It’s time to stop just recommending trigger avoidance strategies to patients. These are the proactive behaviors that will actually help improve migraine.
Lifestyle is crucial to migraine management. While it was previously believed that medication was the best way to treat migraine, we now understand that medication is only 1 part of comprehensive treatment. Significant research1-11 demonstrates that engaging in certain consistent, healthy behaviors reduces migraine severity and attack frequency. In November 2020, the American Academy of Neurology updated its Headache Quality Measurement Set12 to reflect those findings, with a directive that providers should now counsel migraine patients on behavior modification at each visit.
Less well known among neurologists and primary care providers is how to counsel migraine patients on behavior modification. In the past, a long-held belief was that lifestyle changes for migraine revolved around avoidance strategies. Patients were instructed to avoid “triggering” foods, environmental sensitivities, and activities that could contribute to a migraine attack, but this belief has since changed for the better. Taking a proactive, multimodal approach to positive lifestyle changes which address the multiple causes of migraine is more effective than negative strategies such as avoiding triggers and lowering activity levels.
As headache specialists for over 30 years, we have seen that proactive lifestyle changes are a powerful complement to pharmaceutical approaches. But initiating and implementing lifestyle changes is also challenging for patients with migraine, who need education, guidance, and support. Here, we present an overview of the lifestyle interventions shown most helpful for migraine, as well as specific strategies to recommend to patients with both episodic and chronic migraine.
In this article, part 1 of a 2-part series, we will address the first 3 of 6 categories of lifestyle changes. These represent the most fundamental interventions for migraine:
Obtaining consistent, quality sleep is the single most impactful lifestyle change for migraine.13Sleep and migraine have a bidirectional relationship: Sleep deprivation worsens migraine intensity and frequency, and migraine begets poor sleep. The result is that patients with migraine are 2 to 8 times more likely to have a sleep disorder than those without migraine.14,15 This is most likely because the glymphatic system, which clears waste from the central nervous system, only functions during deep sleep.
Because even small changes in sleep can benefit migraine, this is often the ideal starting point for patients who are ready to make lifestyle changes. Helpful approaches to improving sleep quality are:
Sleep hygiene. We find that patients are generally familiar with the concept that certain good habits can condition the brain to prepare itself for sleep; however, most have dismissed the notion as ineffective, inconvenient, or overwhelming. Adherence tends to improve once patients are first educated on how and why sleep hygiene practices work, and then are asked to choose a specific practice or two to try.
Stress reduction techniques. Stress is incompatible with sleep. The more tools we can give patients with migraine for self-regulation, the more we can help them meet their physical stress response with a relaxation response. Mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation training are all excellent techniques for sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also helpful.
Patient Counseling Tips:
A patient handout on sleep for migraine is available here from Ctrl M Health.
Even in people without migraine, mild dehydration of 2% body water results in a reduction in concentration and cognitive ability, and a rise in fatigue.16 For people with the increased sensitivities of migraine, water imbalance can increase the likelihood of an attack. Preventing dehydration is an impactful strategy patients can use to protect against migraine. One study found that increasing water intake by 1.5 liters per day reduced patients’ headache duration by 21 hours over 2 weeks.17
US adults drink an average of only 39 ounces (4.87 cups) of plain water each day—far less than current recommendations of 11.5 cups for women and about 15.5 cups daily for men. Patients find that increasing their water intake is among the easiest lifestyle changes for migraine to implement, and often experience positive results quickly.
Patient Counseling Tips:
A patient handout on hydration for migraine is available here from Ctrl M Health.
Due to long standing myths about food triggers and migraine, patients tend to be quite curious about foods to eat for migraine and, especially, foods to avoid.18 However, there is no universally accepted diet for migraine19; research so far has created a range of conflicting advice.20,21 In addition, while avoiding certain foods can be impactful for the minority of people with migraine who have true food triggers, in practice food avoidance tends to be unhelpful for most patients, leading instead to overly restrictive diets, stress around eating, and self-blame.
Instead, a combination of research and clinical insights point to a multifaceted approach to nutrition for migraine that is both effective and sensible. It involves building quality, consistency, and balance into the diet in ways that raise a person’s migraine resistance:
Reducing inflammation through healthy weight management and adding anti-inflammatory foods, especially anti-inflammatory fats.22-26 Our preferred approach is to add quality foods to the diet rather than take foods away.
Building nutritional consistency. Consistency is important for the migraine brain.27 Eating on a regular basis, maintaining blood sugar levels,28-30 and modulating caffeine intake31-33 all play a role. Consistent use of certain dietary supplements, such as magnesium, also support migraine health.
Increasing gut microbiome health.Promising data is emerging about the ways fiber-rich, probiotic, and prebiotic foods that promote gut health may also reduce migraine frequency and severity.34-37
Patient Counseling Tips:
A patient handout on nutrition for migraine is available here from Ctrl M Health.
Lifestyle changes are a valuable complement to medical approaches to managing migraine. Research has shown that a multi-modal approach further enhances the benefits. The sheer number and variety of options for behavioral changes and psychological wellness means there’s an entry point for every patient.
Current evidence-based, expert-reviewed programs are rare. That is a guiding reason why we at the Jefferson Headache Center and Thomas Jefferson University have partnered with Ctrl M Health, whose app-delivered program makes this information widely accessible. We have created a world-respected advisory panel to help in this important endeavor.
Getting the word out about the essential role of lifestyle change is a significant step toward helping the estimated 40 million Americans with migraine. Importantly, lifestyle changes are factors within a patient’s control, giving them tools they can use every day to help them improve.
In Part 2 of our “Lifestyle Changes for Migraine” series, we’ll address the remaining 3 categories of lifestyle interventions for migraine: exercise/movement, mindfulness/stress management, and psychological health.
The Jefferson Headache Center and Thomas Jefferson University have partnered with Ctrl M Health to create comprehensive, evidence-based programming and support for people with migraine. For free provider resources, best practice tips, and patient handouts, visit their For Providers page.