Brian Carter, 41, had his first migraine in his 20s. "I worked from home, and I'd try to keep working but couldn't," he says. "I'd get nauseous. Doing anything felt painful, so I'd lie down and put a pillow over my head."
Sound familiar? If you're one of the 36 million Americans who get migraines, you probably know that the awful pain is no ordinary headache. Migraines are defined as moderate to severe pain lasting 4 to 72 hours, usually on one side of the head. The pain gets worse with exercise, and it may come with nausea, vomiting, and light and sound sensitivity, says Robert Cowan, MD, director of the Headache Program at Stanford University.
The tendency to get migraines runs in families, Cowan says. And while you can't change your relatives, "a lot of lifestyle choices determine how disabled you'll be by a migraine and how often you'll get one."
These tips can help.
Stick to a schedule. "The best advice is to be as consistent as possible in your daily activities," Cowan says. "Going to bed and waking up around the same time -- even on the weekends -- eating your meals on a schedule, exercising aerobically every day for at least 20 minutes: all will help protect you from getting migraines."
Why does routine help? If you get migraines, your brain is sensitive to environmental changes -- both external, such as bright lights, and internal, like hormonal changes. Such changes tell your brain that the environment is threatening.
The result is pain, Cowan says. "The more predictable your lifestyle, the less likely you are to have alarms going off in [your] brain saying that there's something wrong here."
Track your triggers. Not everyone has the same migraine triggers. "A lot of people get migraines when they eat dark chocolate," Cowan says. For others it's red wine or cheese, or being dehydrated.
"Flashing lights, too much stimulation, or flying are often migraine triggers for me," Carter says.
Keep a headache diary to find your triggers. Use a smartphone app or a paper diary. Fill it in for 1 to 3 months, recording how severe and frequent your headaches are, and what you ate or did before the migraine. "You start to notice patterns," Cowan says.
Consider a supplement. Research shows that magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and coenzyme Q10 can help prevent migraines, Cowan says. One small study showed that taking coenzyme Q10 helped cut migraine frequency nearly in half. Talk to your doctor about whether a supplement is right for you.
As for Carter, "regularity is the key," he says.
"I try to be as regular as possible in everything I do -- sleeping, eating, working. I always try to get 8 hours of sleep, and if I'm not doing my normal routine, then there's a chance I'll get a migraine."
Ask Your Doctor
1. How do I know if my headaches are migraines?
2. How does exercise help with migraines?
3. How can I figure out my triggers?
4. What if I can't avoid certain triggers?
5. Are supplements right for me?
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