Episode 19: Natural Remedies for Managing Migraine
Voice-over: Welcome to Shades of Migraine, a podcast series created by the Association of Migraine Disorders. We hope you’ll enjoy listening to a wide variety of voices, including the perspectives of people living with migraine and those that are trying to help. Each will share their unique shade of migraine.
Teva is committed to the goal of transforming the lives of those suffering from migraine by creating solutions to reinvent the migraine paradigm by placing people at the center of everything they do. You can visit www.moretomigraine.com for tools and resources for living with migraine.
In this episode, Alene Brennan — a nutrition coach, yoga instructor, and chef — will share natural remedies to help people with migraine reach their optimal health. Alene explains some best practices for incorporating essential oils into a migraine management regimen, including their use for children.
Alicia Torborg: Today, we are with Alene Brennan, a nutrition coach with a specialty in migraine and autoimmune disease. Hi, Alene.
Alene Brennan: Hello. How are you?
Alicia: Good. Thank you for joining us today.
Alene: I’m excited to be here.
Alicia: Thank you. So tell me a little bit about yourself.
Alene: Sure. So as you mentioned, I’m a nutrition coach. I work a lot with individuals that have migraines and autoimmune disease. I help them to use diet and lifestyle, natural remedies, to best manage their symptoms and reach their optimal health. And this is something I became so passionate about because it’s been a personal journey for me as well.
Alicia: So how long have you had migraine?
Alene: I started getting migraines as early as elementary school, so I got them really young, and they were quite debilitating. And I got them pretty intensely over a number of years and then really started looking into what I could do from a proactive perspective to really manage them and be engaged with my own healthcare.
Alicia: So your background and education is in nutrition, correct?
Alene: Yeah, so I am a certified nutrition coach, yoga instructor, natural food chef, and personal trainer, and essential oil enthusiast, I’ll say. So I wear a lot of different hats, and that was really intentional and was on kind of a needed basis the more that I moved throughout my nutrition coaching practice. Because it’s one thing to help somebody change the food in their diet, but then if they don’t know how to cook, they need to understand how to prepare those foods.
And if their issues are more stress related, food is only going to take you so far. You need to address the stress, and that’s where I started to incorporate some yoga, meditation, and the essential oils just blended perfectly with that.
Alicia: So what do you find most effective for you?
Alene: One of the first steps I took was being able to identify the food triggers — identify them, eliminate them from my diet — and I made great progress with that. But I still needed another resource, and that’s when I really started to work with essential oils. I use them as an opportunity to not only manage the symptoms of them, but to help reduce the frequency and the intensity of the migraines.
Alicia: What kind of oils do you use? What scents?
Alene: Yeah, so I do have my favorites. I absolutely love peppermint and lavender. I use them each individually, but then the combination of the two are really nice to use. Lavender is one that is phenomenal to diffuse on a daily basis. That’s one that I’ll diffuse every night before I go to bed.
But if you are in the midst of a migraine, you can just take the bottle — even if you don’t have a diffuser, take the bottle, and just take a couple smells of it, some deep breaths of it. And do that about every 15 minutes, because it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for that essential oil to circulate throughout every cell in your body. So if you don’t get that desired result within those 15 minutes, just do another application of it. But that’s one that can help improve quality sleep on a day-to-day basis, but in the midst of a migraine, it can really help to alleviate some of that pain that you’re experiencing.
In terms of, perhaps, maybe some tension, muscular tension, that somebody may be experiencing from migraines, I’ll do more of a peppermint oil and use that on the neck, on the back of the head, and that has really been helpful for relieving some specific muscular tension. What I like about peppermint is that it also helps to regulate the body temperature, so if you feel like you’re getting a little bit too warm as you have a migraine, it can help bring that body temperature down as well.
And ginger is another nice one, especially if you have any nausea with your migraines, which I would often get.
Alicia: I’ve never heard of the ginger. So do you use that topically or in a vaporizer?
Alene: Yeah, so if somebody’s not familiar with essential oils, you can use them in three ways. You can use them aromatically, so diffusing them throughout the air, just as you had mentioned, with a diffuser. You can use them topically, putting them on the skin. Or if they are a food grade essential oil, you can take them internally.
So for the peppermint, I might use that individually or, like I said, combine it with the lavender and perhaps place some on the temples or even on the neck — sometimes, the occipital ridge. That’s often a common place where I get some tension during migraines.
Or I could take the ginger and place it right on my tummy. So you can place them in areas where you feel the most discomfort and you’d like to address and get the most relief from.
Alicia: That’s very interesting. So I haven’t heard of ingesting them.
Alene: You can place them in water or a beverage, or you can also cook with them. So technically, you can drink or eat them, but like I said, you just want to make sure that you get a pure essential oil. There are, unfortunately, a lot of ones out there that may have some synthetic fillers in there, so if you’re going to be purchasing them for internal use, do your research. If you need to, connect with somebody that can help guide you through that process.
But, yeah, you can do them internally. And like I said, sometimes that’s placing a drop of, perhaps, a lemon or a citrus oil in your water. Or another internal use would be placing a drop of peppermint — I’ll sometimes do it on the tip of my thumb and then put my thumb on the roof of my mouth if I have a headache, and that is probably one of the best ways that I have experienced relief from using peppermint for headaches.
Alicia: That’s great to know. So is it difficult to get them, an edible form of it? I don’t know that I’ve seen them.
Alene: No, you just want to make sure that you’re using a good-quality brand. So the ones that I use are pure therapeutic grade, and I have done my research to make sure that the sourcing of them is good as well as the distillation process, so I know that what I’m getting is exactly what it says in the bottle.
I think a perfect kind of analogy is sometimes we get the maple syrup from Vermont, and you know it’s so rich and delicious. It might cost you a few extra dollars, but you know it’s really good. And then we may get one like a Mrs. Butterworth that you put over — it’s still a syrup, but you look in the ingredients, and there’s no maple syrup in it. So just doing your research and making sure that you have a good quality one there.
The nice thing about essential oils is that they are pure oils and pure scents. So what we find to be true is that a lot of times, it’s the synthetic fragrances that are triggering migraines. So some people will be triggered by perfumes or cigarette smoke, something that is a little bit more “toxic.” But the aroma of pure essential oils are more natural so that the body doesn’t get triggered by the scent of them as much.
Now, if somebody is really sensitive to any type of smell or aroma, my recommendation would just be to start off small. It’s always best to start off small or light, however you want to put it, and then grow from there. So if you’re diffusing the essential oil throughout a room, start with one drop, and see how you respond from that. And if, for whatever reason, it triggers you, you stop it and maybe move on to something else.
If you’re applying them topically, you can put them on the soles of your feet so the aroma isn’t as strong. Again, just use one or two drops. The soles of your feet are the least sensitive part of your skin but the most porous, so they’re able to absorb the oils, and it circulates throughout your whole body. So you’re still getting the benefit of it, but you may not have that sensitivity of the smell because it’s on the soles of the feet there.
Alicia: Fascinating. Very interesting. It makes sense.
So, Alene, I know you had mentioned that you started having migraine when you were a child. I did as well. What advice can you give parents who want to try to help their children through this?
Alene: Yeah, so certainly every parent wants to see their child happy and playing, so when they’re not feeling that way, they want to do everything that they can to support them in getting better. I know, personally, I started off on a lot of medications, and they were medications that I was told I was going to be on for an indefinite period of time, and that just didn’t sit well with me or my family.
So that’s where we really started to explore different options that we could be proactive with, and that’s where the essential oils came in. Essential oils are natural. They are plant based, so you certainly can use them on children. You just want to make sure that you are diluting them. So, certainly, if you’re diffusing them through the air, they’re safe to diffuse in a child’s room.
But if you’re using them topically, if you’re putting them on their body, you just want to dilute them, because they’re smaller human beings, so smaller bodies need just a little bit less oil. And it could be something as small as one drop of lavender oil to one teaspoon or one tablespoon of a carrier oil such as fractionated coconut oil, which is pretty much coconut oil that is always in a liquid state. And just start off with that, and you can always increase from there.
Alicia: And would you recommend reaching out to a pediatrician ahead of time?
Alene: So my general stance on connecting with my medical team is always to keep them informed of what I’m doing, but I always try to keep in mind that I’m not asking for their validation of whether or not it’s going to work. My question is, “Are there any contraindications or any concerns that they would have with using something like essential oils on me?” or if a parent’s talking about their child, because the medical team cannot — they don’t have the science that they need to be able to validate the results of them. So sometimes, you get a little discouraged from that, when really, they’re a great resource.
So just asking them, looping them in, saying, “Hey, I’m going to try some lavender or peppermint essential oil. I’ve heard a lot about it.” Any major concerns that they have with it? If they do, great, talk it out. Most likely, they’ll say, “No, it’s a natural remedy. Give it a try.” If you get the green light, then go for it, and hopefully, you’ve discovered a new tool that can help you or your child manage the migraines.
Alicia: So what are your thoughts about medications versus natural remedies?
Alene: So I truly believe that there’s a place in this world for medicine. We’re so grateful to have the advancements of technology and science. Personally, for me, I believe that it shouldn’t be my first line of defense. So what I like to do is see what I can do proactively through diet and lifestyle.
And what I have found over the years is that 9 times out of 10, it’s going to improve my health so that if and when I do need to take medicine, I’m on fewer medications at a lower dose for a shorter period of time. So to me, that’s the opportunity of blending both worlds of taking truly an integrative approach.
Alicia: That’s great advice, and I imagine there are many people that have the same beliefs.
Alene: Yeah, there are a lot of people who you’ll see on both extremes of saying that we absolutely have to take medicine, and then some that are saying absolutely no medicine, and then there’s that middle ground. And I really think that it’s important for each person to identify what works best for them. Without a lot of those external influences, what feels best for you? Because what feels best for you is honoring your body, and what you believe in, I think, is going to be more effective.
So if you’re in a position and you believe that the combination of those two is going to best support you, then you’re most likely going to get the best results out of that.
Alicia: And I think to get those best results, you have to keep trying things. You have to be open —
Alicia: — to trying new therapies that you haven’t tried before.
Alicia: Yoga — I mean, a lot of people don’t do yoga, but opening yourself up to meditation or yoga and lifestyle changes can certainly help.
Alene: Yeah, I remember when somebody first recommended yoga to me for migraines, I thought, “They have no idea what a migraine is if they think a yoga pose is going to help eliminate these debilitating migraines. I end up in the emergency room with them. I’m on a rainbow of medications from them.”
But then I rolled out my mat, I started showing up at some yoga classes, and I realized that the joke was on me, because yoga helped me to manage stress. It helped to alleviate tension in my body. And it allowed me to get a better quality of sleep. It improved digestion. There were so many areas that it hit that improved my quality of health that it just seems like a no-brainer to continue with that on a regular basis.
Alicia: Right. Are there specific yoga exercises or a practice that you would do in the evening to help relax you?
Alene: Yeah, two of my very favorite poses are “child’s pose” and then “legs up the wall.” So legs up the wall is great, where you’re literally just laying on your back and have your legs up the wall. You’re in a 90-degree angle. It helps to recirculate all the blood flow that’s going down towards your feet all day.
And it’s very restorative, because we know that getting consistent sleep is something that’s really important for a migraine sufferer. Throwing off those sleep patterns is a big trigger for many people, so if you can create a nighttime routine — perhaps of a few yoga poses and incorporating some essential oils in there, maybe even enjoy a cup of nice tea before you go to bed — it really supports you in having a consistent routine in there for consistent bedtime that can help with the prevention of headaches.
So that’s one, and then child’s pose is nice because it helps to stretch out the back, and it’s not one where you’re sending any extra blood flow to your head. Downward-facing dog will also stretch out your back, but if you’re in the midst of a migraine, it will most likely be too much blood flow to the head that it could intensify it. So just really nice, gentle restorative poses.
Alicia: If you were to give your best advice to someone who’s suffering from pain or migraine pain, what would it be?
Alene: To have great compassion for yourself and your body, and to know that if given the chance, the body wants to and will heal itself. It’s not to suggest that it’s going to do the incurable, but it’s important to recognize that nature gives us the resources that we need in order to best support our body.
So fueling our body with the best foods, embracing essential oils to best manage your health, and getting good quality sleep — all those components really make a difference, and I think just understanding that it’s no one thing. It’s really looking at your life as a whole and how you can just take each and every day to move one step forward to your best health.
Alicia: Thank you very much, Alene. This has been great information. Tell me again your website?
Alene: Yeah, my website is my full name, Alene Brennan, alenebrennan.com, and I have a lot of free resources on there — videos, recipes, blogs — a lot of resources that individuals can use to really help reach their optimal health. And I’m also active on social media, especially Instagram.
Voice-over: Teva is committed to the goal of transforming the lives of those suffering from migraine by creating solutions to reinvent the migraine paradigm by placing people at the center of everything they do. You can visit www.moretomigraine.com for tools and resources for living with migraine.
Voice-over: And thank you for tuning in to Shades of Migraine. For more information about migraine disease, please visit MigraineDisorders.org.
This podcast is sponsored in part by Teva Pharmaceuticals.
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