At some point, just about everyone who lives with headache or migraine gets well-meaning suggestions from friends and loved ones for solutions. Perhaps you’ve been told you “just” need a good night’s sleep, or a relaxing vacation would make you feel better, or a less stressful job would do the trick. And of course, there’s this suggestion: “Have you tried yoga?”
Go ahead, roll your eyes. We all have.
And yet: What if they’re right?
Recently, the journal Neurology, published by the American Academy of Neurology, came out with a fascinating new update to the standard of care doctors should provide their migraine patients. It declared that in order to give the best care, doctors must start helping their patients identify at least one lifestyle change that could improve their migraine. Explaining the importance of such counseling, the article stated, “Lifestyle factors affect migraine severity and attack frequency,” adding that educating migraine patients about lifestyle management is “fundamental.”
As endorsements go, the American Academy of Neurology’s encouragement of healthy lifestyle and behaviors to improve migraine was pretty high-profile. But it didn’t come out of the blue. It stems from significant research demonstrating that certain consistent, healthy routines work for managing migraine. These are gentle, safe, proactive self-care measures that raise your resistance to migraine attacks. In fact, studies show that such a proactive approach works better for headache and migraine than passive strategies like avoiding triggers and lowering activity levels.
That’s not to say you should ditch your meds anytime soon. A combination of approaches is often best for migraine treatment, and lifestyle changes make an excellent complement to other approaches, including medication. (Anyone experiencing disruptive headache or migraine should speak with a doctor.) Lifestyle factors are the tools you can use everyday to help you improve your health and quality of life.
The Healthy Habits Shown to Reduce Migraine
What are the lifestyle changes recommended for migraine, and how do they help? Here’s an overview of the major categories.
Of all the healthy routines for headache and migraine, the one with the biggest impact is giving yourself the consistent sleep patterns your body wants. Getting quality sleep isn’t easy, of course, since sleep and migraine don’t always play nicely together. But you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck by focusing on your sleep routine; even a small change in your sleep habits can make a meaningful difference in reducing migraine.
What sleep habits are most helpful? Learn more about sleep and migraine here.
The brain is about 75 percent water. Maintaining that balance by giving your brain the hydration it needs is a huge protective factor against headache and migraine attacks. Research shows that even mild dehydration results in a loss in concentration and cognitive ability, and a rise in fatigue. For people with migraine, that water imbalance also paves the way for attacks.
Preventing dehydration is a small but impactful strategy. Learn more about dehydration and migraine here.
Research so far has created a range of conflicting advice about the role of food and nutrition in the management of headache and migraine. Fortunately, research has also pointed to an effective and sensible approach to nutrition for migraine — no fad diets involved. Promising evidence shows you can use nutrition to build your migraine resistance in three distinct ways:
- Eating foods that decrease your brain’s level of inflammation
- Building consistency by eating on a regular basis and modulating caffeine intake
- Adding dietary nutrients through nutritional supplements
There are many ways to go about each approach. A winning strategy is to find the ways that are easiest to incorporate into your life. Learn more about nutrition for migraine here.
Up to 78% of people living with migraine avoid exercise. It’s understandable, since exercise can induce migraine for some people, and you’d rather avoid something you associate with pain. But studies show that lack of movement actually makes migraine worse over time.
Research also shows that consistent aerobic exercise (about three times a week) can reduce the pain, intensity, frequency and duration of migraine attacks — so much so, that it can have equal benefits to migraine prevention medications.
Whether exercise hurts or helps your head depends on how you go about it. Learn more about exercise and migraine here.
Stress is terrible for migraine. Eighty percent of people with migraine report stress as a trigger for migraine attacks; it also makes attacks worse and harder to treat. The problem is, it’s hard to avoid stress. What is within our control is how we respond to stress.
By using strategies that train the brain to be less reactive to stressful events, thoughts and emotions — including the stress and fear of migraine attacks — we strengthen neural pathways that dial down the body’s stress response. And the payoff is long-lasting: The beneficial effects of these techniques have been shown to extend up to seven years.
Stress management techniques include mindfulness, meditation, relaxation and emotion regulation. Want two healthy behaviors for the price of one? Movement techniques that also incorporate mindfulness include yoga and the Chinese movement practices of tai chi and qigong. Learn more about the mind-body connection and migraine here.
Studies show that talk therapy can reduce headaches up to 67 percent. That doesn’t mean it’s “all in your head.” Rather, it means that coping skills are essential for migraine management. Talk therapy helps for at least two reasons: It helps with emotional stress, thus reducing migraine; and it eases psychological symptoms that can result from living with migraine — which make migraine worse.
Outside a therapist’s office, there are also plenty of psychological approaches that work to improve migraine. They include:
- Learning to regulate your emotions through mindfulness practice
- Connecting to the people, work or activities that bring you joy and meaning
- Building confidence in your ability to achieve goals (self-efficacy)
- Developing a growth mindset by reframing unhelpful thoughts and celebrating successes
Increasing your coping skills and self-awareness help manage migraine and improve quality of life. Learn more about how talk therapy helps migraine here.
Making a small change in literally any of these lifestyle categories could make a difference for your health with migraine. And the sheer number and variety of options means there’s an entry point for everyone. Think of the possibilities! In addition, research has shown that making a behavior change in more than one category will enhance the benefits of those strategies even further. It’s called a multi-modal approach — like cross-training for your brain.
Wherever you choose to begin to improve your health, you can get started today. Pick a direction and take a first step. There is progress ahead.