Studies show that among all migraine sufferers, including men and women, the risk of experiencing a stroke is more than double that of people without the condition. Recent research suggests that the risk of stroke among female migraineurs is especially high.The latest findings from the Women’s Health Study demonstrated that compared to women without the condition, those who had migraines at least once a week were three times more likely to have a stroke. The study followed nearly 28,000 women age 45 and older for more than 12 years.
Although the exact cause of migraine headaches remains a topic of intense scientific debate, most experts agree that the condition is related to a disordered function of nerves, blood vessels and neurotransmitters in the brain. Regardless of the cause, migraines are considered to be a lifelong condition of recurring headaches that can strike as often as several times a week or as infrequently as once a year.
Migraine headaches can affect anyone, but they’re roughly three times more common in women than in men. More than two-thirds of cases occur in women between the ages of 15 and 55.
Approximately 30 percent of migraineurs experience a phenomenon called an “aura” before or during the headache. The most common form of aura is a visual illusion of bright flashes of light that appear as stars or sparks, or as complex geometric patterns that shimmer across the visual field.
The associated headaches are often so intense that they send their victims scurrying to the nearest dark, quiet place. In addition to pain, migraine sufferers typically experience overwhelming nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and noise.
In most cases, the onset of symptoms is associated with specific substances or situations called triggers. Common triggers for migraines include stress, fatigue and hunger.
Cheese, chocolate, alcohol and the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) may also be to blame. Among women, hormonal fluctuation — especially around the time of menstruation — is an important trigger.
The results of a study conducted by researchers at Thomas Jefferson University’s Headache Center in Philadelphia suggest that women are twice as likely to experience migraines with aura during the first two days of their menstrual cycles compared to the remainder of the month. The researchers also noted that women have a significantly lower risk of having migraines during the time of ovulation, which typically occurs around the 14th day of the menstrual cycle.
Although migraines are relatively common, drugs designed specifically for the treatment of the condition are few in number. Many medications prescribed for the treatment of migraines, including painkillers and anti-nausea medications, are extremely sedating. For some individuals, the treatment of migraines can be just as incapacitating as the condition itself.
Fortunately, the frequency and severity of migraine headaches can be reduced by implementing a few preventive strategies. Avoiding known migraine triggers is an excellent place to start, and taking a few key nutritional supplements may help even more.
A number of studies suggest that because migraineurs have low magnesium levels, taking supplemental magnesium can be an important part of an effective migraine-prevention program. Magnesium is known to help regulate serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in the onset of migraine symptoms.
Many foods are rich in magnesium, including dark green vegetables, whole grains, beans, bananas and seafood. For individuals with a magnesium deficiency, however, eating a well-balanced diet isn’t sufficient.
Taking a nutritional supplement containing the mineral may be most beneficial. In recommended doses of 400 to 600 milligrams daily, magnesium supplements are generally safe and well tolerated by healthy individuals, with the most common side effect being diarrhea.
In addition to magnesium, vitamin B2 and an herb known as feverfew have long been used in the prevention and treatment of migraine headaches. The recommended dose of vitamin B2, or riboflavin, is typically 400 mg a day.
In clinical trials, migraine sufferers who took feverfew extract on a regular basis enjoyed a significant reduction in the frequency of migraine attacks. When they did experience headaches, they reported less severe pain, nausea and vomiting.
Nutritional supplements won’t necessarily cure migraines, but for migraineurs in search of relief, they could make the condition far more bearable.
Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including “Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom’s Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.” Her website is www.rallieonhealth.com.