. I avoid inversions or anything that involves a lot of exertion. The gentle stretches help to rid my body of some of the tension and provide a release from the migraine pain. If there’s no class available, I do some light stretches at home. Here is a link to a YouTube video that shows some of the stretches I do – you don’t need any equipment or experience in yoga to try these. There are a ton of gentle yoga sessions you can access for free on YouTube. I much prefer to go to a class, but if I’m not feeling well enough or there is no class available, I will sometimes do a class on YouTube or a yoga website such as DoYouYoga. The other thing that helps is using a foam roller to roll out some of the tension in my back and neck. A tennis ball can also help with this.
- Ginger juice in sparkling water to help with nausea – regular ginger ale is full of sugar, which can make a migraine worse. I make my own ginger ale by mixing organic ginger juice with sparkling water. It’s great for nausea and the ginger is anti-inflammatory. You can also add the ginger juice to hot water to make tea, or grate your own fresh ginger into tea if you’re feeling up to that. If you want to buy ready-made ginger tea, I think the Traditional Medicinals ginger tea is very good.
- Peppermint oil and peppermint tea – peppermint has anti-inflammatory properties and is good for nausea and digestion. When I have a migraine, I often drink peppermint tea – again Traditional Medicinals is my favorite. I also have fresh mint growing in a pot right outside my back door, so I can always grab some for fresh mint tea, or to throw into a jug of iced green tea for the fridge. I use an oil diffuser to diffuse organic peppermint essential oil into my home – mint is one of the few scents that I can stand to have in my home. I also carry a small vial of a peppermint essential oil (pre-diluted, you don’t want to apply undiluted essential oil to your skin).
- Umeboshi plums – ok, this one seems really weird, but it works for me if I’m not nauseous. Umbeboshi is a pickled Japanese plum. I took a Japanese cooking course years ago, and I felt a migraine coming one day, and one of the instructors handed me a cup of bancha tea with an umeboshi plum in it and instructed me to drink the tea and then eat the plum. It really helped me, and since then, I always have a container of umeboshi plum puree in my fridge. I prefer the puree vs the whole plum since it almost dissolves in the tea and that makes it easier to drink. It is really sour, so start with a teaspoon and work your way up. I love pickled and sour things, so I think the umeboshi tea is great, but it’s not for everyone. I skip this if I’m feeling nauseous and instead stick to ginger juice in sparkling water or peppermint tea. My favorite brand of umeboshi is the Clearspring Organic brand – sometimes Whole Foods has it and sometimes they only have the Eden Organic brand which I also like but it’s packaged in plastic and I try to avoid that, especially for something that will sit in a jar in my fridge for months. So I prefer to order the Clearspring brand online if I can’t find it at Whole Foods.
- Cool fresh air – a gentle walk in the cold fresh air can work wonders. I discovered this a few years when I nearly cancelled a long-planned ski trip to Vermont because my migraines were so bad. I decided to go anyway and figured I could just rest instead of skiing. I was amazed how much the very cold and fresh mountain air helped me – a day later and I hit the slopes! Obviously, this is not always an option – sometimes you’re stuck in the Deep South in the middle of August. Then it’s time to turn the thermostat down and invest in a good fan. I am incredibly particular about my fan – I like white noise but not too loud, and of course with no rattling. A few years ago, I splurged on a Vornado Air Circulator and it was one of the best things I’ve ever bought. My sister liked it so much that I bought her one for her birthday.
- Breathing exercises – this helps me with insomnia as well. Use a 4 count (or whatever works for you – sometimes I go as high as 8). Take a deep breath, counting to 4. Then hold it for a count of 4. Then breathe out for a count of 4. Wait for a count of 4 and then start over. This focus on breathing takes my mind off the pain and calms me. Sleep is the most restorative and healing thing for me when it comes to migraines, and this breathwork helps me to fall asleep, especially combined with soothing white noise/fan, following a warm Epsom salt bath and Cryoderm.
So those are my top tips for coping with migraines without drugs. I use a combination of these tools every time I have one. If it’s early in the day and I am not feeling too terrible, I will drink a lot of water, take my magnesium supplement, have a cold brew coffee and do some gentle stretches or maybe a restorative yoga class and take a walk if the weather is nice and the air is cool. Or I’ll head over to Whole Foods and get a chair massage.
However, if a migraine progresses and I feel it turning into one of the knock-down-drag-out battles, I take my magnesium supplement, drink ginger or peppermint tea, apply some Cryoderm and take an Epsom salt bath. Then I turn the thermostat down so it’s nice and cool indoors. Once I’m in bed, I turn on my fan, listen to the white noise and do my breathing exercises. 95% of the time, the migraine is gone when I wake up. My personal experience is that reducing the usage of prescription drugs results in a reduction in the number of rebound migraines and multi-day migraines.
I hope this has been helpful for my fellow migraine warriors who are interested in managing migraines without drugs or simply want some options for pain relief.
What’s your top tip for treating a migraine without drugs? Please leave a comment below.
*Please note that I am not a doctor and I do not play one on the internet. Check with your doctor before stopping or starting any new medication or treatment for migraines or any other conditions*
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