Use these tips to get ahead of troubling head pain before it starts.

Holly Pevzner
May 27, 2020
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Photo: Getty Images/elenaleonova

39 million Americans suffer from migraines—severe headaches that often bring nausea, vision changes, dizziness and light- and sound-sensitivity along with them. (Cue: sitting in the dark with your head under a pillow.) We’ve got some scientifically proven ways to help sidestep them. Here’s the latest. 

1. Up Your B Vitamins 

“So many people who experience migraines also have suboptimal levels of [vitamin] B2,” says Chris D’Adamo, Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. “Supplementation can often help reduce the frequency and pain levels of these headaches.” Case in point: research presented at the latest American Headache Society annual meeting found that migraine sufferers who got plenty of vitamin B2 (aka riboflavin) showed a 27% decreased occurrence over those who were deficient in the vitamin. The optimal level is still TBD, “But we do know that people who consume more vitamin B2 than the recommended daily allowance of 1.1 to 1.3 mg have fewer migraines than those who get less,” D’Adamo adds. You can bump up your vitamin B2 by eating breads and cereals fortified with riboflavin, as well as eggs, almonds, yogurt, clams and mushrooms. 

2. Relax This Way 

Starting at your toes and working your way to your forehead, tense your muscles for 5 seconds as you breathe in, then relax them for 10 as you breathe out. (Do this for each area of your body.) This technique is called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and migraine sufferers who practiced it for at least 11 minutes, twice a week, had an average of four fewer headaches a month, according to a 2019 study in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine. It’s thought that PMR decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Fluctuations in cortisol can trigger migraines. Other research has found that PMR can be as effective as prevention medications. “The more someone practices it and learns to relax the body, the more helpful it may be,” says Mia T. Minen, M.D., a neurologist and chief of headache research at NYU Langone Health in New York City. Try one of the free PMR how-tos available on the app Insight Timer.

3. Check Your Coffee Habit

Caffeine can be both good and bad for migraines—and the difference boils down to dose and frequency. “Caffeine blocks brain receptors associated with pain,” says Elizabeth Mostofsky, Sc.D., an epidemiology instructor at Harvard University. “That’s why it’s a main ingredient in many migraine medications.” But if you’re prone to migraines, research in The American Journal of Medicine shows that drinking three or more caffeinated beverages in one day may up your chance of getting one that day and the day after. Why? “If an excess amount of caffeine is consumed and then stopped, that can cause a withdrawal effect, which brings about a migraine,” notes Mostofsky, who co-authored the study. Fortunately, regularly sipping lower amounts of caffeine—up to two 8-ounce servings of coffee—has been shown to be A-OK. If you usually get more than this, gradually scale back to avoid withdrawal effects. 

4. Get Some Magnesium

All migraine sufferers should receive magnesium supplementation. That bold statement was the upshot of a report in the Journal of Neural Transmission. The reason: up to half of all sufferers are thought to be deficient in the mineral, which is involved in the healthy functioning of nerve cells. A majority of Americans are thought to have low intakes, but it’s difficult to measure magnesium levels with a standard blood test, so talk to your doctor about a red blood cell magnesium test and about how much you should aim to get in your diet. D’Adamo suggests his migraine patients start at 200 mg daily. (Opt for magnesium citrate.) “And regularly eat more magnesium-rich foods, like leafy greens, nuts, seeds and bananas,” he says. “Magnesium is not like an Excedrin that’ll treat you immediately. You’re looking to build up your magnesium stores to help prevent migraines in the future.”