Inflammation Could Be the Reason You Have Migraines—Here's What to Do About It

Migraines can be debilitating, but these inflammation-fighting lifestyle changes could help.

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Anyone who's experienced a migraine knows that it's no ordinary headache. Migraines are a form of neuroinflammation that is set into motion by interactions between brain cells, nervous system cells, blood vessels and systemic inflammation. While we can't promise that an anti-inflammatory diet will keep migraines at bay, it can boost your overall health and potentially ease migraine symptoms.

What's the Connection between Migraines and Inflammation?

A migraine is a type of headache that causes debilitating pain lasting for a few hours to a few days. Migraines are often accompanied by nausea, an inability to be around bright light, or an aura that impacts vision or causes dizziness. Migraines affect 15% of the population, and women are three times more likely to experience migraines than men are. Finding medications and treatments can also be challenging for migraine sufferers since their effectiveness varies greatly among individuals.

Migraine development is highly complex and not fully understood, but researchers have identified inflammation as a key component. Migraine-related inflammation is initiated when immune system cells are activated, triggering cytokine production. Cytokines are small proteins involved in inflammatory signaling that, in this case, stimulate neurons and cause pain. Because of this, it makes sense to think that reducing overall inflammation in the body may potentially deter migraine inflammation or perhaps make the inflammation not quite as, well, inflammatory.

How to Relieve Systemic and Migraine-Related Inflammation

1. Be Consistent with Lifestyle Habits

Any type of disruption to the body's normal homeostasis can lead to inflammation, so it pays to be consistent with things like diet, activity and sleep. Because poor sleep is a trigger for both inflammation and migraines, try sticking to a regular time to go to bed and wake up. Set up your bedroom to be conducive to sleep, and remove technology like your phone or TV. These small changes can help your body stick to its natural sleep-wake cycle. Also, eating meals at regular times each day provides the body consistency as well.

2. Manage Stress—Before It Gets Too Stressful

Stress is a primary cause of inflammation, and it's also cited as a top trigger for migraines. While some stress in life is inevitable, too much can lead to undesirable outcomes, mentally and physically. Heading off stress early on—before it becomes mentally or physically taxing—is an important part of migraine management and keeping tabs on inflammation.

Yoga classes, meditation and physical activity are all great ways to manage stress. If you can't commit to a daily practice, try scheduling a few timeouts throughout the day for yourself. Take a quick 10- to 15-minute walk, do deep breathing exercises or step outside for fresh air and a change in scenery. While this may seem too simple to do much, these little breaks can be highly effective at managing stress to ward off migraines and inflammation.

3. Avoid Inflammatory Foods

Existing low-grade inflammation causes the body to be hypersensitive to ingredient compounds and components that ordinarily might not bother you. If you feel like your body has some level of inflammation already (think: digestive discomfort, swelling or chronic stress), then it's important to minimize potential irritants. Inflammatory foods to avoid include added sugars, refined oils and processed foods with colorings and additives.

You also want to avoid any foods or components that you feel may have triggered a migraine within 24 hours after eating it. Common inflammatory migraine triggers can include aged cheeses, cured meats, chocolate, fermented foods, alcohol (particularly certain wines), aspartame and drinking more than your normal caffeine amount. Try this anti-inflammatory meal plan for beginners or work some of these inflammation-fighting foods into your diet.

4. Lose Weight and Calm Inflammatory Conditions

Carrying excess body fat signals that low-grade inflammation is present in the body. Hypertension, out-of-range lipids, atherosclerosis and insulin resistance also signal the presence of inflammation. Because existing inflammation tends to make the body more reactive to irritants and triggers, having any type of inflammatory preexisting conditions makes inflammation more apt to build in the body.

This type of environment does nothing to help migraines and may potentially increase migraine occurrence since inflammatory signaling is a key component in migraine. Research suggests that managing inflammatory conditions by losing weight and adopting habits to manage glucose and blood pressure may decrease migraine occurrence and/or severity.

5. Eat the Rainbow

Recent research suggests that poorly functioning mitochondria also contribute to migraine development in some people. The mitochondria in cells produce energy and release free radicals which can cause oxidative damage to cells over time. Some release of free radicals is normal and expected, but impaired mitochondria appear to release significantly more.

Getting additional antioxidants in your diet is important to prevent these additional free radicals from causing inflammatory oxidative damage, and the best way to do this is to eat by color. Aim to get consume at least five daily servings of primarily vibrant-colored produce (like spinach, blueberries, citrus and bell peppers) which tend to be great sources of antioxidant nutrients and compounds.

6. Consider Supplements to Ease Inflammation

Omega-3s and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) are two supplements you may also consider helping fight migraines. Research suggests that both omega-3s and alpha-lipoic acid may improve migraine-related inflammation. Omega-3s are those fatty acids found primarily in cold-water fish, and eating fish two times per week can meet the body's omega-3 needs. However, most Americans get below adequate intakes, so a supplement of this anti-inflammatory nutrient is something to consider.

ALA, on the other hand, is an antioxidant made by the body that is often abnormally low in people who have frequent migraines. That said, it is important to note that most supplements are totally unregulated, so check for third-party certification to ensure the ingredients listed are accurate. Check with your health care provider to see if these supplements could be helpful for you.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, is a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information and the author of two cookbooks, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less and One-Pot Meals That Heal (June 2022). She is also co-host of the Happy Eating podcast, which explores the influence that diet and lifestyle have on mental wellness.

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