Migraine is a common health condition best known for the debilitating headaches it can cause. If you suffer from migraines, you might have heard that magnesium can help, but is that true? In some cases, yes! In fact, magnesium is endorsed by many professionals as an effective treatment for some types of migraine. Read on to learn more about migraines and how magnesium may be able to help.
What are migraines?
Migraine is often confused with headaches, but migraine is actually a neurological condition that causes migraine attacks, which often include headaches. One study shows that 1 in every 6 Americans is affected.
Headaches are the main symptom of a migraine attack, characterized by an intense, throbbing pain that gets worse when you move. It usually affects just one side of the head, but some people feel migraine headaches on both sides or in their face and neck too.
In addition to headaches, some people experience digestive symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. They might also find that they’re extra sensitive to light and noise, or they feel too hot or too cold.
Migraine sufferers may also experience a “warning sign” known as an aura that appears right before a migraine attack. The most common auras are visual, where they see flashing lights, moving patterns, or blind spots in their vision. Others include numbness, tingling, pins and needles, dizziness, or difficulty speaking.
Migraine attacks can last anywhere from a couple of hours to several days. Some people will have migraine attacks only rarely, while others might have them regularly or at certain times, like right before their period.
What causes migraines?
We don’t actually know for sure what causes migraine disorder, but experts believe that migraine attacks happen due to temporary changes in the brain’s chemicals, nerves, and blood vessels. There may also be a genetic element to the disorder, as people are more likely to experience migraines if they have a close relative that does, too.
While we don’t know what causes somebody to develop a migraine, we do know that a migraine attack can be brought on by certain triggers. Common ones include:
- Hormonal changes, e.g. in the days before a menstrual period.
- Emotional or physical triggers, e.g. stress, anxiety, tiredness, dehydration.
- Certain foods and drinks, e.g. alcohol.
- Sensory triggers, e.g. bright lights, loud noises.
- Certain medications, e.g. sleeping tablets.
What is magnesium and can it help migraines?
There is currently no cure for migraine, so treatments tend to focus on preventing migraine attacks and/or relieving symptoms. For example, medications called triptans can help to calm down overactive nerves in the brain associated with migraine pain, while antiemetic drugs stop nausea and vomiting. There’s also a treatment known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), where a small electrical device is used to send magnetic pulses through your head. However, this only works for migraine with aura, and as it’s fairly new, there’s not much evidence yet to show long-term benefits.
Given that medications and other treatments often come with unpleasant side effects, people often turn to natural solutions like magnesium. This essential mineral is involved in hundreds of critical processes in your body, some of which are related to migraines (more on that later!). Its main roles include:
- Nerve function.
- Muscle movement.
- Blood sugar control
- Blood pressure regulation
- Immune regulation
- Energy production
- DNA and RNA synthesis
- Protein synthesis
So can magnesium help with migraines? And how exactly does it work?
Migraines and magnesium
To understand how magnesium might help migraines, here’s a quick summary of what experts believe is going on in your brain during a migraine attack…
When there’s a migraine trigger, e.g. bright light, it causes nerves to fire rapidly across the brain in a strong wave-like action. This is called a cortical spreading depression, or a CSD. As this CSD travels across the brain, it over-excites neurons and causes sensory symptoms like visual disturbances or tingling.
CSD also stimulates nerve fibers in the lining of the brain, activating pain receptors and sending pain signals flowing through the brain. It also triggers the release of chemicals called neuropeptides. One of them, CGRP, causes the blood vessels in the lining of the brain to widen. This creates inflammation, swelling, and a characteristic throbbing pain.
So where does magnesium come in? Well, magnesium is required to create a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Normally, serotonin would block the release of chemicals like CGRP and cause the blood vessels to shrink. But in people who suffer from migraines, serotonin is often very low. Because of that, it’s thought that a lack of serotonin is at least partly responsible for the pain associated with a migraine attack.
Those who suffer from migraines are more likely to have a magnesium deficiency. And if you need magnesium to make serotonin, that makes perfect sense. Of course, it’s not the only reason why serotonin might be low, but it does suggest that at least some migraine sufferers could benefit from taking a magnesium supplement. Research backs this up, with findings like the following:
- Study 1 found that magnesium reduced the frequency of migraine attacks by 41.6%, compared to 15.8% for a placebo.
- Study 2 found that magnesium oxide is as effective as sodium valproate at preventing migraines – without causing similar adverse side effects.
- Study 3 found that, when given magnesium oxide, children who suffered from migraines experienced fewer migraine attacks.
- Study 4 found that magnesium sulfate is more effective and fast-acting in treating acute migraine headaches than the commonly used combination of dexamethasone and metoclopramide.
- Study 5 found that magnesium citrate safely prevented migraines, with participants experiencing significantly fewer migraine attacks.
- Study 6 compared magnesium to a placebo and found that it not only reduced the severity and frequency of migraines but also improved blood flow in the brain.
- Study 7 showed that magnesium reduced the frequency and intensity of migraine attacks.
Which magnesium supplement is best for migraines?
Magnesium supplements are made by combining magnesium with another substance to form a compound. For example, magnesium citrate is made from magnesium and citric acid. Because magnesium is the primary ingredient where migraines are concerned, any form of magnesium should in theory be a good choice. However, research suggests you’ll need to take a fairly high dose of magnesium for migraines, so it’s extra important to choose carefully.
Much of the research around migraines focuses on magnesium oxide and magnesium citrate, but magnesium oxide is very poorly absorbed and causes gastrointestinal side effects at a relatively low dosage. That means you’d either have to take it at doses that would likely be too low to have any real impact or suffer the digestive consequences! Also, you wouldn’t absorb very much, which isn’t great from a “value for money” perspective either.
Magnesium citrate is better tolerated and has higher bioavailability (absorption rate), but it does still have a higher risk of side effects. In fact, it’s often taken at higher doses as a treatment for constipation. There are other types of magnesium with an even better tolerance/bioavailability profile, minus the side effects – magnesium glycinate and magnesium malate are great examples.
How much magnesium should I take for migraines?
As we mentioned, studies often use a high dose of at least 500mg of magnesium. However, the recommended daily max from a supplement is around 400mg. It’s not necessarily dangerous to go a little bit over this, as the toxicity level for magnesium is incredibly high. However, you will increase your risk of digestive side effects like nausea, bloating, and diarrhea. Hence why you need to take a form that’s well-tolerated.
To find out how much magnesium your supplement contains, look at the label. It will usually tell you how much magnesium compound it contains — e.g. how much magnesium citrate — and then how much of that compound is made up of magnesium alone. This is also referred to sometimes as elemental magnesium. When you’re working out your daily dosage of magnesium, it’s the elemental magnesium content you should be looking at.
Are magnesium supplements safe for people with migraines?
Magnesium supplements are generally safe for most people, including those with migraines, if taken at the recommended dosage. However, if you plan to take a higher dosage, you should probably run this by your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you to do so.
Another thing to consider is medication. Magnesium supplements can interact with certain medications, including common migraine meds. So if you’re taking medication for any health condition, migraines, or otherwise, have a word with your doctor before taking magnesium supplements to find out how to take them safely.