Migraines seem to rear their ugly head at the worst possible times. They can be especially worse during perimenopause, when you start or stop birth control, and—just like clockwork—during your period. Nearly every month, these amped-up headaches appear, making life even more miserable. When you’re struggling with other period problems, migraines can literally be an added headache to your already-loaded plate.
What causes menstrual migraines?
Migraines happen when your nervous system malfunctions and inflammation ramps up. For period-related migraines, hormone imbalances—specifically, estrogen—oftentimes contributes to the mayhem.
Estrogen dominance—when a good hormone goes rogue and causes weight gain and other problems—during the premenstrual phase amps up those menstrual migraines. Low estrogen also crashes your feel-good serotonin, which dials up the pain that becomes worse around menstruation. If your migraines seem to hit mid-cycle or just before ovulation, this, too, can be a sign of estrogen overload.
As a woman, you’re more likely to get migraines once you hit puberty compared with men. In fact, over 40% of women have at least one migraine by the time they reach their 50s. In one study, 20 women rated their pain levels as significantly higher during the menstrual and premenstrual phases than in the mid-menstrual and ovulatory phases. During those high-pain times, these women reported difficulty coping and experienced catastrophizing thoughts.
Lots of things can trigger these migraines, including emotional, dietary, physical, environmental, and hormonal factors. Compared with other types of headaches, migraine sufferers are more likely to avoid noise, light, social activity, and physical activity. Other symptoms of these day-wrecking headaches include throbbing pain (often on one side of the head) flashes of light or auras, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivities to sounds, light, and smell.
And migraines can start at odd times. They might appear when you start the pill, go off the pill, or even miss a dose. A handful of patients have fewer migraines once they start the pill. Migraines with an aura are a contraindication to using the pill due to the increased risk of stroke.
7 strategies for menstrual migraine relief.
Unlike other types of headaches, migraines oftentimes give warning signs. That doesn’t mean they play nicer, unfortunately, but at least you have a heads-up. So when you feel one coming on, you can take the proper steps to minimize its impact.
As a functional medicine doctor, I investigate how certain triggers cause migraines—they don’t just happen. My role is to uncover those triggers and minimize or eliminate them. I’ve found that these seven strategies make the perfect foundation for menstrual migraine relief.
1. Keep a journal.
Migraines often occur with hormonal changes. Starting a headache journal and tracking your cycle can help you identify those hormone imbalances and what lifestyle factors or foods might be triggering them. Some things to track in your journal:
- When the headache occurs
- Where the migraine occurs
- Whether your migraine radiates
- Your migraine intensity
- Do you have light, sound, or smell sensitivities?
- Where are you in your menstrual cycle?
- What did you eat in the last 24 hours?
- Other symptoms that accompany the migraine
2. Try these nutrients.
Taking the right supplements can help prevent migraines or reduce their impact. Among them, these are my favorites:
- About half of us are deficient in magnesium, and I believe those numbers are even higher. In my book Beyond the Pill, I recommend taking 600 mg of magnesium as soon as you feel a migraine coming on in order to stop it from progressing. Dial up those magnesium-rich foods too, like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. Bonus: Magnesium can also help reduce period pain!
- Taking 400 mg of vitamin B2 (riboflavin) per day helps many people reduce the number of migraines they have. You need to take riboflavin for at least one month to see any effect, but three months is the ideal amount of time to evaluate the therapy.
- Feverfew has been shown to help prevent migraines. I recommend women aim for at least 25 mg daily to get the most benefit from this anti-inflammatory herb.
3. Lower your inflammation levels.
Menstrual migraines often result from hormonal imbalances, but inflammation also drives them. Keep those inflammation levels in check with plenty of wild-caught fish and nonstarchy veggies such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, and tomatoes. I also love turmeric, which can turn down the NFkB pathway responsible for inflammation associated with migraines. Sprinkle turmeric on your food, make it as a tea, or take a quality supplement.
4. Have an orgasm.
Regular orgasms can help reduce migraine pain and even prevent migraines. In fact, studies show that regular orgasms can provide complete relief in about 47% of migraine sufferers. Need more motivation to hit the sheets? Regular orgasms can improve sleep, give you great skin, dial down anxiety, boost your immune system, and more.
5. Do some downward dogs.
Going to the gym might feel like absolute misery during your period, especially with the double whammy of migraines. Many patients find yoga makes a great workout during this time to increase circulation, support a healthy nervous system, and lower stress. That’s why adding a regular yoga practice can help prevent migraines.
6. Identify food sensitivities.
Many foods we eat can spark migraines. Big offenders include aged cheeses like Parmesan, gluten, and (sorry!) wine. They can ramp up your immune response, increase inflammation, and contribute to problems such as leaky gut. Cut back or totally nix these foods just before and during your period (or, if they don’t agree with you, maybe forever). Add in good, anti-inflammatory winners including nuts, seeds, avocado, turmeric, and fatty fish.
7. Try essential oils.
Topical lavender or peppermint essential oils can help ease migraines. While these essential oils can’t always provide full-on relief, they make a good adjunct remedy while you find the root cause of migraines. Dilute a couple of drops of either essential oil into a carrier oil such as coconut or avocado oil, and massage into your temples and forehead.
For more strategies to balance your hormones, eliminate those sucky migraines, and banish those period problems, grab a copy of my book Beyond the Pill, where I delve into the root-cause solutions to common symptoms of hormone imbalance.